Diversity flows through water authorities

Although the water industry has traditionally been a male-dominated space, more water authorities are taking action to create a more diverse workspace. Managing Director of South East Water, Lara Olsen, is a leading figure in this campaign.

Although the water industry has traditionally been a male-dominated space, more water authorities are taking action to create more diversity in their workspace. Managing Director of South East Water, Lara Olsen, is a leading figure in this campaign.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing people from different industries, fields, and backgrounds entering the water industry. The sheer variety and scope of what is needed in the sector means that we’ll be able to draw from a range of different talent pools that we may not have previously attracted. We’re really excited to see our industry changing and becoming more diverse,” said South East Water Managing Director Lara Olsen.

She said South East Water is committed to building an inclusive workplace that reflects the diversity of its community and customers. To achieve this, it has created a Gender Equality Action Plan (GEAP) to help plan, implement and measure the change in the workplace.

South East Water’s vision for gender equality is to be a safe, progressive equal-opportunity employer where all employees are valued and respected for who they are. South East Water will embrace, celebrate, and reward their employee’s rights, talents, and expertise, free from discrimination, prejudice, or unconscious bias.

It’s an area that Olsen and the other team members at South East Water are passionate about. She joined South East Water in February 2020, following a varied career incorporating consulting, renewable energy, large-scale infrastructure, industrial products, and charitable organisations. Although the organisations are different, they have three comment components.

“When I look back on my career, I see that every organisation I’ve worked for has used data to drive insights,” she said. “They also support vulnerable customers while looking 10, 20, and 50 years into the future to plan for their future. This is also true of the water industry.”

Changing how water attracts talent

One thing that Olsen has noted is that the water industry in Australia is an outlier when it comes to senior leadership in STEM fields.

“Generally speaking, women make up less than ten per cent of CEOs in STEM industries,” said Olsen.

“However, that is not the case for the Victorian water sector. When I see the proportion of women that are chief executives or managing directors in the water industry, it is significantly higher than ten per cent. I’d say that water, particularly in senior leadership positions, has made a good start at attracting and promoting women.”

Although Olsen is proud that the water industry is leading the way in driving gender diversity at the executive level, she also recognises there is a long way to go.  She believes that while the industry is in a good starting position, it can do more to ensure it is true at all levels and that we achieve broader diversity than just gender diversity.

“Overall, our organisation has close to an even split between men and women. However, we have had a real focus on our senior leadership positions. We want to increase our proportion of women at that level. Over the last two and a half years, we’ve seen an increase of female representation at this senior level from 25 to 37 per cent,” she said.

Increasing diversity needs a multi-faceted approach

South East Water has taken a two-pronged approach to increase employee diversity. The first has been addressing unconscious bias in its recruitment processes. That has seen panels work hard to have equal gender splits into the shortlists and interview groups.

“The second aspect was to look at the areas where we have significantly more men or women in particular roles,” Olsen said.

“It is true that we have a higher proportion of males in certain areas of our operations and maintenance roles. Equally, we tend to have more females in executive officer roles. We are looking to see what we can do to change that. Is it something about how we’re explaining jobs, creating jobs, or our processes that means we’re not seeing equal  applicants come through?”

Making the water industry an attractive career for all

In Olsen’s eyes, one of the biggest challenges is encouraging and attracting women and girls into STEM subjects.

“At the most fundamental level, we should be working at the high school level to attract people of all backgrounds and diversity groups to study STEM subjects. That includes girls. Research indicates that high school girls are actively considering their future careers. Part of that consideration is what they know about and whether they think they will be good at that job,” she said.

Olsen believes that there are two areas in which the water industry can help girls and people of different backgrounds.

“The first area is to help girls and people of different backgrounds to become aware of engineering,” said Olsen. “The second part is letting them know they would be good engineers. I know I didn’t have any engineers in my life, and I don’t think I would have done engineering unless my science teacher talked to me about becoming an engineer. I think, ultimately, it is a question of how we raise the profile of engineering and STEM to everyone.”

From Olsen’s perspective, engineering is an exciting career choice that should appeal to people from all backgrounds, particularly those who want to work on critical global issues such as the environment and climate change. A reliable drinking water and wastewater service are central to Australian communities’ economic and social prosperity, and the industry offers prospective employees the opportunity to work on varied and exciting projects, from large infrastructure projects to developing new sensor technology and devices that are changing the way we think about water network management.

“I think that once people realise that engineering is not sitting in a dark room, but the ability to work on and solve some of the world’s most important challenges, they’ll be more interested.”

For more information, visit southeastwater.com.au/

Related Articles:

Send this to a friend