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How Australia’s water businesses compare on gender equality

According to the latest figures from Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women hold just 14.1% of chair positions and represent 17.1% of CEOs in the country. Considering 47% of the workforce is female, these numbers remain low. How does the water sector measure up?

An analysis of Australia’s major urban utilities and bulk water suppliers (as defined by the Bureau of Meteorology) reveals the sector performs better than average. Nearly 30% of water utility CEOs and managing directors are female and women hold nearly 38% of chair positions. 

Diving deeper into the make-up of executive teams shows water businesses also do well when it comes to employing women in senior leadership roles, with women occupying 40.2% of positions. Some, such as Urban Utilities, Icon Water and City West Water have more women than men in the C-suite, while others including Unitywater and South East Water have an even split.

However, there is still room for improvement. For example, the corporation with just one woman in its executive team of seven, or the business with three women in a team of 13.  

Although the argument is often made that hiring should be focused on employing the best person for the job, ensuring there is a diverse range of people leading a water business is vital to meet emerging challenges, a 2019 report from the World Bank found.

Meeting the challenges facing the water sector, such as rapid urbanisation and climate change, will require tapping into new approaches, technologies and solutions, as well as changing the workforce to meet emerging needs and move away from business as usual, according to the authors of the Women in Water Utilities: Breaking Barriers report.

“By hiring, managing and training a more diverse mix of employees, new and fresh perspectives can help shape the water utilities of the future,” they wrote. 

Drawing on data from 64 water and wastewater utilities in 28 countries, the report found a number of barriers to female water professionals entering, staying and advancing in the sector.

These include: gender biases in the hiring process; a lack of flexible work policies; gender pay gaps; less access to training opportunities; and a lack of female mentors in management positions.

“Utilities can play an important role in reducing and eliminating these barriers faced by women,” the report authors wrote.

“Increasing women’s participation in water utilities benefits women, the community, and the organisation. Women benefit by gaining access to more and better jobs. Communities gain better representation … which evidence suggests can lead to better community relations, among other benefits.”

Progressing change

The Australian Water Association (AWA) is a vocal advocate for a more diverse water sector. It launched the Channeling Change program in 2017, in collaboration with the Australian Water Partnership, to lead by example and promote diversity, inclusion and equality in the sector.

“We want to spread the message across our national and international networks and share success stories of diversity in the water sector,” AWA Chief Executive Jonathan McKeown said at the time. 

Three years on and AWA National Manager – Events and Marketing Kirsty Blades said the program is having an impact.

“I think of what the association does in this space as a ripple effect: we drop one thought, one idea, one story, one action out to the industry and it creates a ripple,” she said.

“Our hope is that that ripple multiplies to become a wave of action.”

Some of AWA’s own actions have been to introduce targets to reach gender parity on speaking panels and among keynote speakers at all of its national events. In its recently released Strategy’22, which set out AWA’s vision for the next three years, the organisation made one of its strategic goals to ‘Promote Diversity and Inclusion’. 

This will include broadening the Channeling Change program and developing a Reconciliation Action Plan.

“To keep driving cultural change and build a diverse water sector we have to keep sharing stories, calling out behaviours and being more conscious of our day-to-day decisions and biases,” Blades said.

“We need to be brave enough to lead the change, we need to celebrate the change and we need to hold ourselves and our organisations accountable and keep pushing these conversations forward.”

Developing leaders

The Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust is another water sector organisation championing change. It offers a Women in Water Leadership Program designed to create a long-term impact for women in Australia.

“Women are under-represented at the leadership table, particularly across the STEM, policy and governance fields,” according to the trust.

“We also know that organisations with gender diversity in leadership out-perform those with largely male-dominated governance structures.”

Women and Leadership Australia also offers scholarships for women in utilities to participate in leadership courses, with the aim of increasing female representation in the sector.

Stand-out state

Victoria is leading the way when it comes to women in water, with the government committing to deliver a gender balance in leadership and senior executive positions in September last year.

It followed a 2016 commitment to achieve gender party on the boards of the state’s water corporations and catchment management authorities. The number of women on Victorian water sector boards has increased to more than 50% of all positions, including 18 out of 29 chair positions.

On the other hand, women occupy just 20% of CEO and managing director positions in the state’s water corporations and catchment management authorities. 

To address this, Victorian Minister for Water Lisa Neville launched the Insight: Executive Leadership for Women in Water program, which aims to get more women into the C-suite.

The 12-month program will support and guide women working in the water sector and related fields to develop their leadership skills to best position them for future executive roles.

“Our water corporations and catchment management authorities are better organisations thanks to greater gender diversity at board level, and it’s now time to extend this to executive roles,” Neville said.

“This is about equipping our water sector with the right people and expertise to do its job for the community and protect Victoria’s water security.”