Putting women front and centre

Equal representation of men and women is essential for the water and sanitation sector

This is the first post in a series focusing on the need and practicalities of mainstreaming gender and social inclusion in water and sanitation from an integrity perspective. To contribute to the discussion or share some insight from your work, contact us at rsands@win-s.org.

Where are the women?

Why are women still so blatantly underrepresented on public platforms? It’s a question raised, once again, after taking part in the preparatory session for the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal last October. Meant to solidify a range of conference elements, stakeholders gathered for two days of panel sessions and dialogues where it was disturbing to see the overwhelming prevalence of male speakers in every session. One could count the total number of women speakers on one hand, and still have fingers to spare. Indeed, the matter was raised by one of the few women speakers. While a representative of the WWF explained to us that several women panelists were not available to the session, is this really an acceptable response in 2021? The optics were deeply concerning, a concern that is heightened by the male dominance of the International Steering Committee for the 9th World Water Forum, and, indeed, of the World Water Council itself.

Efforts to achieve gender parity and a stronger representation of marginalised voices at events has been ongoing for many, many years, but experience in a number of forums as well as research on the matter reaffirm that the sector still has a way to go in achieving gender equality – not only regarding speakers at events, but in equality across a range of roles and responsibilities. A 2019 study led by the World Bank’s Water Global Practice, “Women in Water Utilities, Breaking Barriers”, indicates that less than one in five workers in the water sector are women. In sampled utilities, only 23% of licensed engineers are women, and only 23% of managers are female. 32% of utilities in the study had no female engineers and 12% no female managers. This is much lower than their 35% representation in the STEM sector … so why are women not getting appointed? Why are women still missing in leadership and on platforms in the water and sanitation sector?

Integrity in the water sector is constructed on four pillars: transparency, accountability, participation and anti-corruption actions. If women are not at the table, if women are not on the platforms, the very notion of participation is undermined.



Women are the primary household water managers and have specific water and sanitation needs; they must not be brushed aside.

 Panel composition speaks loudly to perceptions of who is considered an expert in the sector. When the conversation is dominated by a single group, it sends a message that one must fit a certain mould to be heard and women, girls, and other marginalised groups struggle to see strong role models that they can emulate.

But the contribution of women and men in water and sanitation management is also of importance from an integrity perspective, and not only because corruption impacts men and women differently. There is also evidence that greater diversity in governance structures, particularly gender diversity, results in lower levels of corruption and malfeasance.

As highlighted in a recent podcast from UN Habitat and the Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA), a higher rate of executive gender diversity has also shown evidence that better performance rates follow. The positive impacts of balanced gender representation therefore go far beyond just conferences and events. As such, the water and sanitation sector would be remiss in failing to promote equal representation across the board.


Progress at local levels makes gaps at the top all the more glaring

 In our work, we have seen the benefits of women’s involvement at the community level. Perhaps due to the deeper contribution of CSOs and the propensity for stronger women’s leadership locally, workshops and training in communities have seen an improved balance of men’s and women’s participation in some countries. In Mexico, for example, implementation of the Integrity Management Toolbox for Small Water Supply Systems resulted in more women engaging in dialogue and ultimately in the management of the water schemes, increasing the opportunities for these women to become champions of integrity.



The Gold Standard: Making good on promises

 Going back to the issue of women and conferences, in 2017, the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) introduced a ‘Gold Standard’ for World Water Week, the leading annual event for global water issues. The standard mandates that sessions must include at least 40% women among the speakers and at least one panelist under the age of 35. As almost half of World Water Week participants are women and one-third are under age 35, SIWI acknowledged that this demography needed to be reflected in the event’s panels.

The results have been telling: When it was first introduced, only 10% of sessions met the criteria; after a year this number increased to 80%. More, recognising the need for organisers to have access to a range of qualified speakers, SIWI created two speaker directories where qualifying individuals can submit an application to be considered: Water Women and Young Professionals. Those interested in being considered as a speaker are encouraged to submit their applications to be included in a directory, giving women and young professionals more agency and visibility to have their work and perspectives recognised.

The next step needs to be ensuring that panels are also balanced from a geographical perspective. Particularly with international events, greater focus must be placed on providing a wider range of experiences that all partners can relate to – not just those perspectives coming from the global north.


Devising an approach for success

As can be seen from the Gold Standard, designing and implementing a straightforward policy goes a long way in ensuring a higher representation of women and minority groups. When organising an event, the following recommendations can guide the development of a clear strategy:

  • Ensure that a gender perspective informs session planning. This can help to mitigate event formats or speaker requirements that are inadvertently biased.
  • Strive for gender parity or other group quotas from the outset in the selection of speakers and in panel composition. Identify the obstacles that might impede women’s participation (i.e. childcare, funding, sufficient time for scheduling) and work towards implementing solutions.
  • Plan ahead. Whether this be developing a directory of women experts or securing several back-up speakers, take the steps necessary to ensure that last minute changes or cancellations do not affect your objectives.
  • Diversify panel topics and place a specific focus on inviting panellists who are true experts in their subject, regardless of their position. Given the disparity between men and women in leadership positions in the water and sanitation sector, organisers are more likely to find a woman panellist with experience and know-how in her field by targeting beyond just heads of organisations.
  • Track gender balance at events – having accurate numbers on-hand will help organisers to measure progress and fine-tune the gender strategy.

The equal representation of men and women on public platforms and in leadership positions is not just essential for tackling the consequences that water governance and integrity issues have upon the lives of women, youth, and other marginalised groups, but for integrating women and women’s perspectives to improve governance and performance throughout the sector.



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