Women leaders in PH’s water sector: Fishes out of water?

Shaira Panela
How long should we wait for gender equality in the water utilities sector – and is this the key towards water security?

WOMEN AND WATER. There are only a few women who are involved in the actual management of our planet's water resources, the Asian Development Bank says. Romeo Gacad/File/AFP

MANILA, Philippines – From 2002 to 2011, the number of women leaders in Maynilad, one of the biggest private water suppliers in the Philippines, grew from 14% to 19%.

Following this trend, should the country have to wait until 2068 – or at least 54 years – before it achieves gender equality in the water sector?

This is a question Rodora Gamboa posed during her talk at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Women, Water and Leadership Workshop on February 14 in Mandaluyong City.

“That’s the challenge. Would we wait for 2068 and do nothing? Or we want to do something and make it a little bit faster?” Gamboa, head of the Maynilad Water Academy, the training arm of the water concessionaire, said.

The 2013 ADB Water Outlook reported that 3 of every 4 nations in Asia Pacific, including the Philippines, lack water security not because of supply shortage but poor governance. The workshop, with representatives from different fields in the water sector from the government, the community, education, and civil organizations, focused on how women’s participation and leadership might affect the water security issue in the region.

Gamboa also saw a similar trend of women’s participation in Philippine political scene. From the 2004 until the 2013 elections, the number of females holding elective government offices grew from 45 to 84, or from 17% to 27%.

But the increase in number of women leading at least one of the biggest water concessionaires in the country is not without challenges.

General manager and chief executive officer roles are still seen as “a man’s job,” she said.

Moreover, “Women were perceived to have tendency to be less productive than men due to housework, taking care of babies, being pregnant and having periods,” said Gamboa.

Still a man’s job?

She herself faced criticisms from her male colleagues for being a woman when she led the Davao Water District, the biggest water district in the country, in 2011.

Gamboa said that eventually her leadership inspired other water districts to allow women to be appointed as general managers, engineers, among other professionals in Maynilad.

“I think it is a matter of someone doing it first and then everybody else will follow,” Gamboa said.

Gamboa also sees that some woman’s lack of confidence and support from their peers stops other women leaders from accepting a higher position in the company.

However, Gamboa said that there are still huge opportunities for women to step in the leadership positions in the water sector.

She said that people in the water utilities sector are already changing their mindset, and see women as co-equal in leading their field.

Meanwhile, ADB Senior Social Development Specialist Imrana Jalal commented that while the increasing number of women in Philippine politics gives the perception that women are being integrated into policymaking, she said that many sectors in the Philippines still lack female participation.

Jalal said that the labor force participation rate of females in the Philippines is one of the lowest in Southeast Asia at 49% to 51% from 2009 to 2013, according to the World Bank.

“One of the reasons of the findings, based on your labor force survey, is that 31% of women are engaged in care economy. Which is quite a remarkable figure,” Jalal said. Care economy refers to the “industry” where women takes care of the sick, elderly, and children in which their services can either be paid or unpaid.

More women leaders needed

In the same session titled “A fish out of water? Women’s leadership and Water Utilities,” Zailan Sharif from the Information Technology section of Ranhill Utilities in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, and Nino Abuladze of the United Water Supply Company of Georgia also shared their stories as women leaders in the water sector.

The three of them agreed that to be effective leaders, especially in the water sector, women needed to show they were as efficient as their male counterparts.

Gamboa said, “I would like to prove that what men do, women can do.”

“We will just be as efficient but the difference is that when women see communities having no water and they have to line up their buckets coming from a very far place, I feel for them as a woman,” she added.

However, Patricia Wouters, an international law expert based in China, said, “Women’s leadership compared from men’s leadership has been personal.”

She also called for more research on female participation in the workforce in Asia. These studies, Wouters added, should focus more on the female participation in leadership, and take into account the cultural factors which would have been different from the trends seen in the United States or Europe. – Rappler.com

(Editor’s Note: The correct title of the event was “Women, Water and Leadership Workshop,” not “Women, Water and Sanitation Workshop” as stated in an earlier version of this article. We apologize for the error.)

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