THE UNDERREPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN WATER TREATMENT PLANTS THROUGHOUT CANADA
By Jessica Lemieux
For the purpose of this article, over 30 water treatment plants throughout Canadian provinces were called. Of the various Canada-wide plants that were called, only two locations had female managers. Women were also largely under-represented in the profession of water treatment plant operator.
Water treatment plant operators work in water treatment plants, where water is pumped from wells, rivers, streams, and reservoirs to water treatment plants. A water treatment plant operator runs the equipment, controls the processes, and monitors the plants that treat the water.
Water treatment plant managers oversee all of a plant’s functions, including treatment and delivery operations, as well as water storage. Regulations in water treatment dictate that management positions require education, certification and experience.
Gender, Water and Sanitation, a policy brief from 2005-2015 that was developed by the Inter-agency Task Force on Gender and Water (GWTF), a sub-programme of both UN-Water and the Interagency Network on Women and Gender Equality, said:
“The importance of involving both women and men in the management of water and sanitation has been recognized at the global level, starting from the 1977 United Nations Water Conference at Mar del Plata, the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade (1981-90) and the International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin (January 1992), which explicitly recognizes the central role of women in the provision, management and safeguarding of water.”
“Efforts geared towards improving the management of the world’s finite water resources and extending access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, often overlook the central role of women in water management.”
The underrepresentation of women as water treatment plant operators, as well as in management positions, raises large concerns and points to the possibility that, perhaps, this has to do with a lack of women entering post-secondary studies in Environmental Engineering.
One of the female water treatment plant managers spoken with, Susanne McLeod, from a plant in Truro, Nova Scotia, was able to offer some insight into the situation.
McLeod said: “I am the water treatment plant manager here. I also have four male operators working here. My getting hired here and becoming manager did not involve any discrimination at all. I personally hired all four male operators because at the time, when I went through the resumes, I don’t believe I even interviewed a single female - only because there weren’t any qualified female applicants. I don’t feel that there is a discrimination issue, here, against women. It’s more just a matter of who is applying for these jobs. We don’t really get women applying.”
Hannah Pepper, a current female Undergraduate student in Environmental Engineering said:
“I would say [classes are] two thirds men and one third women. This is probably the highest, if not close to the highest ratio that you’ll find in all of the engineering streams. I think we could raise the female attendance in engineering to almost half if women were treated like men with regards to the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] disciplines in elementary school and high school.”
“It’s also pretty intimidating going into a career where you know that women are going to be so scarce. I think that having more women in the field would attract [other] women for sure. We are in the age now, where men know that women can be just as good if not better than them, and if there is a woman engineer working then she must be smart and have a strong will and backbone to deal with the issues of female scarcity.”
Although Pepper said she couldn’t comment on the specific case, she said that she has been directly affected by sexism in the workplace. She added that, generally, though, she doesn’t believe it is as bad as people make it out to be.
“Sometimes I feel judged by men when I’m doing a job and I’m the only woman there, as if they’re waiting to see if I’m actually smart and knowledgeable and able to do my job properly. But that could just be completely my imagination. Sexism definitely exists in the industry but I think for the most part it is manageable and accidental, with a few exceptions of course.”
A former male Environmental Engineer Undergraduate student was of a different opinion.
He said, “There was equal representation, close to even (could have been 60/40 in either direction) in environmental engineering courses, which were a minority of my overall course load. In courses that were shared between multiple disciplines e.g. civil or architectural engineering, there were far more men.”
“I think there were less women because of a mix of both social expectations, and certain evolved biological aptitudes.”
“I worked [at a water treatment plant] as a student and my supervisor was a woman, her boss was a woman, and her boss' boss was a woman. In my department of about 12-15 I can think of 4 men, maybe 5. Having said that, almost the entirety of the maintenance staff at the plant (and for the sewer system) was male. The question as to whether women were equally represented becomes difficult because it is such a large operation with a wide variation in roles and expectations in areas such as physical ability (perhaps favouring men) and interpersonal ability (perhaps favouring women).”
Nina, a representative from the Lulu Island Waste Water Treatment Plant in British Columbia, did not feel that there was an equal representation of women working in her specific water treatment plant.
“At this location our manager is male. Plant operators are also much more male dominated in our branch. Administration wise, though, the majority are women.”
Alanna Brunskill, a female Environmental Engineering Graduate was asked to comment on her experience.
“Environmental engineering at Carleton was a pretty even split male to female in my year. I had a very positive experience in my program at Carleton University, females were never discriminated against, it was a very level playing field. Not even my experience in the field had me feeling lesser because I was a woman. I worked at a private consulting company and for the city of Ottawa and had female supervisors at each job.”
Natalie Linklater, who is currently completing an Environmental Engineering Doctoral program at Carleton University, also felt that the courses she has taken have been comprised of about 50% women. She also notes that she has not felt overt discrimination for being a woman in the field.
Linklater said, “Personally, I don’t feel that I’ve faced any overt discrimination in environmental engineering although I understand that academia is a different beast than being a plant manager.”
“I can say that I do surprise people when I tell them my field. I think it takes a certain kind of person, male or female, that is comfortable with dealing with wastewater on a daily basis to not only choose environmental engineering but to focus in on wastewater. For me, I had a really great professor, Dr. Banu Örmeci, who sparked my interest. I really like talking about wastewater so I like the surprise factor and feel that it helps spark further discussion. Many people don’t think twice about what happens to water after goes down the drain and I am always happy to help them understand the process a little better. From that, I think that increasing public knowledge and awareness of our wastewater treatment systems may help diversify the field.”
“During my graduate studies, I’ve had to frequently visit our local treatment plant to collect samples and have had the opportunity to visit a number of plants both in Ontario and abroad. I’ve always felt very welcomed don’t think I’ve been treated differently. I enjoy talking to operators and they are always happy to entertain my questions.”
Dr. Banu Örmeci, Canada Research Chair in Wastewater Treatment Engineering and a Carleton University Professor for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was able to speak to her experience on this subject matter.
“Environmental Engineering is one of those few engineering fields that has a high percentage of females (approximately 50% in our program). The reason for this is that female students are attracted to fields where they see they can make a difference, and as a result environmental, biomedical, and chemical engineering typically have the highest percentage of female students. So there is usually an equal balance of female and male students in the courses that I teach. Many of the female students/engineers do feel that it is harder for them to break into the field, find jobs, and move up in the ladder but it is also important to note that this is not everyone’s experience.”
“We have an active WISE [Women in Science and Engineering] chapter in Ottawa and a student chapter at Carleton University. We organize events and workshops that aim to increase the participation and success of female students in science and engineering fields. Our events are designed to reach out to different age groups (middle-school, high-school, undergraduate, and graduate students), educate them through training and empower them through mentoring.”
WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) is a campaign to inspire girls and women to study and build careers using science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
Go ENG Girl is another program geared towards increasing the amount of women in the engineering field. Go ENG Girl provides an opportunity for girls in grades 7-10 across Ontario to visit their local University campus and learn from women professionals, academics and students about the world of engineering.
With campaigns and programs such as WISE and Go ENG Girl, it is likely that the number of women who enter the field of Environmental Engineering, as well as Engineering, in general, will increase. With a rise in female Environmental Engineers, this might lead to a more balanced number of males and females who operate and manage water treatment plants throughout Canada.