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#ChoosetoChallenge – reflections from AWA’s first female CEO and President

International Women’s Day is a chance to celebrate women’s social, economic, cultural and political achievements across the globe. This year’s theme #ChooseToChallenge, is an important opportunity to raise awareness against bias and a call to action for accelerating gender equality.  

The water sector has worked hard towards a culture of diversity and gender parity, with the Australian Water Association leading the way. Our CEO, Corinne Cheeseman and President, Carmel Krogh head a fantastic team where gender equality is celebrated from the top down. We interviewed these inspirational women to learn a little more about their experiences in regard to gender equality in the workplace.

Corinne Cheeseman at microscope

Corinne Cheeseman, CEO, Australian Water Association (AWA) reflects her experiences of her 20+ years as a woman of water 

I feel I have been very lucky as I have had a number of male mentors and sponsors that have helped me throughout my career. On reflection most of the leaders I have reported to have been male with the exception of the last 2 years and I have enjoyed and grown under their leadership. I can think of many teams I have worked in where I have been the only female including peer teams and leadership teams. When I was the only female there was an implicit expectation that I would pick up things that my male counterparts didn’t have (e.g. answer phones, be the team representative of the group on every project team etc.). I am not sure if I contributed to this by assuming these roles or tasks, but I do remember getting to a point where I felt overwhelmed with all the extra things that I was contributing to the team that my peers weren’t expected to do, so I actively worked on learning to say no and coming up with alternative options to share the load. I don’t think it was necessarily deliberate, rather based on my own pre-conceptions and those of others that females tend to be good at picking administrative tasks or that it was good to make sure we put the minority gender forward to represent us as a group. There were positives too though, as I was able to get experience and exposure which I feel has stood me well in my career as well as helped develop my skills in assertiveness and being more solution focused.  

On a less positive note, I have been in situations in the water sector where I have been excluded and not acknowledged by males in meetings or it's been assumed that I am the administrative assistant because of my gender. I have definitely felt that I have been treated differently and negatively because I am female. I have also been in situations on a few occasions where a male has intimated me physically (yelled or stood over me) which has shaken me and affected my stress and wellbeing. These examples are few and far between, but I have wondered whether my male counterparts have had similar experiences and if they did whether it would have affected them as much as me.  

I have seen a huge change over my career. There is definitely more gender balance in the water sector and the teams I have worked with in the last 5 years or so. There are more females in leadership roles and the pipeline of emerging female leaders is also a lot stronger. I also have some fantastic female mentors (as well as males). I’m hopeful that this will continue and am confident that it will however I also know that according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, at the current rate of change gender equality won’t be achieved for another 100 years. We need to accelerate the change and build on the good progress we have made. 

At AWA, I am privileged to be the first female CEO. I can remember when AWAs first female President, Lucia Cade took office in 2011. Carmel Krogh is our second female President, and our next President is Louise Dudley. Currently we have 3 female directors on the Board and 6 males. From May 2021, we will have 6 females and 4 males – this is quite a milestone and fantastic to see. Or Strategic Advisory Council who elected the Directors was 9 females and 10 males and voted in this Board based on skills. I think this is an important part of AWA living our values in Strategy22. We also demonstrate this in our events and content, striving for gender parity on all panels and keynote speaker line-ups, which can be seen across our state and national events. Internationally, gender equality workshops are a key component of our programs in Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Giving opportunities and profiling women equally is a big part of making this normal and helps to attract and inspire females to aspire for careers in water and leadership opportunities.

Carmel Krogh

Carmel Krogh, President of AWA reflects on her 35+ years as a woman of water: 

I went to an all girls school, and yet ended up in a very male dominated profession – engineering. Although it seems like a lifetime ago (and in some ways it is), the early years of my career and training shaped where I wanted to be and taught me so much about who I was and am.  

My early days as a trainee engineer at the waterboard in construction was certainly a revelation to me and to the construction crews who had never had a female on the job before. I spent 2 years in that district, doing a lot of surveying for sewering some areas of Campbelltown. I can honestly say that they were some of the best years of my life - the construction crews looked after me – once they realised that I had a sense of humour and was willing to stick up for myself, and that I didn’t get offended at swearing.

Carmel Krogh at a worksite
Later in my career I was lucky enough to get a job with the Australian Agency for International Development (or AusAID) as a water and sanitation advisor. That role took me to places that I had never dreamed of visiting. But most importantly it taught me so much about the strength of women. Women who struggled every day of their lives to collect clean water for their families, women who had to go through humiliation every day because of nowhere to defecate in private, and women who worked tirelessly to provide a better life for their
children. They are the real people to admire for the challenges that they have faced.

One of the most important things I have learnt over the years is the need for mutual respect, whether this is between genders or different layers of an organisation, everyone has a role to play. Respect is absolutely a two-way street and inevitable crashes will be the result of a one-way attitude.  

Certainly, I’ve come across difficult situations in my career because I am a woman, but I have also had the great fortune to have great mentors, friends and support networks to turn to.  

For every bad experience I can remember, I’ll also remember a hundred good ones. 

Source: Civil and Cooperative:Civil Engineering at NSWIT and UTS 1966-1996

Carmel Krogh in a row boat.jpg

The Australian Water Association is committed to continue our support for all members as we aim to secure gender parity across the sector. International Women’s Day is a great time to reflect on how far we have come and what we can do in the future. We must all #ChooseToChallenge in order to create a better life for our people, customers and community.