Women in the Water and Wastewater Industry

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Women in the Water and Wastewater Industry

Posted on 6 March 2018 by Nadia Koukoui
Posted in FluksAqua Community, Water and wastewater community,

As a woman working in the water industry, I have been wondering what draws other women to this exciting field. How many are we? How do we impact the industry?

For me, the spark occurred after graduating from Engineering School some time ago and embarking on a solo 3-month backpacking trip across South America and later Africa. Back then I had no intentions of pursuing a career in the Environmental Sciences or in the water sector, Aerospace was where it was at. So I left on my trip with only one pair of pants, a few shirts, my sandals and little bit of money I had earned from a previous summer internship. As a young adult, this trip was an eye opener on many levels, including the disparity in accessibility to water resources and to safe drinking water. Coming from a large city in Canada where water is abundant and one only needs to turn on their tap or flush the toilet and voilà! It saddened me to see families having to do rainwater harvesting, and to tap into water pipes illegally just to be able to take a shower and cook food. Fast Forward a few years, and a few professional experiences in water and sanitation, hydrology, and flood management, I now work as Director of Partnerships & Community Engagement at FluksAqua, an online collaborative platform for water and wastewater professionals. Each year, I present our platform at several industry events where the level of female attendance remains quite low. So to help answer my questions; What draws other women to this exciting field? How many are we? What roles do we have? How do we impact the industry? I conducted a survey with women who work in the water industry.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 7.5% of Water & wastewater treatment plant & system operators were women in 2015. In British Columbia and the Yukon, the Environmental Operator Certification Program reports that women account for less than 13% of the water sector workforce and the numbers are even lower for operator and supervisor positions (EOCP 2016). However AWWA’s 2017 State of the Water Industry unveiled reports an interesting change with respect to previous years: 24 percent of survey respondents were female, with “only 7 percent of [survey] respondents over age 65 were women, but (…) women outnumbered men for those 25 and younger.” In contrast, approximately three quarters of households in sub-Saharan Africa collect water from a source away from their home, and 50% to 85% of the time women are responsible for this task (UNESCO, 2016).

UMkhuze Game Reserve, South Africa

Survey: women in water and wastewater utilities

I conducted a 10-question survey with 58 female respondents primarily from Canada and the United States, occupying varied roles such as water and/or wastewater operators, lab technicians, plant supervisors, managers, directors,  engineers and consultants.

“I oversee the day to day operations at the water plant.

“I produce safe, pleasant tasting drinking water.

“I am responsible for the design of wastewater/water treatment systems.

“I handle cross connection control and head up efforts to reduce non-revenue water.

“I oversee 7 Wastewater facilities for compliance and optimization.

“I’m the Chief Operator at an 8 MGD wastewater plant with 8 Operators that report to me.

“I support water and wastewater operations to help them remain in compliance with all environmental regulations.

“I oversee construction projects for operations – 14 projects presently.

“After 16 years as an operator, lab director, plant manager, I decided to start my own business. I work on electrical controls for water and wastewater plants and I also perform yearly calibrations for laboratory equipment.


Proportion of women in the workplace

Close to thirty percent of respondents said they have been working in this industry for over 20 years. However, when asked “What is the proportion of women at your current workplace?” a third responded that they were the only woman in their workplace.

What draws women to pursue a career in the water sector

A passion for water, the environment and our public health

For a majority of respondents, their passion for water and interest in protecting our environment is what led them to pursue a career in the water industry. Many also said they always had a strong interest for science, especially mathematics, biology and chemistry.

“I always knew I wanted to do something environmental, my mom used to think that one day I would run away, join Greenpeace and chain myself to a tree. When I was looking into post secondary education I was intrigued by a program called environmental monitoring. Throughout my time in college I was given the opportunity to work in a handful of different environmental monitoring scenarios as well as 3 different WT [water treatment] plants. I fell in love with water and everything that comes with treatment, and from that moment on I started chasing my dream of being the best WT operator I could be.”

Other reasons given to pursue a career in the water industry were that jobs [at water treatment facilities] are recession proof and offer good benefits. Others had family members who already worked in the field, and some just fell into it and never looked back. Some lived through tragedies and decided to take action.

“I was born in Walkerton, ON where in the year 2000, 2500 people became ill and seven people died from improperly treated drinking water. I pursued a career in the water industry to make sure this never happens again. I am trying to transition into a career doing water/wastewater community outreach and public awareness initiatives.”


Kim Zuniga, Wastewater Operator II, Village of Point Edward WPCP, Ontario, Canada
Photo credit Steve Roberts, Fellow Operator

Improvements to the workplace

When asked What improvements could be made to improve your workplace? Several respondents felt that their workplace was just fine and that nothing needed to change. Others however suggested that better training and career progression opportunities were lacking.

“Operators need to learn about their own facilities, learn about new technologies, and study for certification exams. Too many employers push all of this into the operator’s off-duty hours. What they don’t realize is that they benefit from the new skills and insights their operators acquire. It’s pretty tough to pick up a book and study after a 9 or 12 hour shift.

Women also mentioned technology upgrades, better communication and respect, a better work life balance with flexible schedules as well as better uniforms and safety gear. Several pointed to a sexist boy’s club attitude in their workplace, and having to prove themselves more than their male counterparts.

“Changes are on going, I think it’s great seeing more and more women in this field. Our current plant sees no difference in male or female operators.”


More women in the water sector. What impact?

Several respondents do no think that there would be any significant impact to having more women in the water sector; not on service delivery or water consumption either.

“I think work quality is the same. A woman is not better or worse than a man, that depends on the individual regardless of gender. I do think it is important to have diverse staff and women are underrepresented in this field.

Others believe a greater number of women would improve their workplace, in terms of cleanliness and organization but also in terms of communication and efficiency. Some answered that more women would open the doors for others to follow and would balance the skills and talents.

Women tend to be more focussed on building consensus. By inviting more opinions, we often end up with better solutions to all kinds of problems.”


Advice to newbies

When asked What would be your advice to women who are thinking about joining the water and wastewater sector? Respondents were close to unanimous by saying Do it! We need more women in the field. It is fascinating and rewarding but know that you will need to grow a thick skin and work hard.

Do it. Wastewater is an opportunity to become rooted in your community, to make people’s lives better on a daily basis, to protect the environment, and to have a huge amount of control over your work environment. There are few industries that will challenge you as much as water and wastewater. There are even fewer that will pay as well. Water and wastewater treatment is something you can be proud of at the end of every day.

Grow a thick skin; be prepared to be twice as good to be thought of as equal. Do it. Many of us in the field are aging and there’s a real need to hire and train younger people.”


Women in leadership roles

Despite an underrepresentation of women in the water industry, women around the world occupy key leadership positions when it comes to managing this precious resource. From developing and implementing water policies to conserve and safeguard water resources, to managing large utilities to deliver safe drinking water to millions of people, women are playing an important role in the availability and management of water.


Nancy Kodousek past-President at CWWA (left), Diana Tao President at CWWA (right)

Photo credit: Robert Haller, CEO at CWWA


The following list shows how women around the world are active leaders in the water and environmental sectors, whether it be in the political arena, leading large utilities, or directing industry associations.


Women and politics

  • -Cora van Nieuwenhuizen, Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management, The Netherlands
  • -Nomvula Mokonyane, Minister of Water and Sanitation, South Africa
  • -Germaine Kamayirese, Minister of Energy, Water and Sanitation, Rwanda
  • -Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Canada


Women and water utilities

  • -Susan Story, CEO of American Water
  • -Sue Murphy, CEO of the Water Corporation, Western Australia
  • -Marie-Ange Debon, Deputy CEO of Suez
  • -Cathryn Ross, CEO of Ofwat, UK
  • -Jacqueline Hinman, CEO of CH2M
  • -Cindy Wallis-Lage, President of Black & Veatch’s water business.


Women and industry associations

  • -Brenda Lennox, American Water and Wastewater Association President
  • -Diana Tao, Canadian Water and Wastewater Association President
  • -Diane D’arras, International Water Association President


Adapted from Global Water Intelligence 2015, The top 20 women in water.


Interview with Nancy Kodousek, Director of Water Services

I interviewed Nancy Kodousek past President for the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA) from 2016 to 2017, and current Director of Water Services for the Region of Waterloo, Canada. Nancy Kodousek started her career in wastewater in the city of Ottawa at a time when there was significant construction activity at the plant, and many opportunities for progressive management. She was a Manager for several years before being recruited into her current role as Director of Water Services. In this leadership role, Kodousek oversees activities in seven key areas: 1) drinking water treatment and supply (distribution system responsibility is by local municipalities), 2) wastewater treatment, 3) water efficiency, 4) hydrogeology and source protection, 5) environmental enforcement, 6) engineering and planning 7) finance and administration.

Kodousek says that her past role as CWWA President was also about leadership and commitment to the successful progress of CWWA in the future. With the CWWA board she helped to promote a vision of the common interests in the Canadian water and wastewater sector. They successfully hosted events such as the Window on Ottawa and the National Conference, with workshops on climate change and the future.


Koukoui: What opportunities are there to attract more women to the field?

Kodousek: “Historically, working in the municipal sector was not an exciting industry, but things have changed. We need to attract more skilled people to the industry. You can have a real impact on your community by delivering safe water and you can contribute to having a healthy city and environment by making a lake or creek safer. Careers in the water sector allows for a nice work-life balance as well as for training and career development opportunities, as long as you are committed to continuous improvement. At the Region of Waterloo, supervisors meet with their staff on a regular basis to develop a career plan. It is important to have a good discussion between the individual and their supervisor to develop a career plan that fits within the individuals overall goals and workload. Part of being a good supervisor is managing workload and knowing what one can and can’t accomplish.”

Koukoui: What would be your advice to women who are thinking about joining the water and wastewater sector?

Kodousek: The water industry is a small industry. It is important to develop and maintain relationships. Go to industry events and join committees with the CWWA or other agencies to keep abreast of what is happening in the industry. Some individuals call to say “I just graduated and I don’t know how to get a job”. Well you have to do your research and get involved with young professional groups. There are many ways to get into the industry. The first job you get might not be your dream job but you have to look for opportunities and try to make a career plan. Think of what type of skills you are building in that position: are you team building, problem-solving, and are those skills the ones that will lead you to the next career step?

Koukoui: What water-related issues are likely to have a greater impact on women, if any?

Kodousek: Women are users of water for everyday use, so we can think of ways to conserve water. As a grandmother, how do we use water, how can we conserve it, and how can we be more sustainable? And as a parent, can we teach our children to preserve our water resources. We can recognize how important water is.


A passion for water

It is great to see initiatives such as the International Water Association’s Women in Water Award which rewards and celebrates the leadership of women in the field of water. Dr. Rose Kaggwa, Director of Business and Scientific Services with the Uganda National Water and Sewerage Corporation was the recipient of the 2016 IWA Women in Water Award.

Overall, passion seems to be the common trait of women working in the water sector. Can this passion be passed onto the next generation? It seems to already be the case seeing the trend reported by the AWWA which reveals  a growing number of young women joining the water and wastewater sector.




About the author

Nadia Koukoui is passionate about water, people and bikes. She actively supports the FluksAqua community of practice by engaging with members and industry partners.

To connect with Nadia, share your comments, feedback, or if you would like to suggest a blog topic you can send her an email her at contact@fluksaqua.com

Nadia est une passionnée du domaine de l'eau qui s'engage activement auprès de la communauté de pratique.

Communiquez avec Nadia à contact@fluksaqua.com pour tout commentaires, suggestions ou si vous êtes intéressé à partager un article de blogue.