Making the Top 100: Where are the women water leaders in Asia and the Pacific?

By Gender Team on Thu, 13 March 2014

By Anupma Jain, Senior Social Sector Specialist, Urban Development and Water Division, Southeast Asia Department

Increasing women’s leadership in the water sector may appear straightforward given affirmative measures such as project gender action plans and gender targets designed to boost female involvement. However, in practice, very few women have emerged as leaders in the sector as a direct outcome of these measures.

Recently I was at home browsing Forbes online and looked at ‘The 2014 Forbes Billionaires List’. This year women made up just over 10% of all 1,645 billionaires listed, representing a 25% increase in women billionaires since 2013 and a more than 60% rise over the past two years.

Ten women on the billionaires list also appeared on Forbes ‘The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women' list in 2013, which includes political leaders, heads of international agencies, philanthropists, chief executive/operating officers, entrepreneurs, actors and other personalities. I was impressed; women leaders do exist and are making a difference!

Compiling the 100 most influential women in the water sector in Asia and the Pacific, however, it would be a challenging task.

Women in leadership positions typically struggle with stereotypes and gender expectations. They face internal barriers, which prevent them from excelling in leadership positions. They also struggle to balance work and family, to be taken seriously as an authority without being seen as an ‘ice queen,’ and to manage colleagues’ expectations of them as leaders. Men, on the other hand, rarely encounter these issues. Generally, female and male leaders are evaluated against different criteria based on cultural assumptions and expectations of “maleness” and “femaleness”.

Current gender mainstreaming tools used in the water sector and elsewhere, such as project gender action plans, help to increase women’s access to resources and opportunities. They also help strengthen women’s technical and non-technical skills development, and increase their representation in management roles in water utilities and water user committees. While gender targets help to catalyze change and sex-disaggregated indicators help monitor progress against actions, these elements alone do not guarantee that women will attain leadership positions or become effective leaders.

In February 2014, a regional workshop on ‘Women, Water and Leadership’ sponsored by ADB and IWMI-CGIAR brought together academics, industry practitioners, researchers and government officials to discuss women’s leadership in the sector. The workshop brought home the message that increasing the number of women leaders in the sector is not an easy task and naming the top Asian women in water would be difficult.

Placing a woman in a leadership position does not make her a leader. She needs to have the qualifications, confidence and management skills to lead. Women who assume leadership positions need to be fully equipped to become confident and effective leaders.

The challenge lies in how we communicate and encourage risk-taking and confidence building of women through our water investments. A renewed approach is required which recognizes:

•    Gender action plans are strategic documents designed to facilitate change, but they can easily remain ‘GAPs’ in gender outcomes if prepared with generic targets and actions which are not derived from a solid gender analysis.
•    Gender analysis needs to include a review of gender relations in institutions, utilities and communities. It needs to analyze the internal barriers and external expectations that prevent women from taking on leadership roles. Representation targets, for example, are pointless if the pool of qualified women in engineering and environmental sanitation is not available.
•    Gender targets need to be meaningful and cannot be applied arbitrarily across Asia and the Pacific, without baselines. Too ambitious (and irrelevant) targets could trigger resistance, conflict and even gender-based violence, if not careful.   
•    Training needs to address gender disparities and stereotypes, and provide women with the technical, leadership and negotiating skills to work effectively with men and other women. Leaders (women and men) need to be able to recognize and motivate junior female staff with the potential to excel.
•    Gender champions or platforms for showcasing women’s leadership in the sector are essential for changing people’s perceptions and expectations and encouraging the next generation of water experts.  

If women’s leadership in the water sector in Asia and the Pacific is to be realized, we need to move beyond the current rhetoric. It’s time to think more strategically about the next generation of gender action plans. We need to move the agenda forward—beyond simply targets aimed at women’s participation and representation in water user groups.