Getting Women into the Business of Water: Progress and Prospects

Women attending platform meeting

Women, Water and Leadership: A Workshop for Asia and the Pacific was held in Manila, Philippines on 13 and 14 February. The conference, which was co-sponsored by WLE/IWMI and the Asia Development Bank, was held in order to provide a platform for relevant parties to discuss female leadership in the water sector. Some important goals of the meeting were: to come up with possible institutional solutions to the barriers which cause under-representation of females in leadership positions in water management; to explore ways to create opportunities and space for women at various scales in both private and pubic institutions; and to generate concrete suggestions as to what can be done, both operationally and personally, to encourage women to pursue careers in water leadership.

Asian leaders from various arenas of the sector were invited to present, including heads of small-scale community based water organizations, directors of national and regional public water ministries, and individuals who represent private sector and non-profit water management, distribution, and security organizations. In addition, representatives from numerous international and academic organizations lent their expertise and experience to the subject.

Vice President ADB - Mr. Bindu Lohani
Bindu Lohani. Vice President – Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, ADB

Vice President of Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development at ADB, Bindu Lohani, opened the meeting by pointing out that many of the questions on the agenda for the conference were similar to ones that had been asked many times before. His suggestion for the conference was to consider these issues in the context of the Water/Food/Energy Nexus in order to contextualize the importance of water and to make evident the need to include 50% of the population in the decision making process of managing this crucial resource.

Dr. Jeremy Bird – Director General IWMI

Director General of IWMI, Jeremy Bird, went on to outline some important themes for the conference, stating the need to come up with specific measures, approaches, and tools to get women into leadership roles. Part of this process, to which he felt IWMI and WLE could contribute, is to provide evidence for why we need women in the water sector and to prove the value of having females in leadership positions. He admitted that the CGIAR needs to have more opportunities for women in its own leadership and that he hoped the conference would help shape strategies, not only for IWMI and WLE’s research, but also for the CGIAR system in general. He concluded by identifying “three I’s” that might help in the process: Information, in order to provide evidence for why we need women in leadership positions in the water sector and how we all benefit from having them in these positions; Incentives, both for women to draw them into water leadership and also for organizations who need help making space in high level positions; and Investments of money and time, not only for capacity building and educating potential women leaders, but also to support the changes needed to create opportunities and space for women, both institutionally and socially.

Over the course of the two days, some overarching themes emerged from the discussions. While everyone understands that involving women is key to making water programs and systems sustainable, it is important to recognize that initiatives and programs must be tailored specifically to cultural and institutional environments if opportunities for women are to be successfully created. The lack of women in leadership positions is not a technical issue; there are plenty of qualified and educated females. The problem is they are disproportionately underrepresented in positions of power in water management (and other resource management) compared with men. Institutions must therefore provide women with the opportunity, not just to enter the sector, but to be promoted into positions of influence, thereby incentivizing the job and ensuring that their work is valued and compensated equally to that of their male counterparts.

Another theme that was revisited many times was the idea of mentorship and education, framed in the concept of ‘paying it forward’ or ‘the power of one.’ By investing time to foster and nurture self-confidence and specific skills in individual women, people in positions of influence can help future leaders and experts realize their potential. Some questions remained as to what specific steps could be taken to affect change and balance the professional and social aspirations of women. One important contribution that was identified as a way to foster change and encourage women to aspire to leadership positions was to provide evidence as to why it’s important, what can be gained, and what successes already exist.

Dr. Patricia Wouters of the Xiamen Law School pointed out that we still don’t have robust enough research on the subject to evaluate the successes that have been obtained by promoting women to leadership positions. As such, she issued a challenge to IWMI/WLE and ADB to be systematic and prioritize concrete action to enhance female leadership in water. Specifically, she identified the “Three S’s:” Study by partnering with other institutions and professionals to learn more about women in water and propose concrete actions in supporting women in water management; Stimulate by developing specific incentives for women leaders; and Scale up/out by putting temporal dimensions and inter generational equity back on the table and focusing research on these areas in order to study the parameters of women in water.

For the conference agenda and speaker profiles, please visit here

Group photo