Emerging findings on gender and decision making in sanitation public bodies

Themes: Gender Sanitation

This International Women’s Day, we are sharing some emerging findings from a research project to show how in sanitation, an equal world is an enabled world.

For International Women’s Day last year, we wrote about a new research project examining the gender split of staff in Kenyan sanitation public institutions. These include utilities, government bodies and training institutes. Researchers at Athena Infonomics are now reaching the end of the project, which you can read more about here. But before going into some of the emerging findings…

Elizabeth Wairumu, a beneficiary of WSUP’s partnership with the social initiative Life Bloom in Kenya.

Why is this an important issue?

Firstly, organisations that provide essential public goods like water and sanitation need to deliver services for everyone. If the people providing products and services aren’t actively considering the different requirements of their users, then life will be harder for pregnant people, menstruating women and girls, the elderly, people looking after small children, and disabled people. Increasing staff diversity can guard against providing ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions – which tend to prioritise able-bodied men.

Secondly, organisations like utilities need to adapt to serve growing and changing populations. Modern utilities don’t just provide pipes, taps and treatment plants; they are evolving and becoming more customer oriented. Utilities and other WASH organisations will need to have a body of staff that can respond to growing populations and climate change – if half of the population is dissuaded from working in a WASH-related company, then that company is unnecessarily missing out on a significant section of the labour market.

Thirdly, women holding executive positions are associated with strong company performance. Utilities that tap into this female labour force are more “profitable, competitive, sustainable and have a more dedicated and loyal workforce”. If utilities in countries like Kenya are to become financially sustainable, profitable and attractive to investors, women should be taking up key technical and decision-making roles.

So, what are the numbers?

The Global Gender Gap Index 2020 reports that only 15% of people working in engineering worldwide are women. In terms of water and sanitation provision, a recent World Bank report surveyed 64 water and sanitation utilities and found that less than 18% of the workforce was female, and less than one in four managerial or engineering staff were women. (For full transparency, nearly half of WSUP staff are women.)

However, there’s a gap in the literature. Research on the effect of gender-balanced company boards or executive leadership has looked at gender quotas in Europe and North America, not sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the research examining gender and WASH in sub-Saharan Africa tends to focus on women as beneficiaries of water and sanitation projects, rather than on those taking part in higher-level discussions about how to provide water and sanitation. The lack of literature portrays a clear geographic bias.

For a summary literature review, see the Policy Brief.

It’s not that women aren’t interested in these kinds of technical and decision-making roles – many of the people WSUP work with every day in utilities are women. But questions remain on whether women are sufficiently attracted to the water and sanitation sector in the first place, and once they’re working in the WASH sector, are they supported to stay in WASH and to progress up the corporate ladder?

Who’s making these decisions in Kenya?

The first phase of the research project entailed mapping the staff of six public sector sanitation institutions in Kenya according to gender. Institutions mapped included an official water and sanitation service provider (Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Co.), governmental bodies at national and county level (Kiambu County Water Department and the Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation), the Kenya Water Institute, the Water Sector Trust Fund, and the national regulator WASREB. While not an exhaustive survey of every single person working in sanitation in the whole country, it’s a valuable dataset that we’ve not had before.

For more information on findings from this mapping phase, see the Policy Brief.

In these organisations, the average female representation across ‘top-level’ employees was 37%, with corporate leadership roles particularly uneven. ‘Top-level’ here means a role akin to a board director, CEO, COO, heads of institute, heads of department, and managerial heads that lead specific activities.

Eldah Odongo is the Customer Care Manager and Acting Head of Corporate Affairs and Communication at Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company.

Three barriers identified

This project doesn’t just aim to count people – we want to know more about what could be blocking women from taking on decision-making roles in sanitation as Kenya aims to achieve Vision 2030 and the SDGs.

To gather richer data, researchers arranged in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with male and female staff in each of the six focus institutions, as well as other relevant organisations that work in either sanitation or on gender-related issues, like UNICEF, the Kenya Water and Sanitation Civil Societies Network (KEWASNET), the Gender Equality Committee and the Ministry of Public Health.

This qualitative data will be analysed together with information gathered through an online survey completed by staff within the six focus institutions.

While analysis of the data is not yet complete, in our initial findings we have identified three main factors that could be disadvantaging Kenyan women in these careers:

Educational attainment: lack of role models in technical fields. Being told that maths and science were not suitable for girls, teasing at school about pursuing a technical career – all these were cited as reasons that fewer women than men were entering the technical WASH labour force.

Tradition and cultural expectations: particularly around parenthood, with women required to take the lead at home and in caring for other family members. Being primary caregiver to young children meant that many female respondents felt they could not take on field assignments or travel to conferences.

Networking opportunities and role models in institutions: many female respondents reported that their male colleagues benefitted from professional networks that they did not have access to, particularly as they were discouraged from attending evening social activities.

Beyond policies and into practice

Analysis is not yet complete so we can’t make any concrete judgements yet – but it is interesting that most of the organisations included in this research have HR policies, sexual harassment policies and paid maternity leave, and many employees have the option to arrange some kind of flexible working hours (although the latter is at the discretion of managers rather than a standardised practice).

Despite this, the gender mapping of senior staff and some of the qualitative data seem to still be pointing to issues that are hard to eradicate through organisational policies alone. Some of these emerging barriers to women’s full participation in senior decision-making roles in sanitation are hard to pin down definitively – but perceptions about how you are treated are crucial, particularly when it comes to making important decisions about your life and your career.

On a fundamental level, people should be able pursue their professional goals without impediment, regardless of sex or any other characteristic.

Next steps

When the research has been finalised, the results will be used to form recommendations for short- and long-term actions for the public sector institutions themselves, as well as the institutional framework which governs how they interact with other organisations, civil society and NGOs. This is just a starting point. The research will provide valuable contributions towards the growing push to highlight the importance of diversifying and strengthening sanitation service providers.

Blog written by Rosie Renouf (WSUP Research & Policy Manager). This research is being delivered by Athena Infonomics, and the lead researcher is Zachary Burt.

Further reading

Athena Infonomics (August 2019). ‘Barriers to Women Adopting Decision-Making Roles in Sanitation-Related Public Bodies and Attitudinal Differences between Male and Female Decision-Makers: Literature Review’. Urban Sanitation Research Initiative Kenya, WSUP.

Criado Perez C (2019) Invisible women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Chatto and Windus

International Water Association (2014) ‘An avoidable crisis: WASH human resource capacity gaps in 15 developing economies’.

International Water Association (2016) ‘The untapped resource: Gender and diversity in the water workforce’.

Kenya Integrated Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Project (March 2019). ‘Contributing to a gender-balanced WASH sector’. Blog, KIWASH USAID

Noland M, Moran T & Kotschwar B (Feb 2016) ‘Is gender diversity profitable? Evidence from a global survey’. Working Paper 16-3. Peterson Institute for International Economics

Social Institutions and Gender Index (2019). Kenya datasheet. OECD Development Centre

Thompson K, O’Dell K, Syed S & Kemp H (23 Jan 2017) ‘Thirsty for change: the untapped potential of women in urban water management’. Deloitte Insights

World Bank (2019) ‘Women in water utilities: breaking barriers’.

World Economic Forum (2020). ‘Global Gender Gap Report 2020