In this interview of our series 'Women and Water', we speak with Arantxa Mencía Saeta, Director of Business Development for Almar Water Solutions.
Question: First, we would like to know in detail about your career path up to your current position.
Answer: I graduated in Chemical Engineering from the University of Valladolid. My first working experience was an internship at the waste water treatment plant of a brewery in Madrid. From there I moved on to Biwater UK as a process engineer, and at that company I was able to move on to the world of business development and tenders, as the person in charge of them for Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2005, Abengoa hired me to work on their business development in Mexico and Latin America. Back to Spain in 2008 I became Deputy Director of Business Development and, in 2010, Director of Business Development and Vice-president of Abengoa Water. In this new project with Almar Water Solutions I am the Director of Business Development for the company.
Without a doubt, the greatest difficulty has been balancing being a mother (twice) with my professional career
Q: In the water sector we continue to see an important gender gap. Why do you think this is?
A: Mainly, because the sector has attracted people from the construction industry, where there are more men already since university; the number of women in Civil and Industrial Engineering has always been lower than in other disciplines. I think the trend is gradually changing and now more women are studying these and other engineering degrees. With this baseline problem, men outweigh women in the sector, creating sometimes a complicated atmosphere for us to make a place for ourselves, where there is still some reluctance to accept the participation of women in certain fora.
Q: Does Almar have any programmes and/or tools to foster equality, aimed to bridge the gender gap?
A: Our company is still too small, but I think the key is staff selection. At Almar Water Solutions the best people are chosen for each available position, regardless of gender. At the moment, women amount to 20% of the staff, a percentage that will increase as we start growing. Work-balance policies are encouraged, including a flexible working schedule for all employees, something that favours equal opportunities for men and women.
Q: What other measures would be, in your view, effective to reach parity in the water sector?
A: Aside from revising personnel selection criteria, encouraging a work-life balance would be very positive, both for men and for women. In my view this is the outstanding issue for the sector. For whatever reason, in the water sector work-life balance measures have been considered to stop potential growth, when they would actually have the opposite effect. I think that the more you can balance your personal and your work life, the better your performance and commitment to the company.
Q: Now let us talk about your experience, what difficulties have you faced in your career because you are a woman?
Men outweigh women in the sector, creating sometimes a complicated atmosphere for us to make a place for ourselves
A: There are several anecdotes related mainly to our activity in countries where gender discrimination is currently a latent issue. I remember one of my first presentations to defend a proposal: the client thought I was a secretary and asked me to stay outside; my colleague panicked when he thought he would have to defend it in my name. Notwithstanding, and without a doubt, the greatest difficulty has been balancing being a mother (twice) with my professional career. Fortunately, in both instances I had the unconditional support of my entire team. Thanks to them, I will not say that it was easy, but it was better than I thought, and this allowed me to continue doing a job that I love, without giving up something as important as personal fulfilment.
In general I think that I have been very fortunate and I always felt fairly treated both by clients and by colleagues; my work has been assessed irrespectively of my gender. True enough, sometimes people are surprised at first when they see a woman in a position like mine, but in most cases that is soon forgotten when you start working, and then they just see you as a professional.
Q: Are there any other pressing challenges that you think need to be addressed in the sector?
A: I think it is important to forget about clichés and face naturally the inclusion of women in the water sector at all levels. It is as important to consider a woman able to lead a large company as to work on a construction site or operating a plant. The barriers are only mental barriers, and as such, we have to work together to overcome them, starting from university. Without a doubt, as I mentioned earlier, work-life balance measures and flexible working schedules for all employees will be of great help to eliminate gender differences.
Q: Conversely, what do you think are the main achievements in the sector?
A: I think we have started to normalise the role of women and we are gradually finding more women in any type of job. Obviously, the fact that there are women in senior management roles sends a clear message: 'this is the normal thing', although I am afraid that the efforts and sacrifices of many women are still far greater than those of men colleagues to reach similar objectives. We have to recognise that standard paternity leave, flexible schedules and telecommuting are slowly reducing the existing gap.