The Other Half

Jan. 10, 2022

Women are vital to the growth & long-term viability of the water industry

About the author:

Andrea Scarpino is director of operations for The Novel Neighbor. Scarpino can be reached at [email protected]. Frank Brigano, Ph.D., is vice president and senior research fellow for Marmon Water Inc. Brigano can be reached at [email protected].  


It goes without saying that women are important members of the water industry and significantly contribute to the advancement of our businesses and technologies. Unfortunately, women are underrepresented in our industry. Some questions we must ask ourselves are: How do we increase the number of women in our industry? How do we promote and encourage the development of women? How do we promote women to leading roles in all corners of our industry?

Down to the Data 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor shows that our workforce is 57% women. While 40% of overall management roles are held by women, when you dig deeper in the data, you find that these management roles are in fields traditionally reserved for women, such as human resources (74%), medical and health services (72%), public relations and fundraising (71%), and social and community services (71%). Women still are not holding substantial management roles in traditionally male-dominated fields like the water industry. 

Though we do not have data for our industry, U.S. Census data reports that 95% of water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators are men, and the few women in these industries earn on average more than $11,000 less annually than their male counterparts. 

We know that globally, women are the main consumers and managers of household water. In fact, our industry’s marketing and sales campaigns often target women by promoting the benefits of healthy water for families, improving hair and skin, cleaner laundry, and even cleaner bathrooms and water fixtures. Though it is true that our industry’s water technologies bring these benefits, these marketing campaigns do little to attract women to build, own, or manage their own water improvement businesses or to join our manufacturing and technology teams.

Mentorship & Motivation

As leaders, we must encourage and mentor women to move from more traditionally women-dominated professions into leadership, management and business ownership positions in our industry. But the question remains: How do we do that?

First, we must move outside our box and use our resources and influences to promote global outreach to help women move beyond traditional roles. In many parts of the world, women are the main gatherers of water. The United Nations reports that women and girls are responsible for collecting water in 80% of households that have water off the premises. 

As just one example of the powerful benefit of increasing water access and security, a UNICEF study in Tanzania reported that reducing the time girls spent fetching water outside the home from 30 minutes to 15 minutes increased their school attendance by 12%. Having the opportunity to be in school longer and more frequently encourages substantial changes in a girl’s quality of life. As a result, she may have more access to better and more skilled work throughout her life. 

We also must actively work to enable professional growth and educational opportunities for women. This begins in childhood by instilling in our daughters that they can be whatever they want to be in life, promoting positive self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence, and actively resisting stereotyping. 

We also must encourage girls to pursue education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as in business. This may seem obvious, but we still have a long way to go in reaching gender equality in STEM fields. For example, Australia reports that less than one in five senior researchers in Australian Universities are women, one in 10 are engineers, and women make up only 27% of the STEM workforce. 

As a scientist and father, Frank Brigano, vice president and senior research fellow for Marmon Water Inc., encourages education in STEM by participating in school events such as science fairs and educating kids on the importance of protecting our water environment. As a young girl, Andrea Scarpino had her own microscope and microorganism coloring book, and once tested water samples—with her father’s help—for a school project. 

We must demonstrate the advantages and benefits of being a member of our industry by highlighting the global health importance of the work we do. We improve quality of life, sometimes substantially, through providing access to clean and safe drinking water. Highlighting these benefits, particularly for women and girls globally, will draw more women into our industry and grow their participation in all areas of water quality management. 

We must encourage and promote the hiring of women. A now-famous study from 2000 (Goldin and Rouse) found that holding symphony orchestra auditions behind a screen so that the hiring team could not see the gender of the person auditioning increased the likelihood that a woman would advance from the preliminary round of auditions by 50%. This type of anonymous hiring process highlights the importance of fair and equitable hiring practices. Hiring managers must be committed to hiring women at an equal rate and for an equal pay as they hire men. Men must not fear the #metoo movement, but should embrace the opportunities this movement creates. 

Women currently in leadership roles also must do more to hire qualified women and mentor them to advance. Of course, hiring and mentoring women is not strictly a role for other women; men also have the obligation to participate. Men must not be hesitant to hire or work for a woman. 

Brigano’s first position out of college was working for a research director who was a woman. She was one of the best managers he has ever had because she understood how to mentor and help employees grow. He has been grateful to her for the opportunities she provided; if not for these opportunities, he would not be in the water industry today.

Of course, college and advanced degrees are not prerequisites for success in our industry, but they often do help, and encouraging women to attend college, educating them about financial support opportunities, and mentoring them will increase the pipeline of talented female employees. 

Lastly, women in leadership positions—whether in business, technical positions or other leadership roles—must serve as role models. A lack of visibility of women leaders can stifle a child’s desire to seek out and excel in roles that are non-traditional for their gender. All children benefit when they see women in leadership positions from an early age and are encouraged to excel in historically non-traditional subjects. Helping women leaders serve as role models may include featuring more women in industry publications, making a concerted effort to include women in speaking roles at conferences and industry meetings, supporting women in their publishing endeavors, encouraging women to speak at science fairs and hiring more women STEM teachers. 

Industry Initiatives

The efforts undertaken by the Water Quality Assn.’s Women in Industry (WIN) Advisory Council are commendable and a great step in working to eradicate gender disparity in our industry. These initiatives and conversations should be present in all industries. However, the WIN Advisory Council is just one step in a long movement towards equality in our labor force, society and homes. It should be supported with many more similar initiatives. We encourage every member of the water industry to find ways to increase the participation of women, grow our female workforce, promote women to leadership positions, support women-owned water businesses and work towards true gender equality in our industry. 

We believe that gender equity in the water industry will lead to continued innovation and advancement while improving the lives of women globally. We also believe that as we work to include more women in all aspects of the water industry, we must work to equally represent people from many different racial and ethnic groups. We must continue to support the equal rights of all people to advance in our society. Our commitment to a melting pot of peoples, cultures and ideas is what has made and continues to make our country a leader and innovator in the world. 

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