Women in Water: Perspectives from Three Leaders

What is it like to be a woman working in the water sector? While much of the corporate world has woken up to the need to meaningfully commit to diversity and inclusion, women still face barriers in the workplace, from navigating biases to taking on executive roles.

We connected with three established leaders from XPV’s network – Ellen R. Gaby, Chief Commercial Officer, Axius Water, Debra Coy, Advisor, XPV Water Partners, and Karyn Georges, Managing Director, Isle Utilities – to learn about their own journeys in the water industry and ask how they believe the sector needs to change.

What was your first role in the water industry? What was it like?

Ellen Gaby: For my first job in the 1980s, I landed a sales role at a water company. Times were different; it wasn’t common for women to represent companies. The company hired me on a “test case” for a year. While I was really excited about this opportunity to make a difference, the world was possibly not ready for me to make a difference – so the company also hired a man and decided to evaluate our performance at the end of the year. Long story short, I outsold my colleague. I’ve been at this ever since.

Debra Coy: Like a lot of people do, I fell into the water industry. I trained as a journalist and worked for an investment research group that was looking at the industry. At the time, Margaret Thatcher had just privatized utilities in the UK. When I complained to my boss about my junior administrative position, he supported me and suggested I learn about how the sector was changing. Through this work, I became an investment research analyst. Being a woman in that company was not an issue; it made a huge difference to have a supportive mentor.

Karyn Georges: I worked in an environmental monitoring team at a water company. It was long hours and hard work, but it was brilliant, and I felt fortunate to get that job straight out of university. The department I worked for was pretty evenly split between men and women. Outside of our team, though, things were a bit different. When I had to visit field sites, for instance, men were sometimes surprised to see a woman in their workplaces. They’d offer to carry boxes and open doors. But I always felt more than capable in my role, and it was important to me to show them that I could do the work.

What are some of the barriers and challenges for women who play (or want to play) a leadership role in the water sector?

Debra Coy: As a leader in the water and investment worlds, I’ve often felt that I’ve had to work twice as hard as the guy next to me to get the same amount of respect and money. It feels like things are beginning to change. We’re seeing more women entrepreneurs, more women in local government, and more women in municipal water utilities. Women are taking up leadership positions in the sector. It’s pretty exciting. At the same time, as in many industries, it can be challenging for women to move into leadership roles and also have families. As my women colleagues had families, I saw many of them leave their jobs entirely. Most men don’t face the same challenges. There’s still a lot of work to be done here.

Karyn Georges: To a certain degree, you have to make your own path. When I started in this sector, in most meetings I could easily be the only female in the room. I had very few role models. As more women have come to the sector, that’s gotten better, but it’s still quite unusual to see older women in a water company meeting.

What are some opportunities to get more women into senior positions? Are you aware of any specific and successful initiatives?

Debra Coy: It’s a good question. I see a lot of token support – women’s networking events at conferences, for example – but not much formal programming to support women moving into executive roles. A few of the big companies, like Danaher, for example, have defined programs within their operations. For the most part, however, women who have been successful in this sector have done it by themselves. Designing these programs should be more about understanding why we want diversity rather than checking a box. It’s good for companies; it’s not charity for women.

Karyn Georges: There are loads of things we can do – everything from addressing gender bias in job adverts to educating our teams on gender bias and diversity. It’s easy to keep promoting people who are carbon copies of yourself. Rather, we need to think about the diverse range of skills and backgrounds we really need to move into the future and figure out how to attract people with those skills. Mentorship is important, too. In the UK we have the Womens Utilities Network, which offers mentorship opportunities and addresses diversity across utilities.

How can the current industry support women in their journey?

Ellen Gaby: We can provide opportunities to convene, discuss our challenges, and offer support for moving forward. At one company I worked for, we had a panel of women who represented our company in different countries. We got together once a month to mentor each other, discuss what the future should look like, and give constructive opportunities to navigate the business. Global organizations could help to do something similar across the sector.

Debra Coy: Visibility is important. We need to make diversity and education part of our industry’s dialogue, everywhere. We need to hear more from the companies who are doing things to make it happen. And we need to draw upon women leaders who have “made it” to support these efforts.

Karyn Georges: We need to address people’s needs. We need genuine, honest policies for workplaces that accommodate different people.

What does inclusivity across the industry look like to you?

Ellen Gaby: In our industry, we need to be able to serve every kind of person. Our companies – and our sector – should look like the people we serve.

Debra Coy: Inclusivity means respect. It means being included with a real seat at the table. We can’t just bring in voices and stick them in a corner.

Karyn Georges: An outcome of inclusivity across the sector would mean we have the right skills set to give us the resilience to meet future challenges. As populations shift and demographics change, the water sector needs to reflect the world. Our sector can’t afford to not embrace diversity and inclusivity.