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Why are women underrepresented in water?

That the Australian workplace has a gender diversity problem is no secret. Despite one in two Australian workers being women, just one third of senior managers are. And at the pointy end of the management chain, the picture is even worse.

Lamentably, the picture in water-related sectors is no rosier. In water utilities, women are just under half as likely as men to be senior managers. In scientific research, more than 60% of staff are women, but just an eighth of executives are.

Those in the industry point to three key obstacles to women achieving parity with men – weak retention, under-representation in senior positions and a substantial pay gap between the sexes.

Aside from basic notions of fairness, the lack of diversity can wreak a financial toll on lagging firms. In 2012, the Grattan Institute reported women’s increased participation across the workforce has the potential to bump Australia’s GDP by $25 billion within the next 10 years, with the benefits falling in the laps of those industries attracting top female talent.

Queensland Urban Utilities CEO Louise Dudley is one of the most senior women in the Australian water sector but said she eagerly awaits the day when people cease being surprised by her gender.

“At the end of the day, our workforce should be a representative of the community we serve,” she said.

“We’re contemplating a future where utilities need to be much more customer-focused. We need to be more innovative and forward thinking. Without diversity, I don’t know how we’re going to get there. It’s that important.”

Seeping out

More women are choosing to study subjects conducive to careers within water science and engineering than ever before. But retention is proving to be one of the largest roadblocks to achieving gender diversity within the sector.

“If you recruit somebody into a culture that’s not inclusive, then they’re not likely to stay. They won’t feel valued, their voice won’t be heard,” Dudley said.

“There are so many opportunities coming up for women. As an organisation, if you present a hurdle to women in doing their best work, they will go somewhere else.”

So what are the hurdles? “The women I have spoken to leave their roles in organisations for a number of common reasons,” South East Water Chair Lucia Cade said.

“These include a lack of, or very slow, career progression, a lack of senior role models to aspire to, and being stigmatised as ‘not career-focused’ if they need to work part-time after having children.”

Lack of support for workers with carer responsibilities suggests that progression will be unreasonably difficult for women returning to work.

“Many women need to work part-time for a while and part-time roles are, generally, technically and managerially inferior. This is dispiriting,” Cade said.

“Once working part-time, some women feel they have been assumed to not have career aspirations or be truly committed to their careers. This, too, is dispiriting.”

And retention is as much about culture as it is development. Cade said creating a workplace that embraces diversity by actively meeting the needs of all employees, including support for carers, is paramount to cultural change.

“Some managers find it challenging to cope with the cycles of maternity leave and part-time work that is a part of many women’s lives if they have children. They struggle to find meaningful ways for part-time people to work, leaving staff feeling devalued,” she said.

“I have pulled up people who describe  people as ‘only’ working part-time. I point out that they are also ‘only’ paid part-time and their productivity per hour spent at work is often exceptionally high as they cram as much into a working day as they can. How many full-timers take that attitude every day?”

Bureau of Meteorology Groundwater Unit Manager Elisabetta Carrara believes evening the playing field by introducing equality in parental leave entitlements helps.

“I am a real advocate for paternity leave,” she said. “If men could take time off similar to women, when it came time to hire the employer wouldn’t be thinking, ‘oh, this person might get pregnant and I’ll need to find someone else. I’ll go with the man, rather than the woman.’ It would also benefit father-child bonds.”

Breeding success

Exacerbating retention problems is the deficit in female staff making headway into managerial, executive and principal positions. As a result, there are fewer female role models.

“When young women see that there are other women who have successfully attained those senior positions and had families, they learn these things are possible,” Engineers Australia Women in Engineering National Committee Past Chair Jo Kirby said.

“Having female role models is essential. If younger people don’t see women there, they’re going to think there will be nothing for them either.”

She recalled one of her previous workplaces, which typified a ‘boys’ club’ atmosphere.

“There was no way I was going to become a lead engineer while there was a posse of fellows, who had always been there,” Kirby said. “It’s not that they treated me badly, I just knew I would never break into a senior position.”

Source: Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Carrara said having women in senior and key managerial roles is also an important step in reducing implicit bias and discrimination.

“It is essential to have female mentors. You don’t realise the unconscious bias until you really start working alongside it,” she said.

Unconscious bias has taken the spotlight as a scourge of diversity. Hiring practices, employee recognition processes, leadership styles and negotiation behaviours are all breeding grounds for discrimination.

“Quite often, female engineering graduates get picked early in their graduate career as good organisers and steered into project management roles, which, of course, steers them away from their technical expertise,” Kirby said.

“There’s a common conception that women have a different headspace – that they don’t always go for things they are not fully qualified for. This is not always the case. It’s not just about being outgoing. It is also about how women are perceived when they are going for big roles. It’s about whether they are taken as seriously as a man who backs himself in the job.”

Dudley said that unconscious bias is an issue all the way to the top, with many people’s assumptions favouring masculine authority. “Some people insist on talking to the male colleague, even though you’re the more senior person in the room,” she said.

“I’ve had people ask me what my role is at QUU. When I tell them, ‘I’m the CEO’, their response is usually, ‘Oh’. If you’re going to a function or meeting, it’s a good idea to work out who’s who first. A lot of people assume that the CEO couldn’t possibly be a female.”

And the pay gap? Data shows that this is an area where some of the water sector is doing better than other Australian industries. Dudley said: “If you’re doing the same job, you should be paid the same. That’s just a basic human right.”

On the ground

WGEA data shows while many organisations are on board with creating gender diversity policies, there’s still room for building steadfast strategies.

GHD Australia General Manager Phil Duthie, who implemented gender diversity initiatives within the company, said having a policy is quite different to putting it into practice. “A company can have a policy but, unless it is actually being implemented, it just sits on the shelf,” he said.

Duthie said educating staff is crucial to ensuring the entire company is on board with policy implementation and cultural transformation.

“I’d recommend companies take the time to educate the leaders of their business, managers in particular,” he said. “If knowledge of the things you’re trying to achieve rests in the executive’s mind, and not in the manager’s mind, you create a barrier to moving forward.”

Educating management also helps alleviate recruitment bias, helping broaden the pool of candidates, according to South East Water’s Lucia Cade.

“If we over-emphasise attributes for new hires that are only based on the attributes of people currently in the roles, then we will continue to limit ourselves to new hires that look exactly like past hires,” Cade said.

Source: Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

QUU’s Louise Dudley said development of female staff requires a top-down approach, with managers and senior leaders engaging in the process.

“It’s about providing an opportunity for people to fulfil their potential,” Dudley said. “There’s still a lot of women saying, ‘Look, I don’t think that I’ve got the skills for that,’ when, in fact, they do have the skills. I think we’ve got to get over that as women. We are good enough.”

Cade said promotions need to be merit-based, offering all candidates the opportunity to excel through the application of personal strengths, rather than role statements.

“Merit is more than technical ability, even if the role is a specialist technical role. It is more than years of experience in a similar role in a similar organisation,” Cade said.

“This includes opportunities for secondments, working on special projects, all those things that can help someone demonstrate their abilities and readiness for the next step."

Upward mobility

QUU’s Louise Dudley said diversity is a no-brainer for companies looking to succeed. “I wonder where the business case is for non-diversity? That’s not something you hear people talking about,” she said.

“If you just pick female or male staff, you cut your potential capability by half. On any business case: if you start out thinking like that, you fail at your first step. Diversity is essential to ensuring you’ve got good robust views, insights, and creativity coming from all parts of your organisation.”

But boosting female contribution needs to be about more than the economic benefit it offers employers – it needs to be about the benefit it offers women, too.

South East Water’s Lucia Cade said if it is not, many women will simply leave. “When talented women don’t see a credible career path ahead of them in the organisation, they leave to find one elsewhere. That, or they create one themselves.”

First published in Current magazine August 2016.