What if women ruled the world of water?

Water is one of our most precious resources. How we manage it matters. Despite some progress, the role of women in water decision-making remains marginal. Making the water sector more gender-balanced, and involving more women in water decision-making could help make water management more effective, more equitable and more sustainable.

Water matters for women and girls

Water is a critical driver for sustainable development, economic growth and social well-being. Access to clean water is key to good health, food security, and the functioning of any economic activity. Nevertheless, not everyone has access to safe drinking water and sanitation. According to UNWater, 26% of the world population does not use a safely managed drinking water service, while 46% does not use a safely managed sanitation service (such as via piped sewer systems). For many women and girls, this translates into income and schooling loss: in 25 sub-Saharan African countries, women spend 16 million hours collecting water in a single day, often at the expense of education or paid work. Expanding access to water and waste services could help therefore help secure a better future for millions of women and girls.

When women take charge of water, they make a difference

Women are increasingly taking the lead in public and private spheres where decisions on water take place, bringing a sharper focus on public health, as well as boosting trust and lowering income inequality. On average in OECD countries, as of 2020, women occupied more than 40% of positions as Ministers of Environment and National Focal Points for the United Nations Conventions, such as on climate change.

In response to increasing droughts and floods, female leaders are taking action: in Chile, the Minister of Environment Carolina Schmidt led new climate legislation, which obliges 101 basins to set up strategic plans to make the country more resilient against droughts. In France, Minister Barbara Pompili announced a 300 million euro fund in 2020 to renovate water networks to face both water scarcity and heavy rain.

At a local level, female mayors have often made access to water and sanitation a priority too. In Mexico City, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum committed USD 7.4 billion to give everyone access to drinking water by 2024. In February 2021, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, launched the Freetown-Blue Peace project to set up 40 water kiosks and 25 public toilets, particularly in informal settlements.

Evidence shows that promoting gender balance in the private sector pays dividends too. On average, companies with at least one female director generate 3.5% higher returns on equity than those with no women leaders, and companies with more than 20% of women in senior management perform 3.6% better financially than companies with fewer than 15% female managers. Evidence also suggests that increased female participation in corporate boards and senior management positions may not only help businesses grow but also improve their environmental outcomes, companies’ reputation and employee retention. More water companies are taking action as a result: the share of female workers in water utilities increased from 13% to 22% between 2011 and 2016. In fact, the top five water companies worldwide – including Veolia (France), Suez (France), American Water (US), Thames Water (UK), Severn Trent (UK) – are led by female CEOs.

In some parts of the world, less than half the population have access to sanitation services

Proportion of population using safely managed sanitation services (2020)

Source link: Indicator | SDG 6 Data

More women in water decision-making

Yet despite recent progress, women still make up less than one in every five paid workers in 64 water and sanitation utilities in 28 countries around the world. Those that are employed earn 24- 27% less than their male colleagues. Women also tend to be underrepresented in high-level public positions related to finance and infrastructure planning, which largely remain in the hands of men.

In the words of Nancy Pelosi at COP26 Gender Day in Glasgow in November 2021, “when women succeed, the world succeeds”. In the world of water, policymakers can help make this happen. First, governments at all levels can and should establish frameworks and regulations to address stereotypes and gender biases that hold back women’s progress to senior positions. Second, public funding should be contingent on action to promote gender equality. For example, the German International Climate Initiative, worth €4.5 billion, included gender justice as one of its guiding principles. Finally, women need access to the right support and networks, such as Women for Water Partnership (WfWP), which helps build skills, knowledge and opportunities.

The evidence on the benefits of having more women in water decision-making is flowing. Let us now turn a trickle into a torrent and let women flood the water world!


On 20 March 2022, at the women’s day of the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal, the OECD, in collaboration with WfWP, will present the OECD Women in Water Decision-Making project, which aims to provide evidence on women’s role in water governance processes and solutions on how to ensure greater involvement and effective leadership.


Policy Analyst at | Website | + posts

Oriana Romano is the Head of Unit, Water Governance and Circular Economy, Urban Policies, and Sustainable Development Division of the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. In 2018, she initiated a Programme on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, which supports governments in developing and implementing circular economy strategies. She heads the OECD Water Governance programme, which she joined in 2013. Before the OECD, she was university lecturer in Environmental Economics at the “Centre for International Business and Sustainability”(CIBS), London Metropolitan University (London, United Kingdom) and the Department of Social Science of the University “L’Orientale”(Naples, Italy). She currently teaches “The Transition to the Carbon Neutral and Circular Economy in Cities ”at Sciences Po, Paris, France. She holds a Ph.D in “Institution, Economics and Law of Public Services”.

Steering Committee Women for Water Partnership (WfWP) | + posts

Boleslawa M. Witmer (Dutch, 1954): Steering Committee Women for Water Partnership (WfWP), advocacy lead. Represents IFBPW and WfWP to CSW, HLPF, UNESCO, UNEA, UNECE, UN Water. Elected NL women representative to the UN CSD twice.

Vice-president of IWRA; former chair committee IFBPW on sustainable development; former advisor Netherlands to the commission on sustainable development. Strategic group member of WWQA and member of the UNESCO WWAP water and gender working group.

Independent senior advisor: equality and participation, human resources; Sustainable Development policies; water governance, advocacy.

Degrees in Human Resource and General Management, studied western sociology and (international and labor) law.

Policy analyst at | + posts

Melissa  Kerim-Dikeni works as a Policy Analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as part of the Water Governance and Circular Economy Unit. At the OECD, Melissa is working on the OECD/UCLG-Africa Roundtable of African Mayors for Water Security and the Women in Water Decision-Making Programme. Mélissa has been working in the sustainability field for the past 5 years with various organisations (ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, GIZ, United Nations, etc). She is a lawyer (Parisian bar) and she is exploring the governance of just energy transition as part of her PhD.