Women and drinking water provision – addressing the under-representation of women in the rural water sector


The NFGWS is embarking on a survey of its members, discussing the topic of female representation within the group water scheme sector and how gender balance can be achieved at every level.

While the number of women involved at a paid scheme manager/administrator level has been steadily increasing, there is a dearth of female representation on group water scheme committees and the board of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes.

Chairperson of the NFGWS, Vincent Farrelly, believes this is something that needs to change: “We must do better in addressing the gender imbalance on group water scheme boards. It is crucial that we tackle this issue together and find ways to achieve greater involvement from all those in the local community.”

To kickstart the conversation around this topic — and coinciding with International Women’s Day — the NFGWS spoke to three women involved in the group water scheme sector. Mary Connolly is the first and only female member of the NFGWS Board of Directors. Gail Fitzgerald is general manager for Ballinabranna GWS, Co Carlow, and Fionnuala Foy is a general manager for Glencorrib GWS, Co Mayo. They kindly took the time to give their views based on their own experience in the sector.

What sparked your interest in the group water scheme sector and how did you become involved in your current role?

Mary: In November 1993 I moved from Dublin to live on a farm in Ballinafad, Co. Sligo. At the time our small group water scheme served the village and area around it, originating from some springs in the karst Bricklieve mountain. I attended my first AGM with my husband, who was on the committee. I have been on the committee for the past 20+ years and am the current secretary.

Initially, I was interested in the development of the scheme so that safe, potable water was available to all, and supporting the growth of our residential community and the farming sector. Following this, our interests turned to source protection and the resolution of some quality issues.

My attendance at Sligo county meetings led to my nomination to the board of the NFGWS in March 2018 (as the first woman), where I enjoy the diverse nature of all things to do with water. I am passionate about the importance of water in our lives and what a precious resource it is. It is our prerogative to respect and protect it by educating all members of our community.

Gail: My home is part of the local group water scheme, so I would have had a general awareness of its working and I would be in favour of water conservation and aware that water is a resource that needs to be managed carefully.

In 2017, an administrator position became available on our local scheme and I felt that with my historical work experience I would be able to bring something positive this to the role, while still having lots to learn about all about all elements of managing a Group Water Scheme.

Fionnuala: I was aware of the sector since childhood. My mother was the secretary of our local scheme, so I had a general impression of how it worked. I was looking for an employment opportunity where I could work close to home and on a part-time basis. Initially, when I saw the job of general manager advertised, my immediate assumption was that I would need to be able to carry out the repairs and maintenance side of the job and thus I would be incapable of doing it. But the more I thought about it I began to realise that there would be many facets to the job.

I was attracted to the idea of working in a co-operative and excited by the concept of community ownership and control of the local natural resources. Previously, I had run a business and have a background in horticulture and ecology, so it was a good way to put my managerial, administration and habitat management skills to good use.

What barriers do you feel women face in the sector and how do you think they can be overcome?

Mary: I must be completely honest and say that I have never felt anything but support both locally and nationally within the group water scheme sector. Our small committee on Corrick GWS is 40% female — each member of the committee, regardless of gender, has an important role to play. I think that many women may feel that the sector it is more male dominated, particularly regarding the pipe network, but sustainable practices to ensure a safe potable water supply for all is the dominant factor and an interest in the sector is what’s needed.

On the national front, I joined the board of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes (NFGWS) in March 2018 as the representative for County Sligo. I was made feel so welcome by the rest of the board members and the staff of the Federation. From my own experience, rather than there being any intentional barriers the lack of female representation at national level could be an historical hangover from the dearth of representation at county level etc. A stepped approach, whereby there are more female board members at local scheme and county federation level, should hopefully lend itself to increased representation at national level in the future.

Water is a universal need and thus we all have an equal responsibility for the management and care of our environment to meet this need; it is a gender-neutral issue.

Gail: When many of the group water schemes were being set up around the country it would have predominately been groups of men getting together to make this happen. So historically this sector would have been more male-dominated and this is quite visible when various groups in the sector gather together today.

However, year-on-year the number of women involved in the sector is growing. We have a number of women on our local scheme Board and it would be great to see this continue to increase. Many of the scheme managers across the country are female, which increases their involvement in the overall sector. It’s a change of mindset more than anything when it comes to increasing the number of women involved in the sector as opposed to there being barriers in existence.

Fionnuala: As a middle-aged, Irish woman, I don’t doubt that I have been conditioned to not identify with work like this. Equally, my male peers have had the same conditioning and can suffer from the same misconceptions. The result is a male-dominated sector. This can be intimidating and as we see in many sectors where this is the case, women have to make more sacrifices to achieve the same level of success as their male counterparts.

Happily, the lines between the traditional roles are becoming increasingly blurred over time. As with most positive change, education is key. If both genders are given the opportunity to develop practical skills during childhood, I see no reason why women won’t build an association with the industrial sector and have the confidence to become more involved.

A simple example of this in the group water scheme sector is the ‘All about water’ schools programme. It’s an easy way for primary level children to develop an understanding of where the water in their taps comes from, how it gets there, why it is such a priceless resource and how they can mind it.

Over the next decade, what would you like the sector to achieve in terms of encouraging more women to become actively involved in the life of the rural water sector?

Mary: I believe everybody has an environmental responsibility; water is life sustaining and we cannot survive without it. The rural water sector is critically important and there is a role for all within it. Women, as parents and teachers, have a fantastic opportunity to educate our young people on their social responsibility regarding our precious earth and its resources. This education is how change can be brought about. Women have so much knowledge to offer the rural water sector and encouraging their involvement the community is of the utmost importance. Often a gentle nudge is all that is needed. It is the responsibility of the women in the sector at present to encourage and show that all genders have a role to play.

Gail: It would be great to see an increase in the number of women getting involved at Board level on the NFGWS to achieve more of a gender balance, which I feel would in turn be beneficial to female engagement throughout the sector across the country. If there was more community awareness of group water schemes and the varying ways that women could be involved in, it may encourage women to proactively seek out roles.

There are many elements to a GWS, such as management, planning, safe drinking water, conservation, climate change, and biodiversity; to name a few. There is so much scope for involvement and women have extensive knowledge in many relevant fields to bring to all of these forums.

Education is also key for communities. The primary school programme educates children on all things water. This is a key element in getting our future generation on board and hopefully some young women will get involved in this area down the line.

Fionnuala: It is easy to forget that women have been involved in the rural water sector since its development. There is often a woman quietly plugging away in the background, filling in the annual subsidy applications and keeping the accounts in order. There’s no reason why women can’t take on other roles. As equipment and technology advances, there is less need for what we perceive as ‘men’s work’ traditionally. This both challenges and offers opportunities to both genders.

To me, water schemes are an increasingly rare rural asset. Community spirit is slowly being eroded as rural communities lose the power of decision over so many things in their localities. But group water schemes have been flying the flag for community involvement and co-operation for decades and it is only appropriate that both genders should be equally represented in this. When in the minority at committee level, more female participation should be actively encouraged.

Group water schemes are also the guardians of one of our most valuable natural resources. As a fundamental component to life, the value of water cannot be underestimated. Our polluting actions are literally pulling the life breath out of our rivers, lakes and seas. Increasingly, I see our managerial role to safeguard the quality of the water sources. Rightly, the sector is prioritizing this.

This will require a whole new skill set and expertise. I hope this will create employment opportunity for people with a range of knowledge in the science and technology fields and see no reason why these jobs shouldn’t be equally attractive to both genders