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The important role of women in the water sector: past, present and future

  • The important role of women in the water sector: past, present and future

About the entity

Barmatec, leader in sizing and supply of diffusers for aeration systems in wastewater treatment plants

Huge small steps in history

The recognition of women's social and labour rights has been and is a long and difficult process; historically progress has been made through strikes, mobilisations and demonstrations, with the ultimate goal of achieving what seems fair and obvious: gender parity.

The fight for fairness reached a major milestone in 1893. That year New Zealand became the first country in which women had the right to vote without restrictions. The United States joined in 1920 through the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution (almost 30 years later). In Spain at the time the situation was paradoxical: women were allowed to be members of the parliament, but they did not have a right to vote. This democratic anomaly was finally resolved in 1933 thanks to the contribution of Clara Campoamor, champion of the suffrage movement.

Another milestone in history was achieved in 1911, when the first International Women's Day was celebrated, albeit unofficially, as a way to support the courage and determination of women. The initiative was seeking equal civil rights and academic opportunities for women, but it was not until March 8th 1977, 66 years later, when the UN was able to mark "Women's Day" in the calendar. In 2015, February 11th was established as a second date to support gender equality, with the "International Day of Women and Girls in Science". The UN's initiative "Planet 50-50 by 2030. Step It Up for Gender Equality", started that same year. With it, the expectation is that by 2030, the workplace will be fully balanced, with equal opportunities regardless of gender; it calls on governments to tackle the difficulties that hinder the progress of women and girls, so that they can reach their full potential.

Today, 80% of Spanish companies have less than 50% women in their workforce and, in 46% of these, there are only between 1 and 10% of women in positions of responsibility.

The visibility of women in today's marketplace

The first universities originated in the 11th century. It is surprising to learn that women did not have the opportunity to enter a university until the 20th century, with a few exceptions only in more developed nations. Today, data from multiple studies show that women are as well prepared and trained as men, if not more. They have a lower school dropout rate and the number of women graduates in higher education reaches 53% in Spain, compared to 43% of men. In fact, 38.4% of women between the ages of 24 and 64 in Spain currently have a university degree, compared to 33% of men.

Despite the growing number of female graduates, the presence of women in technical areas is still low. Women's access to and participation in the field known by the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) has stalled. According to the Spanish Ministry of Education, in Computer Science participation is around 10%, and in Engineering and Technology, 7.5% are women compared to 14.5% of men, according to the report “Científicas en Cifras” [Women Scientists in Figures].

One of the main reasons why a girl does not choose a study related to the STEM field is not money, but the lack of female role models who serve as an example at a professional level. Except perhaps for Marie Skłodowska-Curie, women scientists and experts hardly appear in textbooks and the media. And if they are mentioned at all, they are presented as "strange" people, completely dedicated to their work and with little personal life, or emphasizing that physical appearance and intelligence cannot go together. It is therefore very likely that young women do not feel identified with these pioneers. If these girls were to dig into history, they would find great women who managed to advance society, against all odds and with great difficulties. Prominent references to take into account are: Ada Lovelace, creator of the first computer program; Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu, engineer who stood out for being one of the first women in the world in that profession; Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, known as Hedy Lamarr, actress and inventor of the first version of the spread spectrum that would allow long-distance wireless communications; Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, the first woman to go into space, having been selected from over four hundred applicants to pilot the Vostok 6; Mª del Pilar Careaga Basabe, Spain's first qualified engineer; Margarita Salas Falgueras, Spanish biochemist who continued Severo Ochoa's studies on DNA; Ángela Ruiz, creator of the Mechanical Encyclopaedia, what today can be considered the forerunner of the electronic book.

The simple fact of involving women can increase the effectiveness of water projects by six or seven times compared to those that did not.

Unfortunately, this lack of role models continues today. Only male names resonate in the media as synonymous with success: Jeff Bezos (creator of Amazon), Elon Musk (creator of Tesla), Mark Zuckerberg (creator of Facebook), Reed Hastings (creator of Netflix), Richard Dawkins (biologist and science communicator), Stephen Hawking (physicist), Donald Knuth (computer scientist), and many others. The names of successful women are not usually promoted or brought to light. It is important to make their talent and presence known so that they can be a motivation for other women. Making female talent visible is a key element to promote the STEM area, among others. Shafi Goldwasser (computer scientist, Turing Award 2012 for laying the foundations of cryptography), Grace Murray Hopper (creator of the COBOL language), Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook), Julia Hartz (creator of Eventbrite), Melanie Perkins (creator of Canva), Isabel Aguilera (president of Google Iberia 2006-2008), are names that we should highlight and keep in mind.

Fortunately, more and more women are studying these traditionally male degrees, and as a consequence, the number of women in all kinds of positions is increasing. But women's higher education is not reflected in the labour market to the fullest extent. Today, 80% of Spanish companies have less than 50% women in their workforce and, in 46% of these, there are only between 1 and 10% of women in positions of responsibility.

Recent studies have concluded that companies with equal participation of men and women are more productive and sustainable, compared to those with predominantly male-dominated workforces and positions. A great example to support this study is reflected in a specific moment in recent history. In 2008 Iceland went through a severe economic crisis that led to a re-founding of the hitherto male-dominated state structures and economic powers, led by two women, Elín Sigfúsdóttir and Birna Einarsdóttir. Their different approaches and differences in thinking about what should matter most in decision-making solved what an all-male team was unable to. This fact shows the importance of parity in any field, both business and political, where different points of view can reach in conjunction and harmony the optimal solution to a problem or promote new ideas. We must therefore in today's world achieve gender equality in educational, work and socioeconomic settings.

Theoretically, women and men are equal before the law in developed countries, but even so, much remains to be done to achieve real equality in practice. There are a number of reasons that prevent women from climbing the ladder to top positions, and it is difficult to pinpoint a single obstacle. In a recent survey, 49% of respondents cited motherhood as the first barrier, followed by lack of work-life balance (47%), a male-dominated culture in the industry (47%), a male-dominated culture in companies (45%), lack of ambition (17%) and lack of knowledge (13%).

Motherhood is a major obstacle today for millions of women who wish to pursue a career in management. Having children complicates the balancing of work and family life, making it more difficult for them to have extra time to further their training and networking, causing women to set limits and even abandon their professional careers. Women should not have to choose between being a mother and growing professionally. Unshared family responsibilities imply a greater burden of responsibility for women, something that prevents them from accessing the labour market on equal terms. To this we must add the salary gap between men and women, which reaches 23% in Spain, as another major difficulty that plays an important role when it comes to one of the two parents taking on more of the family burden. A recently published study found that if you compare the salaries of men and women doing the same job, women work without pay one month out of every year. If being a mother and being a father are understood to have the same responsibilities, as is the case in other countries (mainly in northern Europe), being a mother will no longer hinder women's professional development. Flexible working hours, without reducing staff responsibility, or telecommuting whenever possible, help ensure a work-life balance for everyone, not just women. These and other aspects have already permeated the policies of our companies, but effectively, awareness is low and many indicators show that we are far from gender parity.

Theoretically, women and men are equal before the law in developed countries, but even so, much remains to be done to achieve real equality in practice.

As a measure to increase the presence and participation of women in management positions, management committees and boards of directors in the coming years, the Spanish Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality has launched the initiative "More women, better companies". This initiative seeks to encourage companies to implement various actions in their organizations to try to eliminate the obstacles that still limit the professional promotion of women. Acciona, Agua de Alicante, Aguas de Barcelona, Empresa Metropolitana de gestión del ciclo integral del agua, Aqualia, FCC and Iberdrola are just a small sample of the Spanish companies that have joined this initiative.

To avoid possible discriminatory biases, the Spanish Women's Institute for Equal Opportunities has launched a project to promote the use of anonymous or blind CVs, where there is no information about gender, only personal achievements and training. This project also aims to raise awareness among companies and organizations about the existence of gender biases, sometimes unconscious, and how to detect and combat them.

The importance of the female presence in the water sector

Traditionally, the water sector has been a predominantly male sector. In part, because it is closely linked to science, engineering and technology, training paths with little female presence. Fortunately, for some years now, other professional profiles related to HR and administration in wastewater treatment, drinking water treatment or more general water management issues, which allow the formation of multidisciplinary teams, are in demand. However, it is a pending task to promote the recruitment of women technicians and engineers to achieve real parity in all positions.

Studies over more than two decades have concluded that the role of women in the water sector implies more substantial improvements in leadership, transparency and sustainability of water supplies when men and women are equally involved, compared to cases in which women are marginally or not involved at all. In fact, an evaluation conducted by the World Bank, showed that simply involving women can increase the effectiveness of water projects by six to seven times over those that do not. One example is in Balochistan, Pakistan, where an all-women team proposed reusing a new water tank on unused land to provide water for non-functioning public pipelines. This plan was not only more cost-effective than the original plan developed by a group of men, but led to better water management and improvements in quality of life. Four years later this village built a new school for girls, investing in female empowerment and encouraging women's presence in politics. Research also shows that women share water more equitably than men, especially in times of scarcity.

It is therefore a fact that women's contribution to water management is clearly fundamental. In order to promote the entry of women in this sector, several international conferences have been held, highlighting and making internationally known the importance of women as leaders, experts and mediators in the equitable access to water for all uses. Notable examples include the United Nations Water Conference in Mar de Plata (1977), the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade (1981-90) and the International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin (1992). At the latter, women were recognized for their central role in the management and control of environmental resources.

In Spain, the presence of women in the water sector is beginning to make itself felt more and more, albeit slowly. More and more companies in this sector rely on female professionalism and hire staff regardless of their gender.

At the political level, the role of women in water administration and management can help advocate, legislate and fund policies that enact inclusive water policies in all aspects of water resources planning, development and management. A good example of this is Maria Mutagamba, Uganda's State Minister for Water, who developed five-year gender strategies for the water sector. These strategies enabled women to occupy key positions in decision-making committees and provided guidance for integrating women's concerns into the water and sanitation sectors. With the implementation of the first round of strategies, Ugandans' access to safe drinking water increased from 51% to 61% in just two years. These examples highlight how critical it is that inclusive policies come from mainstream organizations. However, building equity in legislatures takes time and effort. Barriers to overcome include social stigmas about female leadership and partisan political groups (primarily in underdeveloped countries) that are unwilling to include women among their ranks.

Recently, in 2018, in response to the underrepresentation of women in this industry, the first "H2O Women Conference" emerged in California for women leaders in the water sector to collaborate, coordinate, educate and support each other. This event is for women only and by invitation only. The conference showcases leading women professionals, their work and their contributions to advancing the water industry. A second edition of this conference was planned for October 2020 in Santa Barbara.

In Spain, the female presence in the water sector is starting to make its presence felt more and more, albeit slowly. More and more companies in this sector rely on female professionalism and hire staff regardless of their gender. An example of this is the company Aqualia, as part of the aforementioned initiative "More women, better companies". 21.72% of the workforce in 2015 were women, with 40% of girls in the Innovation and Technology (R&D) department. Barmatec is also a good example of this inclusivity in the water sector, with 50% female staff (50% with degrees in physics and engineering), and with Lidia Piqué as the general manager. Another example is the Spanish Association of Water Supply and Sanitation (AEAS), where there is a real balance in the number of women and men in the staff: 5 women and 6 men. It should be noted that, in AEAS, two women hold positions of responsibility: Cristina Berasategui in charge of communications and Gari Villa-Landa in charge of international affairs. Gari Villa-Landa is a current role model in the water sector. Apart from being AEAS representative in the European Federation of National Associations of Water Services (EurEau) and the International Water Association (IWA), she is a member of the Steering Committee of the OECD's "Water Governance Initiative".

The integration of women in water resources management in first world countries is clearly encouraging, due to the high social awareness of women's rights.

The integration of women in water resources management in first world countries is clearly encouraging, due to the high social awareness of women's rights. On the other hand, this is not the case in countries considered to be third world countries. With regard to water and environmental management, in underdeveloped countries, in rural areas, women are responsible, in addition to cultivating crops, for fetching water and using it for domestic tasks such as cleaning, cooking and washing. This simple fact makes them the main water decision-makers at the family and daily level. In this type of country, they have been able to stand out favourably in relation to water management. When they manage water, their communities have measurably better outcomes: better functioning water systems, increased access to water, economic and environmental benefits. For example, in India, women have recently been trained and licensed as hand pump mechanics. Their clients rate them as more accessible and responsive than male mechanics, because many of these women understand that a broken hand pump causes girls and women to have to travel longer distances to collect water, lose productive time, and increase risks to their personal safety. As a result, in areas served by female mechanics, there is more preventive maintenance and fewer failures. In Malawi, water committees composed primarily of women monitor the condition of water pipes along the paths they use several times a day, reporting water leaks and the need for repairs.  Women in the Magelang district of Java, Indonesia, ended up solving the problems in the existing water system themselves due to a lack of commitment from political authorities. Their solutions became the basis for a complete overhaul of the water system, and these women are now active participants in the management of the community's water systems. Yet today women represent less than 17% in the water sector in these countries.

A 2014 report by the International Water Association found that 15 developing countries were understaffed in the management, accounting, finance, and engineering professions. This report concluded that when women filled these vacancies, they demonstrated their potential as managers, finance professionals, collection specialists, water engineers and marketers of a product they know well due to the fact that they are mainly the ones in charge of its administration in the family nucleus and relate it to other aspects such as safety, time optimization, economic savings and future forecasts. Conclusions about the role of women in this sector that had already been proven in the first world 20 years ago, and that are being repeated again.

We can conclude that women alone show great aptitudes in the water sector, as can be seen in the various cases exemplified, whether in the first world through access to higher education, equality policies, social awareness for parity, or in underdeveloped countries through the necessary administration of water due to their socio-cultural situation. In addition, globally, women have proven their worth in any water-related job. The next step is to raise the profile of these women so that they can be role models for the next generation and we therefore realise an ideal society in which gender does not matter, but the capacity of the person in the sector he/she wants to work in.

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