Expanding the use and influence of new tools for gender equality and women’s empowerment in WASH

An SNV female staff member sits with an eldery Nepalese woman on a stone wall in a rural village. She is interviewing her as part of the WASH-GEM research. Sweeping views of hills and greenery can be seen in the background.

A WASH-GEM interview in progress in Nepal, led by an SNV staff member (SNV Nepal)


Across the Pacific, despite women and girls being primarily responsible for domestic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) work, less than one in five water utility employees in the Pacific are women. Most are in administrative or management roles, with only about 14% employed as engineers, and around one-third of Pacific water utilities have no female engineers at all.

But Pacific WASH workplaces, and civil society organisations (CSO) working on WASH in diverse country contexts, are now better equipped to meet gender equality, disability and social inclusion (GEDSI) goals thanks to targeted engagement and practical tools delivered through the the University of Technology Sydney – Institute for Sustainable Futures' (UTS-ISF) project, Towards Transformation: uptake of new guidance and tools in gender equality and inclusion and WASH.

Supported by the Australian Government through a Water for Women I&I grant, this research project built on UTS-ISF's earlier Water for Women work under the Gender in WASH Partnerships, Workforce and Impact Assessment research program and involved close collaboration with the Pacific Water and Wastewater Association (PWWA), Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Hunter H2O in the Pacific.

The aim of the I&I project was to contribute to gender and social inclusion outcomes, such as improved leadership, voice and choice of women and socially excluded community members, through targeted sharing of an Inclusive WASH Workplaces guidance and associated interactive database of practical actions, and the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene – Gender Equality Measure (WASH-GEM) web-based tool, which were developed during UTS-ISF’s earlier research program.

The I&I project focused on expanding use and influence of the resources across two stakeholder streams, with a workplace component targeting water utilities operating in the Pacific, and a WASH-GEM component targeting civil society organisations (CSO) working on WASH projects in different country contexts.

During the workplace component of the project, interviews conducted by UTS-ISF researchers revealed several barriers to gender equality, disability and social inclusion (GEDSI) across the WASH workforce in the Pacific. Respondents shared that:

  • There is a lack of organisational level strategies that focus on attracting, recruiting, retaining and advancing women.
  • There is also a lack of affirmative action policies; recruitment policies have limited focus on encouraging women applicants and organisations expressed that they don’t differentiate between employees based on gender, prioritising merit only. This is reflected in the limited number of women applying for technical roles, despite strong interest among girls in engineering at the secondary education level; this does not translate to women applying for technical roles.
  • There are limited role models for women and girls in technical roles. However, there is a slow but positive shift with more women graduates coming into water utilities and associated professions.
  • Cultural norms continue to place domestic and caregiving responsibilities primarily on women. Moreover, women are traditionally not expected to work in technical roles. 

Researchers also found that many organisations were aware of gender imbalances within the WASH workforce to some extent, but were unaware of how to tackle this issue.


A woman scientist in a lab coat holding a beaker
Researchers engaged with PWWA to share the Inclusive WASH Workplaces guidance and database with water utilities to support increased participation of women working in WASH (Solomon Water / Michelle Maelaua)

To address these findings, UTS-ISF researchers worked with the PWWA, ADB and Hunter H2O to identify the most effective ways to disseminate the Inclusive WASH Workplaces guidance and associated database with PWWA water utility members. This included the co-design of engagement strategies with the PWWA to ensure they were targeted and met the needs of their member organisations.

The Inclusive WASH Workplaces guidance and accompanying database of more than 180 actionable strategies were subsequently shared with water utilities in the Pacific that were keen to work towards better gender and social inclusion outcomes within their organisations.


“The project has contributed to raise[sic] gender awareness among national, provincial staff, latrine business owners, and local authority[sic] in the project target area through training.”

CSO partner


For the WASH-GEM component of the project, UTS-ISF responded to the challenge civil society organisations (CSOs) raised in wanting to look more systematically at WASH-gender outcomes in their programs, but not having the robust tools needed to do so, and the need for support to take up and successfully use a new tool.

UTS-ISF developed online training modules for the WASH-GEM and supported selected SNV and iDE teams to deploy this tool in their programs. At the end of the I&I project, the training modules were completed, tested and live online, and the WASH-GEM had been deployed and analysed in five country programs – in Lao PDR, Bhutan, Cambodia, Nepal and Ghana. The results have provided rich insights to these CSO partners on the differentiated experiences and perspectives of women and men, which are now informing their programming.


A Bhutanese man sits on a chair indoors with his back to the camera and facing a male SNV team member. He is being interviewed as part of the WASH-GEM research.

“The team felt that the WASH-GEM tools and modules were systematic, comprehensive and adequately covered with clear instructions and examples.”

SNV Bhutan team member

A key learning remains that flexibility and adaptability are crucial for CSO implementation of the WASH-GEM. Every country team implemented the WASH-GEM in slightly different ways, highlighting the need to design tools, resources and outputs with flexibility in mind.

Broader WASH sector contributions

Through this I&I project, UTS-ISF established a strong and trusting relationship with the PWWA, and a new and strategic partnership with the Asian Development Bank in the Pacific.

The partnership with PWWA has enabled learning about women in the WASH workforce in the Pacific. Quantitative data in the latest benchmarking survey in 2020 showed that 22% of staff in Pacific water utilities are female, which represents a seven percentage point increase since the first survey in 2015. Another reported improvement is the number of women working in technical and high-level positions in Pacific water utilities. As of 2020, 14% of female employees were working as engineers, while another 20% worked in senior administrative roles.

In addition to the targeted engagement and uptake of the workplace resources and WASH-GEM tool by water utilities and CSOs during the project, these resources were also disseminated at the 2023 Water and WASH Futures Conference, broadening their reach and potential impact.


Learning and knowledge from the project:


Photo above left: A WASH-GEM interview in progress by an SNV staff member in Bhutan (SNV Bhutan)

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