Magazine article Women & Environments International Magazine

Gender and Careers in the Canadian Water Policy Community

Magazine article Women & Environments International Magazine

Gender and Careers in the Canadian Water Policy Community

Article excerpt

An Urgent and Neglected Problem: Retaining Talent Across Life Stages

Water research and policy conferences are great for candid conversations, particularly with women who juggle parenthood and their professional opportunities. Mention "children-under-five" and, if afterevent-cocktails are available, the "Bad Mummy" stories are recounted, compared and laughed over. Younger colleagues listen quietly and wonder why the fuss.

But the fact is that the career expectations and family structures of young professionals are changing, and these changes are creating a need to examine the ways in which the Canadian water policy community (WPC) is using its human resources. Broadly defined, the WPC is a dynamic and intellectually diverse community of engineers, technicians, biologists, planners, economists, scholars conducting physical or social research, politicians, public servants and civil society activists, all of whom generate ideas, policies, strategies and plans.

Questions remain about to what extent is the WPC able to retain and maximize its talent pool over the long term. What are the consequences if it fails to do so? If those consequences are important, what needs to be done to ensure that young talent is retained across their diverse life stages?

The problem of talent retention is sorely neglected in the conventional corners of the WPC and its professional associations. And yet the need to address it is urgent. The WPC must be able to attract and retain available talent, now and in the future, for the following interrelated reasons.

First of all, the Canadian context for water policy development is evolving rapidly. The increasing frequency of extreme events, such as droughts in the Prairie Provinces and urban flooding, and climatic uncertainty mean that governance structures and water management strategies will need to adapt quickly.

Secondly, impending demographic changes and subsequent retirements - a "silver tsunami" - in the WPC will erode institutional knowledge (CIWR 2009). This erosion could weaken the WPCs ability to anticipate and respond to the evolving context of water management.

And finally, the WPC requires diversity in its opinions and its participants to be resilient and able to respond effectively to a quickly changing environment. Diversity generates more critical and comprehensive problem-solving and, potentially, more successful policy construction and implementation.

Transitions in the Water Policy Community

The WPC could experience an enormous loss of senior personnel, along with the related loss of knowledge and experience. While statistics on retirement rates in the Canadian WPC appear to be unavailable at this time, anecdotal evidence from the energy and water sectors suggests there will soon be significant losses. Almost 30 percent of Ontario's Hydro One workforce, for example, is expected to retire in the next three to five years. Ontario's Grand River Conservation Authority has a horizontal management structure and insiders suggest potential human resources problems with impending retirements at one end and recently hired, highly educated, and ambitious, female employees on the other.

These changes suggest both positive and negative implications for the water management profession, which has traditionally been male-dominated, supplyfocused and engineering-driven (Tortajada 2003; Turton et al. 2001). Large-scale retirements could allow an infusion of new knowledge, values, innovations and norms into institutional structures. This infusion could open up new opportunities for change and counter the "old thinking" that some commentators have suggested is entrenched within the WPCs culture and identity (Gleick 2000). Earlier research in Canada has indicated, more critically, that retirements could mean a substantial loss of institutional and experiential knowledge and a dismantling of the WPCs professional networks, if established relationships are severed and if knowledge is not effectively transmitted to incoming professionals (Wolfe 2009). …

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