WSAA Dare to Ask! Women in Water tell it like it is...

WSAA Dare to Ask! Women in Water tell it like it is...

WSAA Dare to Ask! Women in Water tell it like it is...
Date: 08-Mar-2023

As part of International Women's Day celebrations I attended a WSAA webinar that was inspired by the ABC TV series, You Can't Ask That. WSAA invited a panel of women working in the water sector to answer a series of challenging questions about their experience as women in the water industry.  

It was an opportunity to hear about the real-world experiences of some of our most talented colleagues and reflect how this year's IWN theme of #EmbraceEquity is playing out in the day-to-day work life. 

The Panel included:

  • Dona Tantirimudalige – MD Westernport Water
  • Amanda Lewry – GM Sustainable Infrastructure SA Water
  • Liz Duguid - Electrical Design Engineer and WSAA Young Utility Leader 22/23 Water Corporation
  • Rebecca Benson – Recruitment Coordinator TasWater

With more than 50 questions submitted, compere Evelyn Rodrigues did a great job in distilling them down to the basics.  Here’s what the panel had to say…

Question 1: Has anyone ever implied or stated that you are a “diversity hire”?

Liz – when I graduated from uni it was a tough market and there were lots of comments amongst peers that females would find it easier to get jobs than their male counterparts. I do find myself questioning my capability sometimes but I believe I deserved the opportunities I’ve been given and that I’m equally as competent as my male counterparts. From a different perspective, when I started to look for work there were opportunities at WaterCorp but applications were only open to Aboriginal and TSI workers so I couldn't apply. I knew it was appropriate for the organisation to do that, and I did manage to get a job there at a later stage.

Rebecca – there is a big difference between diversity hire and hiring for diversity. Diversity hire is to make a workplace look diverse. Hiring for diversity looks very different as it’s a strategic decision to attract a diverse workforce by removing roadblocks and making it easier for diverse people to apply for a job.

Amanda – I often hear this. When I joined the military I was a diversity hire to get more women into the army and navy – there were about 200 engineers doing the discipline that I did and in my cohort there were 4 out of 10 engineering women who have done that. For my current role, when the recruiter reached out to me he inferred very strongly that the reason he wanted to put me forward for the role was to meet the quota for diversity and he continually was surprised at my answers to questions. Sometimes quotas are needed because it allows people to get a foot in the door, but then you still need to perform.

Question 2: What experience do you have of men being part of the solution?

Dona – I have two sons aged 19 and 16. When our first boy was born we decided to both be active as parents. My Husband was a teacher who was able to negotiate a 3-day work week. I was told if I wanted to be an engineer the only option was to work full time. I decided to apply for a different, full time role but when I was asked if I had any questions at the end of the interview I mentioned that their website stated a commitment to equal opportunity and whether they would consider this role in a part time capacity. The two male interviewers said they had never thought or considered it as a part time role but said they would think about it and get back to me. They agreed to have a trial period at Yarra Valley Water and later on I ended up working there as a manager in a part time capacity as well. We need to consider what sort of society we are trying to create and be OK with trying things like flexibility, redefining work e.g. remote work and try new things even if its unfamiliar.

Amanda –all my bosses have been male but a number of those have been my sponsors and/or mentors and they believed in me. When I had my second child an opportunity for a management position came up and I thought I couldn’t do it because I had a child, but a manager told me to go for it. A shout out to Kevin Young who helped me and provided a lot of confidence in me – he is someone I admired so much, he could talk about positive attributes and encourage you to move on. But the biggest person who have helped me is my husband, not just in my career but also in my private life. He holds me accountable and stepped back to help me step forward. He is also very supportive to our two daughters and get them to dream big. To have more men to play that role is a good thing.

Dona – just an acknowledgement that life partners have a profound impact on each other’s lives, not just in our careers but in life - hence life partners!

Question 3: In your experience is there a difference how women with kids vs women without kids are treated in the workplace?

Bec – there are lots of literature that show career progression for mothers take longer and impact on the gender pay gap. One of the simplest things we can do is going back to job design – what’s the next job for me and what is required. For some jobs women with caring responsibilities just won’t apply. We need to ask – is traditional part time the same as before? Some women return to work part time but perform in full time capacity. Job design can make roles more accessible to everyone.

Liz – this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as my partner and I are starting to think about having kids. When I  recently joined a large construction project that would run 3-4 years I wondered if it was fair for me to apply thinking that I may want to take a period of that time to take maternity leave. But you don’t know what the future holds – you may not be able to have kids, so I can’t prevent myself from applying for those jobs. I do sometimes find myself frustrated by fact that it won’t impact my partner as it will impact on me.

Question 4: What does it feel like to be the only woman in the room?

Amanda – it used to be just another day at work but since joining SA Water and walking into a predominantly female executive it is a very different environment. Our team is very collegiate, very supportive and all wants what’s best for business and best for each other. I can recall a discussion on a plane in my previous life as consultant where a female mentioned having ideas dismissed in meetings but when a man picked up the same idea they were acknowledged. We were in a meeting later that day and had a number of examples of this happening. The male I talked to on the plane didn’t even notice it even though we discussed it that same day. For a lot of women, being the only women in the room is probably just the norm.

Dona – after started working it was about six years before I worked with another women who wasn’t an Executive Assistant. In my Engineering degree they were all male. I can recall the first woman I ever worked with and we both acknowledged that it was the first for both of us. Now it’s rare for me to the only women in the room but I’m generally the only women of colour. It is wonderful to see gender diversity is there now. To the point that Amanda made, male colleagues are often genuinely expressing surprise that women are treated differently – if someone says that to you, remind them that just because it’s not happening in front of you or to you, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening to someone else. 

Question 5: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve been given as a woman, and what advice would you give your younger self?

Bec – My worst advice was that I would never get anywhere by being nice! Jacinda Ardern mentioned something similar, that being emphatic doesn’t mean you can’t get the job done. My advice to my younger self would be that you’ll get a lot of advice and opinions and to only take on board what will resonate with you and what makes you feel good about yourself.

Amanda – my worst advice was the 90s mantra that you can have it all – I have proven that I can have it all but not at the same time! I will tell my younger self to always believe in yourself and stay true to your values and dream big. 

Liz – my worst advice was to smile more! Advice I’d give to my younger self is that I felt like I had to prove myself and was a very serious person when I started working even though in life I’m light hearted and even a bit silly – I’d say to make an effort to be yourself at work.

Dona – I received a lot of bad advice, from being told to learn what team your boss goes for so you can strike up conversations, from a recruiter to take my husband’s surname, don’t talk about children, don’t mention you’re on boards etc most of them coming from a genuine belief that they were trying to help you. My advice is to listen to all advice but do not accept all advice – bring your own filter! You are your greatest asset so bring yourself and your assets to the table. Find your allies, you are not alone. And be an ally for others.

Kate Buckley, Young Utility Leader was asked what her biggest take away from the event was. Kate said that listening to the panel showed that no two experiences are the same. And while we  now have more women in the room there is still only one of colour so there is still work to be done.

Some interesting online comments:

  • I have been told I am 'too nice to be a leader' and that I need to not be such a people pleaser..... my personality is empathetic and nurturing so I will not change who I am.
  • At a personal level, I have this innate feeling that before babies and careering responsibilities, I need to invest quite strongly in my career early on. The reason relates to me feeling I need to earn the right to take the parttime opportunities.  
  • "Don't be overly ambitious, it’s not an attractive quality" (from an older female) smashed my confidence for years. It could be ingrained from a time before, but it's at the back of mind, i.e., a sense that in order to be remembered when I am part-time, for opportunities, I need to be outstanding now.

A big thanks to WSAA for putting on the event and to the panel members for their honest answers to the questions.

Here's to a world where we can Embrace Equity in our personal and work lives, no matter what we do.

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