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July 2017, Vol. 12, No.


Wanted: More Women in STEM!
Promoting Gender Equality at the Water Authority of Fiji
By Imrana Jalal
The women of the Water Authority of
“We must
Fiji (WAF) are making waves in the encourage women,
water sector, taking on jobs that used to
be closed to women.
we must encourage
That’s no surprise to workplace
girls.” !
WAF CEO Opetaia Ravai
pioneers like Nanise Tuwai. “I am used
to being a minority in engineering
circles,” says the WAF engineer who
happens to be the only “Water
Modeler” in Fiji. Her comments are
echoed by Shomal Narayan and Sonam
Lata, two other “WAF women.” The trio
are part of the approximately 12%
female WAF staff, and women continue
to be minorities at universities and Shomal Narayan is breaking ground as a Process Engineer in the water sector.
technical schools where the gender
imbalance is especially evident in the A dearth of women in STEM and The quality of leadership at the top levels
fi e l d s o f s c i e n c e , t e c h n o l o g y, water management of management is critical to creating an
engineering and math (STEM): Tuwai enabling environment that allows
was the only female in a class of 30. The lack of female water professionals
females to thrive.
can be partially attributed to cultural
If it weren’t for the opportunity of a attitudes, social norms, and historical The three women state that they work in
scholarship, Lata would have been and systemic gender discrimination. a supportive environment and that their
“washing dishes at home”, as she puts male colleagues and predominantly male
it, instead of studying water Sociocultural factors include an
management treat them as professionals
engineering. Lata’s career as a water unconscious bias toward a preference for
without gender discrimination.
engineer at WAF is even more male leadership, along with social norms
and cultural beliefs that women are In many technical positions, required
surprising, considering she initially
inflexible and inadequate leaders or field activities undertaken with male
wanted to be a dentist.
managers.1 colleagues, such as extensive travel and
Narayan, a graduate engineer, is also overnight stays, may deter women, given
breaking ground as a Process Engineer Attitudes at home make a significant
prevailing social norms and sociocultural
in the water sector. She received a impact on whether women venture into
attitudes. While fieldwork did initially
Bachelor’s degree in the hard sciences careers dominated by men. This
pose problems for the three women, they
at the University of the South Pacific in traditional and current male
worked around these obstacles through
Fiji. preponderance is due to gender
the support of understanding parents
stereotypes about women’s work and to
Women make up 12% of the overall staff and spouses.
the typically gender-segregated labor
at WAF (375 women out of 3126), while market – Fiji is no different from other On top of the challenges that are unique
they comprise about 4 % of the countries globally in this regard where to the sector, they also faced challenges
engineering and technical staff. occupations are generally heavily common to women workers everywhere
Notably, of the 375 women at WAF, 93 gender-segregated. What distinguishes —how to balance the interests of
of them are in engineering and technical these three WAF women is that they had spouses and partners, children, home
fields – thus about 25% of all females at unusually supportive parents who did not and family responsibilities, and how to
WAF are those in the engineering and see their entry into the non-traditional advance careers when time is at a
technical field. gender occupations as a barrier. premium.
! !

These factors, combined with the absence
of inspiring female role models, limited
mentoring opportunities, and the
challenges of maintaining a work-life A “Supermodel” of a Different
balance, are just some of the reasons that Kind: Nanise Tuwai, the First
explain the dearth of women in water
Water Modeler in the Pacific
leadership positions.2
Earning a better income was cited as a
major factor that attracted women to the “I changed my heels for boots.”
water sector. This is a good enough reason With this powerful statement, Nanise
to motivate women to aspire to the jobs Tuwai proves that breaking the glass ceiling
traditionally held by men. Economic and shifting within the “sticky floors” of
Nanise Tuwai downloads data from a data logger in
empowerment is a major shaper of overall Suva gender-segregated employment, is a real
gender equality.
 possibility, even in small economies like
Fiji. In so doing, she paves the way for
cultural gender barriers and unconscious opening possibilities for younger women in
Proactively promoting gender bias against these subjects in the the water sector.
balance at WAF psychology of young girls rooted in social .
“I never thought I would end up as a water
Undoubtedly, a very limited number of
“I changed my
lawyer,” says Ligairi Talei, the legal
manager at WAF – one of 13 managers – women water professionals—engineers,
water technicians, environment
heels for boots”!
and she is possibly the only specialized
infrastructure lawyer in Fiji. As Fiji specialists, and scientists—are qualified
and ready to fill professional positions in Tuwai describes her heels-for-boots
produces more lawyers, specialization in a
the water sector. Gender streaming and journey as “remarkable.” Starting as an
niche area makes sense in many ways,
stereotyping in secondary education attaché (intern) at WAF, through time,
though the learning curve was very steep
continues to steer girls away from STEM h a r d w o r k , a n d WA F - s u p p o r t e d
for Talei to specialize in the water sector. professional development – especially in
She admits that the work-life balance can and medical studies at university, hence
modeling the water reticulation network at
be challenging as the mother of two young few women emerge with the qualifications Hunter Water in Australia – she became
children. Like Tuwai, Talei lives with her required for future employment the Team Leader of a predominantly male
in-laws, suggesting that the Pacific style of opportunities as water professionals. Even team that digs and verifies pipe pressures
extended family living can be a major technical, vocational educational and and water flows for water-modeling
training programs that train water purposes.
advantage to women who wish to pursue
careers in difficult non-traditional sectors. technicians tend to be highly gender- !
segregated.3 Tuwai had initially considered a career in
Major hurdles to improving the gender medicine but a college career expo helped
“WAF is a strong advocate for gender changed her mind and she enrolled in civil
balance in STEM subjects are the equality. We not only talk about it, we engineering instead. Tuwai graduated with
socio-cultural gender barriers and implement it through our recruitment, our both a Diploma and an Advanced Diploma
promotions, our training, and even to the in Civil Engineering and is currently
unconscious bias against these completing her Bachelor’s degree. Not
extent we put it in our policy,” says Ravai.
subjects ! only is she the first female WAF employee
To honor the role of female employees and to become a Project Leader (Team Leader

 institutional gender mainstreaming at Water Network Modelling), but is also the
“We need to be proactive in encouraging WAF, it inaugurated the “Best Women first person in the Pacific Island countries
young women to consider engineering or Water Professional of the Year” award in to become proficient in water modeling.
technical careers at WAF,” says Chief 2016, with the first ever recipient being the !
Executive Officer Opetaia Ravai who is WAF female Team Leader, Tuwai of the Tuwai credits both her spouse, and
enthusiastic and supportive about Water Network Modeling unit. mother-in-law who lives with them, for
increasing the numbers of female water providing vital domestic support for her to
professionals. If they are qualified and WAF also established a Water Champions pursue her studies and ambitions.
program in 2014 to raise awareness with Although she misses her four-year old son
prepared to work hard, he does not
schools, communities, and private sector when she has to work or study late, she
envisage any obvious WAF institutional
businesses to promote water conservation does not feel guilty about this and rightly
barriers to advancement. sees no reason why she should.
and encourage young women to consider
“We must encourage women, we must engineering careers. On 24 April 2017,
encourage girls. This year (2017) we will In a quirk of feminist fate, a female water
WAF received the international Water professional who had inspired Tuwai to
be going to universities and high schools Leaders Distinction Award at the Global reach for the stars was Kristina Karavasili
to try and encourage young girls to choose Water Intelligence 2017 Global Water formerly of the Asian Development Bank
a career at WAF,” he says, clearly Awards. (ADB) who had been attached to WAF for
understanding that the main challenge lies a year. This underscores the importance of
in getting girls to undertake studies and “Missing women” in water sector having female mentors and role models.
training in STEM so there is a pipeline for leadership is due mainly to the scarcity of
careers in the water sector. However, women water professionals, die-hard !
Sources: Water Authority of Fiji, Press Release, February 2017;
major hurdles to improving the gender cultural and traditional attitudes, gender interview by Imrana Jalal, WAF headquarters, Nasinu, Fiji, 21

balance in STEM subjects are the socio- stereotyping, and beliefs that women April 2017

Included in this groundbreaking Fiji
gender mainstreaming water project are
gender designs that promote women’s
employment opportunities and
economic security through infrastructure
development and upgrading. The
program will advertise new project-
related jobs with a statement
encouraging women to apply; ensure that
at least 30% of new roles or additional
staff are women; promote women’s
employment across higher-skill and
technical roles and provide on-the-job
training as needed; earmark at least 30%
of new field-based positions, e.g., meter
reading, for women; and ensure women’s
Sonam Lata is part of the approximately 12% female WAF staff. If it weren’t for a scholarship, she wages are paid directly to them. It will
says she’d be “washing dishes at home.”
promote the professional advancement
of women staff by ensuring at least 30%
women inherently lack managerial and to bridge the gender gap in the water
female participants in training on
technical skills. While no single factor can sector through a project Gender Action
accounting, utility management,
adequately explain the lack of women in Plan (GAP) with targeted gender designs.
technical and project, and sector
water governance, policymaking, and The GAP includes assistance to WAF to
management-related skills training.
water agencies, it is likely that a develop strategies to increase the number
Several other gender designs require
combination of factors keep women at the of women employed in technical and
WAF to promote and monitor gender
margins of water leadership. This is
develop strategies to increase the number equality principles and practices as well
despite the fact that companies with
of women employed in technical and as the status of women within WAF using
greater gender diversity in their leadership
management roles and to increase tailored guidelines and tools.
teams outperform those with lesser
women’s economic opportunities in the
diversity—often by as much as 30%.4 Projects such as UWSWMIP are critical
water supply and wastewater management
in addressing the gender gaps in the
! sector.
water sector. Women leaders are needed
Commitment to gender Quantitative targets in the GAP include at all levels of society, in water utilities,
mainstreaming earmarking at least 25% of unskilled labor government water agencies, and
contracts in project-generated international and regional water
The strong regional commitment of the
infrastructure works for women, a 30% institutions to reduce the democratic
Asian Development Bank (ADB) to
target for women’s employment, and gender gap in water leadership.
gender equality and WAF ’s local
ensuring that 50% of participants in all
commitment to gender mainstreaming Technical skills in the water sector are
public consultations and sewage
coincided in a Green Climate Fund- needed to feed the pipeline for female
connection activities are women. The
financed project, the ADB-funded Urban leadership.
GAP will ensure at least 30% women’s
Wa t e r S u p p l y a n d Wa s t e w a t e r !
representation on related planning teams
M a n a g e m e n t Inve s t m e n t Prog ra m
that address the design and development Disclaimer: The Asian Development Bank provides
(UWSWMIP).5 The program will help
of d i s t r i c t m e t e r i n g a n d d e m a n d the information contained in this article, its Gender
deliver vital urban infrastructure and Network Newsletter, and links to its web site solely
management plans.
services to support water supply and as a resource. While ADB tries to provide high-
sanitation in the greater Suva area. WAF quality content on its web site, it does not guarantee
the accuracy, reliability, or timeliness of this
was selected by ADB from over 500
information; and therefore, will not be liable in any
utilities in Asia and the Pacific region to capacity for damages or losses to the user that may
undertake the Aqua Rating Benchmarking result from the use of this information. ADB and its
exercise that includes addressing the affiliate offices, likewise, will not be responsible for
Suva-Nausori Water Supply system and 3 any errors, omissions, or inadvertent alterations that
may occur in the disclosure of content in this article,
will improve water supply for almost
the newsletter, or on its web site.
400,000 people, including more than 50%
women who will benefit from decreased
time poverty. Women are the main users
of domestic water supply and bear the
main brunt of water-related illnesses and Notes:

the domestic burden of caring for the sick 1 I. Jalal. 2014. Women, Water and Leadership. ADB Briefs. No. 24.

Manila: ADB
and elderly. 2 ibid.
3 ibid.

The ADB-supported WAF project is 4 I. Jalal. 2015. The Stupid Curve: Asia’s Missing Women Leaders.

categorized as an Effective Gender leaders; McKinsey & Company. 2015. Diversity Ma>ers.
5 ADB. 2016. Mul@tranche Financing Facility to Republic of Fiji for
Mainstreaming project under ADB’s Shomal Narayan at the Namau Water Treatment Urban Water Supply and Wastewater Management Investment
Program. Manila.
gender mainstreaming system. It attempts Plant in Tailevu