Women and water share a powerful and intimate bond. In many parts of the world women bear the primary responsibility for water collection, they nourish their families with it, and often play a vital role in water economies. Water is fundamental for health, safety, industry, and food security. In an effort to better understand women’s participation in the water industry and the water supply network,Water Efficiency magazine reached out to Kirsten de Vette of the International Water Association (IWA) for her global perspective.
From 2014 to 2015, deVette headed a team focused on women professionals in urban water, specifically, on improving service delivery by strengthening the role of female water professionals in decision-making. She is currently focused on capacity development in the water sector. She and her team hope to create an understanding of the gaps and shortages within the water network and to address these deficiencies at institutional, organizational, and individual levels.
Water Efficiency (WE): What first drew you to the water industry and what excites you about it today?
Kirsten deVette (KdV): As a sociologist I did my research on the use of social networks in recovery after an earthquake. My fieldwork in Peru had a deep impact on me, particularly in the way that families lost all their basic needs in one event. It struck me how simple access to water was problematic for months after the disaster, and still—one year later—was limited to two hours per day. Not even to mention their sanitation situation; mostly a curtain and a hole in the ground. It made me realize how uncommon my situation [in the Netherlands] is, with clean tap water that we can drink at any time we want, and toilets everywhere. This was my first reality check. And this encounter inspired me to contribute to this sector.
Now, having worked a number of years in the sector, I know how water influences everything on this planet—all sectors, all products, all services—our basic needs, our eco-systems, and everything else. Nothing functions without water, and even then its importance is not always recognized. I feel strongly that water professionals (we have too few) should influence behavioral change in the industry and of society, so as to stimulate better management of water resources. This includes the use of proper sanitation facilities, wastewater treatment, and discharge methods, in order to improve our environment’s and society’s health.
WE: Do you feel that women are sufficiently represented within our industry?
KdV: No. And this is not just an issue of equity. There is a significant business case to be made for greater female participation in the water sector. Women represent half of the population, and are equally affected (if not more so) by the practices of the water industry. Women are part of the customer base and should therefore be included in the water workforce to design and implement solutions, products, and services. Similarly, there is a huge shortage of water professionals globally, regardless of which country you live in. Encouraging and promoting more women into the industry could easily prove to be a quick win for the sector and society.
WE: In what ways do you think that we can enhance women’s contribution to the water supply network?
KdV: Much of the gender-focused work related to water is about getting women to voluntarily contribute to water projects, as main users in the household. Whilst I agree that getting them to contribute to the water supply decision-making is important, this approach, in my opinion, reinforces the old views and assumptions of what women are and what they should be. Even if we acknowledge that all countries are at different stages when it comes to gender equity, it relegates women to a secondary role, and assumes that women have time to volunteer. Removing opportunities to see them as possible professionals.
From that perspective, I enjoyed leading a project within IWA that looked at promoting gender equality in the urban water sector, stimulating the participation of women in decision-making positions of the workforce.
What the project recognized is that action would be needed at multiple levels:
Policy—The enabling environment needs to be put in place to allow for women to combine family and work in the water sector. This starts with for example labor laws around maternity leave, paternity leave, flexible working hours etc., as well as water sector policies around capacity development in the water sector that should recognize the gender inequality and needs for mainstreaming.
Education—We cannot simply hire more women in the water sector, as this would result in un(der)qualified professionals; we need to stimulate women to work in technical fields, stimulate STEM amongst girls, and provide equal education opportunities to men and women, providing scholarships, and internships.
Industry—Women are more present in the younger generation of water professionals but more efforts at organizational level are needed. Organizations can encourage a younger generation of women to be interested to work in the field, they can put in place the right procedures, and policies to recognize gender equality, provide equal training and promotion opportunities, and in some cases simply provide facilities for staff.
Funding agencies—The impact that funding agencies have in the sector is enormous, because of the investment they bring. Therefore, setting criteria and prerequisite conditions regarding gender equality in the workforce can result in action in countries and organizations.
Having said this, in many countries gender inequality remains deeply embedded in the culture, and this is not something we can change overnight. The water sector can—as other sectors have done—take a huge step in contributing to societal change by opening this typically male industry to women.
WE: How can we support young women in our field?
KdV: In addition to systemic change related to policy, education, industry, and funding, two other areas are important: having good role models is critical, as is facilitating networks and networking for women within the sector.
WE: Thank you, Kirsten.