The interview with Ulrike Kelm, Chair of Woman in Water & Sanitation Network (WWSN) by Diana Kicia.8 min read
A Former Communication Manager from International Water Association and Communication and Media Expert from United Nations UN-Water.
Could you please tell us more about yourself?
I have been working for the international water sector for quite a while, starting in the German Development Cooperation sector and then covered a broad range of topics, mainly working in the field of communication so I say that I work in a met sphere in a water sector. I am not an engineer working on the ground, I am not a person doing a political decision I am just in between these two spheres, the practitioners, the theory, and the decision-makers. So this is what I have been working with for the past two decades already.
As you have been working earlier for global organizations within the water sector what roles of women do you observe around the world?
In general, you find women everywhere but the more on the top you get the more male representation is there, all you can pick up some outstanding women. There are spheres where you see more women working than man other spheres you can see more men working than women. So in the water sector is very broad, we have a technical engineering sector but also soft skills like for example client service for water operator. They are different areas for men and women. I had one director who comments “You know one needs to do boring jobs” and he referred to a whole department where the young women were working there was no a single male even an intern. I might say when it comes to low pay jobs in offices it is completely the women’s area, when it comes to better-paid jobs or in key positions it’s more likely to meet a man. When you come to the meeting where you have sales from the big companies, tech companies, water operators, decision-makers from private, public sector, or even NGOs suddenly you are surrounded by suit and ties, and you see very few women. I think that’s very significant for the sector.
What kind of challenges did you have as a communication and media manager within these organizations?
You are always in between different topics related to the mission of the company or the organization, so you are moving around the spheres. That is a very typical position for a communicator. You have access to everybody, because you do top-down, down top communication, you do internal and external communication. Being a communicator is a very female job as observed in all communication departments of organizations. For communication roles applications more women are applying but if there is a director role suddenly more men apply so it is a funny thing to observe.
Do you observe that women do not dare to apply to director positions are they somehow limited?
I would not say that I apply to these kinds of positions based on my expertise, this is my personal experience. So I just cannot see why they cannot do it.
Woman’s role in Water uses to be the last subject under many conferences do you know why?
I think if look around the gender aspect, there are two channels, one is employees working for the water sector for paid jobs for the professional career and then there is another part looking for their household and their private life. So while in business life you tend to look more into male paid jobs than in the private life the water sector is completely dominated by women because they care for the households you see it in a different culture around the World. Women and girls are also responsible for food and family health.
Collecting water in many countries is a women’s main responsibility, what is your opinion about that, what “She empowers” means for you?
She empowers is a slogan of my organization a Woman in Water and Sanitation Network. Here it means the life motive of the organization because we are a network of professional women in the sector and we want to empower women to work, stay in the sector and fulfill their professional dreams of the carrier they aim to have. We are focusing on women working for paid jobs in the sector.
When and how the idea about Woman in Water & Sanitation started? It started in 2019 with different colleagues from the sector, different conferences, and projects, we worked together internationally, we joined organizations and we found the idea of exchanging, talking together, meeting, giving tips. Usually, when People work in professional life they want advice on how to proceed in the carrier. How to develop or negotiate and it’s nice to have similar like-minded capacity People may be facing similar obstacles. We found out that we were all from different continents and countries around the globe and have the same interest. So first it was just a group of peers and then we say let’s found the kind of network and make more formal and invite others because we found that there was a high demand mostly of younger generation women to meet and to talk and we made like the opposite of what the men have who have boy’s clubs. We are good friends, peers, colleagues and it is very in reaching atmosphere because you learn a lot from others, you get inspirations, you can observe how they handle challenges, what goals others have and you can also see possibilities companies what you can ask for. Sometimes you don’t know what you can ask for and this is what the network is for, to empower every single woman that is in our network and to fulfill her dreams professional-wise.
There are many water-related organizations and networks, what is unique about yours, what is the main goal of your WWSN, and how big is your team?
Yes, there are many water organizations, associations, and networks. Some People join many at the same time because they want to find a niche here and a niche there, some work only for scientific purposes, others work with political decision-makers to influence political processes. Our network is for a woman to improve their capacity to overcome the obstacles, to reach out to each other and to build a strong workforce around the globe.
Who is your biggest idol and support in creating this WWSN, who would you wish as stakeholders?
To be honest I do not have a real idol as a person, for me is more as an idea, for someone free to choose the way they want to grow and to now be weak by societal limitations because this is what many women face, real difficulties like for example age discrimination after women taking
care of her children and getting older, when she is fifty years old, some organization does not want to hire her. So I wish to have a strong workforce of women who support each other to overcome this kind of challenge which one can meet in all cultures over the globe.
We had an opportunity to join two of your webinars, how often do you plan conferences in WWSN?
WWSN is a very young network as mentioned we started in 2019 and we are still in a formalizing process, the pandemic year 2020 canceled all our plans. We needed to reschedule professional, private plans and network activities. So in 2021, we are starting again we have just kicked off working groups that help to fulfill the goals and mission of our network. It is all volunteering work; we have a secretariat who works 100% for the network, we have a group of volunteers who spend their private time working for us, so this is why we need different groups working on different aspects of the network to make it proceed. One of the significant aspects is networking and we have in the pipeline several online meetings because we cannot do physical, to make it possible to meet and share knowledge and another type is to organize inspirational webinars with women who talking their stories about what they do in their professional lives, how this impact on their lives, what obstacles they find, and this is now about one subject of the water, that is about the whole person we look at. That is a very inspirational, amazing network of professional women. We have also in our pipeline mentorship program so this will be a program in cooperation with other organizations within the sector. Our slogan is to network not only within individuals but also other organizations in the sector because we are not competitors. We have in the end the same course to have access to clean water and sanitation for everybody around the world.
Do you think that the younger generation would be able to improve the automated access to clean drinking water in dry areas of Africa?
I am always very positive because I met many amazing high qualified People from Africa working within the sector but Africa is a big continent with so many different countries and cultures, I cannot speak for Africa but I know our members who have in WWSN, they work hard, they see the opportunities of what to do there but it is still a lot to do, the typical water sector problem too much, too little or too polluted. There is a big challenge of sanitation, managing sanitation, having safely manage safe water from households, from industry, or agriculture. This is basic and it’s repeating itself all over the World in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and also even in Europe. All think that Europe has old water challenges solved but we have still areas with difficult sanitation situations or even difficult safe water. 1,3 People around the globe does not have access to safe water it is quite many. 2 of 5 People do not have a basic handwashing facility and we have to face a pandemic year with one of the main responsibility of handwashing tools. So it is a lot to do. People study a lot, we have the internet, there is a capability to easier develop, connect and find solutions.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I am always extremely impressed when I see people working in the sector, they all work for the goal. I met one older colleague who was closed to retirement he told me that he never experienced a midlife crisis because he always founds fulfillment in working hard while doing this job and you can observe it in everybody working for the water and sanitation sector no matter what role is that in the laboratory doing microbiological research on wastewater or selling
water to People or if they negotiate with governments toilets and public building I think everybody knows what they do, why they do it, and working for the goals is extremely fulfilling, they love to have meaning while they do something when they work and I see it reflected in a water sector. I am always amazed by these people because they do it with passion.
Here you can read more about WWSN http://wwsn.org/