New strategies lift women’s role in solving water challenges

In many developing countries, improving access to water can be life-changing, particularly for women. And involving women in the process of finding solutions to water security is crucial, according to Dr Marian Neal, a panelist at the University of Melbourne’s March 2020 Water Security Series.

Drinking water treatment plant tanks in the US

‘Gender equality in the water sector’ was the topic of the event, with a panel of water industry experts discussing international and Australian initiatives to increase the participation of women in the water sector.

Dr Neal is Partnership and Knowledge Manager with the Australian Water Partnership, working to assist sustainable water management in the Indo-Pacific region.

Problem-solving perspectives

Water is recognised as underpinning global challenges that include climate change, sustainable development, peace and security. For women, solving water problems can improve their health and safety, and provide more time for other activities, such as education.

“Often, a woman’s understanding of a local water problem and its solution is spot on,” she said. “We just need to ensure they have the opportunity to participate in the discussion, articulate the problem, come up with solutions and be heard.”

Often, a woman’s understanding of a local water problem and its solution is spot on

Dr Neal said whether at the household, community or river basin level, women have a significant role to play in problem-solving and design.

To build women’s active involvement in this work, the Australian Water Partnership only funds activities that provide meaningful representation and outcomes based on gender, equality and social inclusion criteria.

Other panelists taking part in the session also identified formal steps being taken to improve the inclusion and retention of women working in the Australian water industry, and specifically in water-related engineering and leadership roles.

Leadership initiatives

Event chair and Melbourne School of Engineering Enterprise Senior Fellow Dr Sharon Davis said women held only 20 per cent of managing director or CEO positions in Victoria’s water corporations and catchment authorities in 2019. However, there were positive changes underway to increase female representation across the sector.

The Victorian Government is supporting affirmative action initiatives and now requires all water corporation boards to have a 50/50 male-female representation. In 2019 Minister for Water Lisa Neville also announced a new program, Insight: Executive Leadership for Women in Water, to create a collaborative peer network for women in the industry.

You might be in a room, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are actually heard. But we can call it out, we can acknowledge it, we can make changes

General Manager People and Safety at South East Water, Bridget Thakrar, said her company’s top 50 female leaders had identified a lack of part-time leadership roles and workplace flexibility as barriers affecting women.

One action South East Water has taken to address this is to scrap ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carer labels for staff. Men and women are both offered 14 weeks of paid parental leave at any stage of their child’s life.

Managing Director of Yarra Valley Water, Pat McCafferty, says his organisation’s 2015 Diversity and Inclusion Strategy also includes more workplace flexibility. Following the strategy’s implementation, female representation on the executive team has increased from 17 per cent to 43 per cent, and among engineers from 31 per cent to 38 per cent.

Universities are important training grounds for the sector. Professor Mike Stewardson from the Melbourne School of Engineering (MSE) said that currently women make up just 11 per cent of professors and 18 per cent of associate professors. However, at more junior levels, women outnumber men.

Staff from the University's water group making the equal sign with their arms on International Women's Day
The University's Water, Environment and Agriculture Program team on International Women's Day (Photo: Conrad Wasko)

To help address this, MSE has created a number of female only academic  positions . But Professor Stewardson said more long-term strategies are needed to combat the barriers and biases women face as they move through the “very linear” academic hierarchy.

Structural changes being introduced into workplaces are helping to drive cultural changes and removing traditional barriers to women’s participation in the water sector. This is supported by the adoption of formal inclusion policies both in Australia and internationally.

However, panelists agreed that increasing the number of women alone does not automatically translate to inclusion.

“You might be in a room, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are actually heard,” Dr Davis said. “But we can call it out, we can acknowledge it, we can make changes.

“We are seeing change, but there’s still some way to go,” she said.

The next event in the Water Security Series will focus on: ‘Are our cities ready for a diversified water supply in the future?’ It will be delivered as a webinar on Wednesday 15th April 2020, from 12pm to 1pm. Register via Eventbrite.

Related Topics

Real world impact Water security

Water, Environment and Agriculture Program