Delft, The Netherlands, 21 Mar 2016

Women's Day Conference: career opportunities and obstacles in the water sector

On the occasion of International Women's Day, UNESCO-IHE organized a conference on the theme Wanted: women in water. The conference was opened by Dr. Fritz Holzwarth, UNESCO-IHE's Rector a.i. An excerpt was shown of alumna Hope Mwanake giving a Vision Speech at Stockholm Water Week. Keynote speakers Lisette Heuer (Technical Director Water at Royal HaskoningDHV) and Simone Buitendijk (Vice Rector Leiden University) shared their experiences about the relevance, opportunities and obstacles for women choosing a career in the water sector. The conference ended with group discussions.

Dare to go beyond your comfort zone

Fritz Holzwarth mentioned that he was impressed by a photo which he saw four years ago, at the photo exhibition of Gil Garcetti, our cultural ambassador. ''I was fascinated by the pictures. If you go to Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia or parts of Latin America, it is the task of women to take care of water. It became clear that if men had to collect drinking water, the world would be very different. We have to make sure that water is more ‘feminized’ than it is today. Around 40% of our students are women, this is different when you look at water companies or visit meetings at a global level, where there are far more men. There is no time left for change.''

Keynote speaker Lisette Heuer, Technical Director Water at Royal HaskoningDHV, shared her story with the audience about how her career and passion for water all began. ''My passion for water started as a child. In 1953 there was a devastating flood in The Netherlands and this was an eye-opener for me and gave me the passion for water that I still have today. I studied civil engineering, I started as a consultant, I worked as project manager, later as line manager and the last five years as technical director. Support from my parents was a success factor: they stimulated me to study and to dream. The support of a partner is also important, a partner that gives you freedom and trust.''

At Royal HaskoningDHV there are three board members - one of them is a women. ''We have more women who are working in more senior positions in our company. There are more women working in the water business than in transport or infrastructure. If you select the environment you work in, my advice is to look at the characteristics of the organization. Is it an inclusive culture that helps you grow?  Are there diversity programmes? A manager who has trust in you is also important.''

"My recommendation for companies is to have a diversely composed team; if you have different people your implementation will go faster and better. Furthermore, it is important that you can see the bigger picture. To students I would like to say: be open-minded, dare to go beyond your comfort zone, whatever you do in your career, do it with passion. There is no reason why you cannot have my job, or any other high level job in the future.''

Women hold up half the sky, they deserve half the research

At the beginning of her career, almost 21 years ago, keynote speaker Simone Buitendijk, Vice Rector at Leiden University worked at TNO, where she was involved in research. ''I have learned how important it is to train the next generation. It’s amazing what universities can do to train the new global citizens."

In all the global challenges there is a gender element

“Gender equality in teams is essential to avoid wasting talent. You should always ask the question: what are we researching, how and for whom? Men have a gender too. Equality, diversity and inclusivity is important for everybody. We need more cross links between the social and natural sciences. Research funders need to think about the funds they put into one thing and not another, this has an effect on gender related issues," said Simone Buitendijk.

If we keep thinking women cannot compete with men, we are not moving forward

The conference concluded with group discussions on statements dealing with the conference theme: Wanted: Women in Water. Conclusions from these discussion were:

  • If we keep thinking women cannot compete with men, we are not moving forward. We should encourage women to pursue education and a career 
  • Men and women bring different perspectives to the table, you should balance that. Change the mindset and create possibilities
  • Gender diversity is important to get better products and outcomes. We should share experience, be open, break the stereotypes
  • Women should speak, women have dignity
  • Demand women rights, that's the challenge

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