Pink pipes and tea servers: Challenging women’s role in water utilities
The realm of “utilities” is perceived as a man’s employment domain in many Asian countries. It is about gadgets—pipes, concrete, construction, machines, control panels, etc. Women’s role in utilities is often relegated to serving tea and welcoming guests.
The realm of “utilities” is perceived as a man’s employment domain in many Asian countries. It is about gadgets—pipes, concrete, construction, machines, control panels, etc. Women’s role in utilities is often relegated to serving tea and welcoming guests. Male leadership in utilities often fails to capitalize on the talent of women. In a recent discussion with a few colleagues, I inquired why more women are not involved in water utilities. One male colleague sarcastically answered: “Involving women will lead to pink pipes!” I thought to myself, pink pipes don’t seem so bad!
Most water projects focus on women’s participation at the community level. Women are household water managers; they are responsible for water collection, storage and use. Women are instrumental in promoting good hygiene behaviors and practices; they monitor household members’ hand washing practices. So it is not surprising to find women as peer-to-peer health and hygiene educators and token representatives on water and sanitation committees.
This work is important; however, it is time intensive, mostly unpaid, and competes with a woman’s daily domestic and economic activities. It leaves the decision-making around technology choice and facility location with men. This reminds me of the consequences of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s that saw women as a resource to be tapped, but assumed women’s available time and labor was elastic, unlimited and unpaid.
Imagine what would happen if more women were employed in water utilities (besides the pink pipes)?
A water utility is made up of various units—technical services and repairs, site managers and engineers, unit heads, customer service and consumer complaints, finance and administration, human resource development, etc. Female employees can be found in nearly all of these units. They’re not just making the tea. Females might be underrepresented as technicians in water utilities today, but it does not justify their underrepresentation in the future.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting amazingly progressive female managing directors—Anne Barker of City West Water (Melbourne) and Rodora N. Gamboa of Davao City Water District (Philippines). They have challenged gender norms around women’s roles in water utilities while maintaining effective and profitable organizations.
Women are utility employees, managers and leaders, informed consumers, and hygiene promoters. An ADB water supply and sanitation project in Lao PDR is providing scholarships for female high school graduates to continue higher education as water engineers and technicians, and for current female utility staff to gain technical skills in environmental sanitation and financial management. The project also established a female mentorship program for young enthusiastic female professionals, and applauds water utilities that have mainstreamed gender into their corporate plans.
Phahatphone Manivanh voiced: “[…] I did not like to study environmental sciences but this scholarship is my only chance for continuing higher education […]. I love this field as I have learned many things related to the environment […]. After graduation I will be secured with a job with PNP [provincial water supply state enterprise] and will have good income to support my family.”
A female provincial water utility staff shared: “We are grateful for ADB/GDCF support. [It] has challenged our managers to promote female staff for capacity development. In the past mostly male staff were given priority [for training] with the excuse that the training topics were not relevant for the expertise of the female staff.”
It’s a simple idea. It’s not a zero-sum game to involve women in water utilities. A woman’s gains do not result from a man’s equivalent losses where the net change in total wealth among utility staff is zero. It’s about creating more employment, equalizing opportunities for men and women, and hiring the best person for the job regardless of gender.