| Women in Water: AWWA hosting events to inform, influence and impact
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Women in Water: AWWA hosting events to inform, influence and impact

To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 and advance diversity and inclusion in the water sector, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) is hosting a webinar with representatives from World Bank and the Society of Women Engineers.

The March 8 event is the first of several in 2021 co-developed by AWWA’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee and the International Council (IC) to support women in water and their advocates, following the themes Inform, Influence and Impact. Other events are planned for AWWA’s Annual Conference & Exposition (ACE 21) and in the fall.

AWWA President Melissa Elliott will moderate the webinar addressing the latest global causes, impacts and solutions related to gender disparity in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and the water sector. Speakers include Kamila Galeza, social development specialist, Water Global Practice, World Bank; Dr. Roberta Rincon, senior manager, research, Society of Women Engineers; and Jennifer Sara, IC member and global director, Water Global Practice, World Bank.

Jennifer Sara of World BankSara (pictured left), who leads the Water Global Practice’s senior management team, provided the comments below regarding the agency’s Women in Water Utilities: Breaking Barriers report, which documents significant challenges to global representation of women in the water workforce, as well as AWWA’s role in advancing women in water.

What key insights does the Women in Water Utilities report provide about the benefits of more women in utilities? Women make up half of the world’s population. InWomen in Water Utilities: Breaking Barriers report the water sector, we still tend to see women as water users or beneficiaries. Women make up only 18% of water utility workforces, according to our research. 

Utility employees are a critical element for effective service delivery. Ensuring that the water workforce reflects the diversity of the customers they serve – with women as the primary water users in domestic settings – is not only important, it is good business. Where women are present in decision-making, utility actions will better reflect the needs and preferences of half the world’s population. Analysis of data generated by the Women in Water Utilities report and subsequent utility benchmarking platform, Equal Aqua, points to a positive correlation between the share of women utility employees and a utility’s performance indicators. 

What can AWWA members do to bring more women into the water sector, particularly utilities? Individual members, especially those in decision-making positions, can lead by example – include women in your teams, make space for all team members to speak out, look around the table to see who’s missing. For organizations, a first step is to begin diagnosing and then tracking the issue. Establish a baseline and identify challenges and opportunities. World Bank recently launched the Equal Aqua platform to support utilities in this benchmarking exercise; it provides assessment tools and scorecards for utilities that want to make progress on gender inclusion. We tend to focus on hiring more women, but in some cases the challenge is with retaining women and providing them opportunities in leadership roles. Organizations should review and update their human resources policies to promote inclusion and offer training opportunities to support women’s career progression. It is very important, and in fact, necessary, to have the support of CEOs and top managers to introduce and sustain change.

How can AWWA’s International Council (IC) support women in water? The IC has the power to promote reforms that can remove some of the structural barriers faced by women in our sector. These barriers – laws, policies, even social norms and role models we see or don’t see – have impacts on who is attracted to the sector, joins the water workforce and stays. It’s more than just a gender issue; other groups also are highly underrepresented in the sector. We can collectively create change at the national and international levels to provide sustainable opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups to advance. Let’s not just break the ceiling, let’s build a wide staircase!

Do things differ between utilities in North America and elsewhere across the globe? Women in utilities face barriers in developing and developed countries alike. According to Brookings Institution, women represent only 15 percent of the U.S. water utility workforce, below the global average, and largely in administrative positions. Latin American utilities that participated in the benchmarking have made progress, with good rates of female recruitment, policies to prevent sexual harassment, and a high percentage (over 60%) with flexible working arrangements.

How can women help attract more women into the water sector? It’s important to broaden and leverage networks with a focus on increasing female representation in management and decision-making. Mentorship is the critical helping hand that can accelerate women’s career advancement. Having role models in the water sector is very important, as the preconception that women can’t do this work is still strong. 

It is also crucial to involve men in promoting gender inclusion. Creating tools to overcome unconscious bias and to diversify traditional male networks is an informal but critical avenue for career advancement. Comparative benchmarking is key in raising awareness and broad support for these initiatives. When we were collecting data on gender diversity for the Women in Utilities report, we received remarkable support not only from women, but also from men at the World Bank and in client utilities.

Is the water sector making progress in increasing the inclusion of women? Shifting long-standing norms and forging new networks to create professional space for women was challenging to begin with, but the industry now faces a new set of hurdles linked to the global pandemic, topped by women’s unprecedented exit from the professional workforce. Women are disproportionately affected partly because they tend to hold less secure positions and are overrepresented in the service industry. Also, female employees generally have more responsibilities at home in terms of housework and childcare. This is true in the United States and most other countries around the world. 

Before the pandemic, we did see some indication that women’s inclusion was improving in the water sector. In the database we recently launched, which includes HR and other diversity and inclusion data from almost 100 utilities across the globe, we see some promise in that the share of female recruits – 24.7% -- is higher than the share of women in the utility workforce. Although any change takes time, I am optimistic about the future. There is no need to start from scratch. We already are building that staircase together.