Does gender matter?
“Finally a speaker who is not a man! Yay!”
This was an anonymous comment from a delegate in the interactive digital platform at SIWW Spotlight 2017 held in Singapore that brought together water utility leaders from around the world. As the comment flashed on the big screen, more yays were added to it with assenting laughter all around. The comment came in the wake of a keynote presentation by Professor Joan Rose of Michigan State University, who later sat in a panel discussion with five men.
When the question of women managers in the water sector comes up, I am always a conflicted. On one hand, I do want to see capable women in important roles – as engineers, managers, utility chiefs and CEOs, but on the other hand, I do not want them to be chosen merely because they are women. I have seen these feelings echoed by many female water sector leaders.
At the table I was sitting, I heard an interesting case study of a utility that was run entirely by women. Said the person who wished to be anonymous: “The women were being paid salaries so low that it was pathetic. Yet, the utility was performing well because the women were going out of the way and doing their job diligently.” When I enquired where this utility was located, the delegate did not want to reveal further details. I suspect he was talking about Indonesia.
This reminded me of another instance where training women to be handpump mechanics in the state of Rajasthan in India had led to better preventive maintenance and fewer breakdowns. Customers had rated the female mechanics to be more accessible and responsive than their male counterparts.
According to some development experts, women water users have distinctive insights about the design, operation, and maintenance of water systems, since they are the primary users. By incorporating their inputs, water systems can be more in accordance with the community’s needs and will also positively impact the willingness to pay for water services.
The efforts of India and China to include more women in governance and in water resources management are showing good results and illustrating how tapping into women’s leadership skills can be beneficial for society as a whole.
The number of women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) in India, China, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian countries has been going up steadily over the past decades. In the Philippines, it is quite common to find women engineers working on water loss management programmes even at night-time. At water sector conferences in Southeast Asia, women delegates turn out in good numbers.
A 2011 Asian Development Bank report concluded that companies that are able to effectively tap into the growing female workforce by offering gender-friendly policies in the workplace and gender-sensitive products or services to external customers, are more profitable, competitive, sustainable and have a more dedicated and loyal workforce than their competitors who do not provide such policies or services.
At the end of the day, we will never be able to prove whether men or women are more competent to work in a certain sector. So why are we discussing gender?
A recent study by International Water Association (IWA) put it most aptly by saying: “A diverse workforce would bring together different, complementary skill sets, and would more accurately reflect the demography of society in terms of female and male citizenry. This diversity is essential if the varied demands around the issue of urban water management and service delivery are to be met.”