DE&I: Welcoming, and Fostering People From All Backgrounds, Races, Ethnicities and More

The Water Environment Federation takes aggressive action to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in in its own ranks and across the industry.

DE&I: Welcoming, and Fostering People From All Backgrounds, Races, Ethnicities and More

Stephen Sanders

Two years ago the WEFTEC general session included a major presentation on the need for diversity in the water and wastewater sectors — how workforces should look more like the communities they serve.

Now the Water Environment Federation is focusing on a broader initiative of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), starting within its own ranks but also reaching out to its member associations and thereby to the industry at large.

It’s a continuation of efforts that actually began several years ago. Three leaders of the DE&I initiative shared their perspectives in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

Stephen Sanders is a member of the WEF DE&I board of trustees subcommittee, a member of the New York Water Environment Association DE&I Committee, and head instructor/director of the Environmental Training Center at State University of New York Morrisville College.

Megan Yoo Schneider is co-chair of the WEF DE&I board of trustees subcommittee, client account leadership senior manager with Accenture, and vice president of the Municipal Water District of Orange County (California) board of directors.

Duncan Donnell, P.E., S.E., is co-chair of the WEF DE&I board of trustees subcommittee, speaker-elect of the WEF House of Delegates, and associate vice president of Arcadis.

How would you define and differentiate the terms: diversity, equity and inclusion?

Sanders: Diversity encompasses all the various backgrounds, cultures, experiences and perspectives. That’s a good start; I can look at the numbers and check boxes and be diverse. But what happens when a person comes into an environment that’s not inclusive? That person doesn’t stay. Inclusion says, “Come on in, we’re going to celebrate your different viewpoints.” And equity means we want everybody to have not only the same opportunity but the same access to the things everyone else has, so they can reach their full potential. Sometimes equity means we have to do things to make up for disadvantages that one underrepresented group or another might have. 

Yoo Schneider: Even something as simple as diversity, what does diversity mean in terms of how we measure it? We immediately think gender. Then we may think ethnicity. But when you dive into it, there’s neurodiversity, relationship status, religion, hidden medical disabilities and more. And even for different ethnicities, if you were born and raised in the United States, that’s a very different experience from being an immigrant. There are so many factors to consider. Open dialogue is what enables us to achieve progress.

How did you assess the state of DE&I at treatment plants and in utility organizations?

Duncan: When we started the DE&I task force, our biggest question was where we were going to get the data. At the time most people in the water industry knew the Brookings Institution’s 2018 “Renewing the Water Workforce” study. It was a study of studies, using existing data. It didn’t drill down to exactly what was happening in a water plant, but they were able to get at least a high-level understanding of what kind of diversity existed in the water industry. Then we did own survey of our membership to see what demographics we have in WEF itself. Outside of that, a lot of our data is anecdotal.

Do you have a feel for how the industry is doing in terms of DE&I?

Yoo Schneider: The Brookings Institute study showed that the water industry as a whole is still 85% male and over two-thirds white. And as we get to the operator role, it skews even more male and more predominantly white than many other positions.

Can you share any of your own experiences in this realm?

Yoo Schneider: My first job in the water industry was in operations and maintenance. I was the only woman and often one of the only Asians in the plant. I think nowadays people say “Oh, well, there are a lot more women now and a lot more people of color.” But the numbers show us that while there are more than they were before, we’re still a long ways from achieving parity with the communities that we serve.

Why did WEF decide to focus first on DE&I internally?

Yoo Schneider: We felt we couldn’t tell utilities, “It’s important to reflect the communities you serve” if we as an organization didn’t reflect the communities we serve. It’s a little bit of a chicken-or-egg situation. WEF members aren’t going to be diverse if we ourselves don’t have a diverse workforce. At the same time, our preliminary research shows WEF members are more diverse than the water industry. Diverse people seek membership in WEF to gain access to more information and to a broader network. It’s a place for them to get advice and to seek input from people all over the country and the world. Often there is no safe place to address these issues in their workplaces or in their own professional associations.

What do you see as some of the key challenges to advancing DE&I?

Duncan: We’ve had two challenges happening at the same time. First we had the aging workforce, among operators specifically. While dealing with that, there was the lack of diversity in areas like race, ethnicity and gender. In recruiting, we’ve had to address those two issues at once. Before we started dealing with diversity issue, the first demographic key was age, because the workforce needed to get the work done. Now it’s time to address other demographics.

Sanders: One thing I’m proud of is how everyone’s awareness was heightened over the summer of George Floyd. It wasn’t just a certain group of people, it was a lot of people saying things were not equitable. A reason I’m excited about our efforts is that we’re moving from awareness to action. I can wear a T-shirt or fly a banner — that’s awareness, but where’s the action? This feels different. We’re moving beyond awareness and getting into action.

Where do you see more progress being needed?

Yoo Schneider: There is a lack of awareness of water and wastewater roles period, and then even for those go to college, a lot of freshman and sophomore women in STEM majors tend to drop out. Research shows that once they graduate with a STEM degree, men are eight times more likely than women to get a job in a STEM career. Once they enter the STEM industry, within the first 12 years of their career, the attrition rate of women leaving their jobs is 50%, versus 20% in careers outside of STEM. Literally every week I have somebody text message or email me saying, “I’m thinking of leaving the water industry; there’s just not enough support, I don’t see a future for myself.”

What specific actions is WEF taking to further DE&I?

Duncan: We incorporated DE&I into our strategic plan, so it isn’t just a high-level conversation. We put together a task force and in 2020 spun that into a board subcommittee. Because volunteers can do only so much, we hired a DE&I consultant to do this work full time. The consultants work hand in hand with our subcommittee. WEF did a member survey that drew more than 1,500 responses. We did six focus groups with participants including women operators, women scientists and people of color. And we conducted individual interviews with people from a cross section of WEF stakeholder groups. At the same time the House of Delegates created a DE&I work group to focus specifically on what is happening with our member associations.

Yoo Schneider: Several years ago we created inFLOW as a program for young people to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion in the water workforce. It has led to deep-rooted relationships with historically Black colleges and universities, enabling us to create that pipeline. There are tracks within inFLOW for STEM careers and for technical careers that don’t require college degrees.

How is the House of Delegates work group reaching out into the member associations?

Duncan:  The work group did a survey of member associations concerning what they are doing in DE&I. At WEFTEC 2021 we launched a toolkit that member associations can use to pursue DE&I at the local level. We’ve done a lot of trainings where we brought together leaders from our national organization and the member associations.

How do you see DE&I benefitting the water workforce across the board?

Yoo Schneider: To meet our need for a resilient and sustainable water workforce, we need to expand who we recruit and how we retain them. That’s where DE&I is important. It’s hard to recruit women and people of color if they feel they don’t have the same opportunity for promotions. One of the key things is that nobody is losing anything in the journey for DE&I. All the research shows that achieving equity improves conditions for all of us. A Goldman Sachs report showed that just by helping create more equity for Black women, we increase jobs in the U.S. for everyone and increase the GDP for everyone. We’re not saying, “Let’s take away operator jobs from white men.” We’re saying just the opposite. We have a workforce shortage and a need for innovation. DE&I efforts help address that.

People in the water industry often complain about being under-recognized and taken for granted. We all know what it feels like to be slighted and unappreciated and othered. We need to take that feeling and recognize that we don’t want anyone to feel like that. We want the water industry to be inclusive because that helps us become more innovative, sustainable and resilient. That’s the win-win situation.

What should utilities and treatment plant team members do to further DE&I?

Sanders: A lot of it has to do with education. I think it’s important first of all to educate yourself. We have to see the value, because we won’t do anything we don’t see value in. What are you looking at in terms of underrepresented groups in your organization? Educate yourself about your own utility and see where you need to go from there. If you find that your utility, as it relates to retention and leadership responsibilities, does not represent your community, that’s the definition of a problem. Your current situation doesn’t meet your ideal situation — how do you build that bridge? Having these conversations with other people who don’t look like you — that’s where you really can get educated.

Duncan: Engaging DE&I professionals definitely helps. If you want to upgrade safety in your organization, you want to engage safety professionals. In the same way, if you want to do DE&I and you’re as serious about it as you are about other things, you should engage DE&I practitioners — people who bring a level of knowledge you may not otherwise have.

Yoo Schneider: This is a journey. We’re not going to magically achieve all our goals and create a diverse, equitable and inclusive water industry in the next five or ten years. It’s a progressive journey. DE&I has to become embedded into how we educate, how we recruit, how we create our organizational cultures, how we lead, and how we plan for the future.   


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