The first Early Career Women in Water conference was held at Cranfield on 8 March 2021 to celebrate International Women’s Day. The event brought together more than 200 professionals eager to know more about the fantastic work done by early career women in the water sector.

Why is this event needed?

The water sector is facing a number of challenges, both immediate and in the longer term, for example:

  • Aging infrastructure.
  • Population growth.
  • Climate change.
  • Increase in conflicts due to water scarcity.
  • Developing and maintaining resilience in services and systems.

According to Energy and Utilities Skills, the water supply sector has a lower percentage of workers aged below 24 than the average across all other sectors, and an estimated 63,000 vacancies would need to be filled across the industry by 2027. It is evident that there is a skills gap that needs to be filled, and women should play an important role in the future of the sector.

Despite the recognised need for diversification in STEM-related roles, statistics show that only 12% of professional engineers, 21% of all academic professors, and 20% of the UK water sector’s workforce identify as women. Women are underrepresented in areas ranging from skilled trades to management and leadership positions, and this under-representation of women has resulted in a loss of talent, with diversity recognised as being crucial for a more holistic approach in research - especially when providing solutions that aim to serve societies.

However, change is on the horizon. Immediate and long-term water challenges require the industry to attract and retain the best talent. As a result, there is a need to continue to raise the profile of ‘women in water’ and encourage women to aspire to exciting careers within academia and industry.

The latest report from Energy & Utilities Skills Partnership (Figure 1) shows a 10.1% increase in the percentage of females working in the water sector between 2016 and 2019. This is great, but the numbers are low in comparison with the UK average. In addition, only 13.8% of the people in the sector with high-level positions (managers, directors, and senior officials) are female. While some of the key water and wastewater companies in the UK have female CEOs (four out of 11 - Severn Trent with Liv Garfield since 2014; Affinity Water with Pauline Walsh since 2018; Yorkshire Water with Liz Barber since 2019; and Thames Water with Sarah Bentley since 2020) and a gender pay gap lower than other sectors, the challenge of having more women being involved in decision-making still remains.

Diversity and inclusion profile for the water industry

Figure 1. Diversity and inclusion profile for the water industry

How was the event?

Over 185 people registered for the event with over 90% of those registered identifying as female, and with a mix of UK and international participants. The day was full of presentations from a wide range of women professionals working in the water sector. The highlights included both very honest and inspiring speeches from the two keynote speakers – Dr Elise Cartmell (Chief Scientist at Scottish Water) and Lila Thompson (CEO at British Water) – who shared their career journey and experience working in water.

As part of their keynote addresses, they also shared some really useful advice for those still at the start of their careers and talked about a range of topics including:

  • Impostor syndrome (a subject to which many female colleagues related).
  • The importance of having the support of a team.
  • Taking advice positively.
  • Enjoying what you are doing.
  • And a reminder to be kind to yourself.

Women in water event

Figure 2: A screenshot from the event

We also got the chance to listen to nine great technical presentations about catchment and water treatment processes, and water governance that were delivered by women at different stages in their careers.

The day closed with a panel discussion talking about the role of women in water, the barriers they faced, and how we can work together to overcome them. For this panel, the two keynote speakers joined Professor Ana Soares and Professor Bruce Jefferson - both from the Cranfield Water Science Institute.

The event was a huge success, and we were delighted with the very positive feedback from attendees. We hope the 2021 event will be the first of many so that we can support raise the profile and awareness of how women are contributing to solve water-related challenges as well as continue to women in water. This year, the event had to be done online due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but we will aim to do it face-to-face in the future and provide multiple opportunities for networking which we believe is a key aspect to support early career professionals.

What is Cranfield doing to support women?

Cranfield University was perhaps a more challenging environment for women in the past due to the focus on STEM-related subjects in comparison with other universities.

Thanks to the work of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team at Cranfield, we achieved our second Institutional Athena SWAN Bronze award in September 2020 that recognises our work on gender equality within Higher Education. As part of our submission, we have developed a robust action planning highlighting around three key actions:

Key actions to support women in water

Figure 3. Key actions to support women at Cranfield University

We have started to see the promising impact of those actions, such as:

  • Increase in female applicants for academic-related jobs
  • Increase in female retention
  • An improvement in our gender pay gap figures
  • Increased engagement and profile of our women’s network and development opportunities

In the School of Water, Energy and Environment, the percentage of female students has increased over the last decade, and now represents around half of our student cohort. This is great news as this represents the pipeline of future professionals in water and other STEM-related sectors. The future looks promising!

Future pipeline for women in water

Figure 4. The future pipeline

Interested in supporting women in water?

Here are some additional resources for you to explore: