Why we need more women in the wastewater sector
It’s widely acknowledged that a diverse workforce can boost a company’s bottom line. Yet, in the wastewater industry, there is still a huge gender gap. Less than 1 in 5 water workers are women, according to research by the World Bank’s Water Global Practice.
But as the water workforce ages and experienced operators retire, the wastewater industry can benefit by attracting more women into the field. UN Water estimates that involving women can increase the effectiveness of water projects six- or seven-fold.
The big issue
We’re facing a global water crisis. It’s predicted that by 2030 the world’s demand for water will exceed the available supply by 40 per cent, and an estimated 2.8 billion people will live in areas with water scarcity.
If having women involved can help us provide a solution to protect our planet and our people, then we need to get more women into the industry - and fast.
A man’s world?
Traditionally, the water and wastewater sector has been a male-dominated sector. In part, this is because it’s closely linked to science, engineering and technology - training paths that historically have had little female presence.
Fortunately, this is changing. More women are studying STEM subjects and moving into related roles. But it is still a pending task to promote the recruitment of women technicians and engineers to achieve parity in the industry.
Opportunities for women
At WCS, Proposals Engineer Mónica Rodrigues carries out vital work every day to create sustainable water recycling solutions, protect public health and enhance the environment.
She shares what drove her to become an engineer in the water and wastewater sector:
“I’m a natural problem solver with a passion for the environment, water and wastewater treatment. Being an engineer enables me to create solutions that promote a continuous improvement in the relationship between the environment and society. I love being part of returning clean wastewater to the natural water cycle.”
Working in water and wastewater treatment gives people the opportunity to directly impact the environment in a positive way, by reducing water pollution, energy usage, water consumption and greenhouse gasses. There are also many opportunities for personal development, along with the personal satisfaction of knowing you are helping to make the planet a better place and keep people safe.
Other benefits of becoming a wastewater operator, that are equally attractive to both women and men, include:
- Job security - There’ll always be a need for water and wastewater engineers, and opportunities are available in major cities to rural communities.
- Diverse working environments - The chance to work both indoors and outdoors.
- It’s a growing industry - There are an estimated 124,000 water and wastewater management positions available and waiting to be filled by 2024.
- Innovation - wastewater treatment is about problem-solving, providing plenty of opportunities for creativity and innovation.
- Broad skill set - Wastewater engineers develop a wide range of skills, including maths, chemistry, microbiology, treatment processes, wastewater safety, utility operations and maintenance, as well as communication, collaboration and management skills.
- Training and development - Many employers offer operators training programmes that enable operators to advance their skillset and grow.
- It benefits the environment and the community - Wastewater operators not only help prevent the spread of many contagious diseases but also help the environment and the communities they reside in.
Bridging the gender gap
So, how can we encourage more women to pursue a career in the wastewater sector?
Educate young women about water-related jobs
There are several barriers for women to enter the water and wastewater industry, but the chain of barriers begins in education. Fewer women than men are pursuing STEM subjects at degree level. We need to break this barrier to get more women into the field.
Young women should be encouraged from an early age that the water industry has many rewarding jobs available for them to pursue. This requires investing in education and teaching young girls about water-related jobs while they are at school.
“I’d like to see engineering promoted to women from a young age, so they understand the potential impact they could have on society and feel inspired from the very beginning. The educational system should teach and encourage these career choices and provide the opportunity to develop the relevant skills, particularly around creativity, ingenuity and problem-solving.”
Rodrigues joined WCS after completing an environmental engineering degree, specialising in sanitary engineering, which focused on areas such as the management and treatment of water and wastewater.
Fortunately, more and more women are studying these traditionally “male degrees”, and as a result, the number of women in the industry is increasing. But there is still much more to do at an educational level.
The bias that some STEM careers are considered “men's”, has pushed women away from the industry for years. But within the industry, it’s also pushed them towards certain roles too. Currently, the majority of women that work in the water world work in customer care - thanks to traditional biases where women are assumed to be good at soft skills and human relations.
In reality, the wastewater sector is not just a technical sector. Many of the so-called “softer characteristics”, perceived to be feminine, are valuable for the sector. There’s a huge social aspect to water and wastewater management. Engineers in the industry play a big role in protecting communities and the environment and supporting customers in delivering safe and compliant water and wastewater services.
As Bianca Nijhof, Managing Director of Netherlands Water Partnership, explains:
“We are looking for engineering solutions to for example prevent flooding or water technology solutions related to water purification and circular water use. This all sounds very technical, whereas in all of the cases there very much is a societal aspect related to this as well, which maybe only in the last few years starts becoming visible for many more people.”
And as Rodrigues puts it:
“Engineering is about problem-solving. People may see it as equations but it also relies on innovation and creativity. I find the context of my role in society - protecting public health and the environment - extremely satisfying.”
Make women in water more visible
One of the main reasons girls choose not to study STEM subjects is due to the lack of female role models who serve as an example at a professional level. We’re seeing more women in tech rise to the forefront and there are ample women who are carving an entrepreneurial path in the wastewater industry. These women need the same visibility as their male counterparts.
Events like International Women in Engineering Day, held earlier this year, help shine a spotlight on the incredible work women engineers are doing. Having more female speakers at industry events and conferences will help to showcase successful women so that they can serve as references.
A lot of this work is already being carried out, and there are more women in STEM careers than there were just a few years ago. But there’s still a long way to go before the professional differences between those in the water industry will no longer be a matter of gender.
Clearly, diversity and inclusion need to be understood beyond gender. It’s only when we have the experience and expertise of people from very different backgrounds and walks of life that we can make the best decisions in the face of business challenges and opportunities.
WCS Group offers a training academy that offers people a host of opportunities and a supportive career development path. For more information, get in touch.
Written by Jon Greaves
Jon has progressively worked through operational roles, account management, technical management, and senior management roles over the last 16 years within one of the group companies before moving into the role of Water and Air Managing Director. Jon has experience across multiple sectors of water and air compliance, including district energy networks; data centres; healthcare; food and beverage and facilities management. Jon acted as a corresponding steering committee member on CIBSE CP1 – Heat Networks Code of Practice for the UK released in 2020.