VicWater prides itself on the tagline of ‘Better Together.’ Under the leadership of CEO Jo Lim, VicWater has continued to grow and support Victorian water corporations in various roles, including diversity and inclusion across the sector. This is particularly the case when it comes to a leading role for women in water.
“The people in the water sector, to me anyway, have a genuine passion and commitment for their work. They are here to deliver an essential service to the community and to provide overall public value for Victoria. Everyone I deal with in the water sector clearly understands that that is their purpose.”
These are the words of Jo Lim, chief executive officer of VicWater. VicWater is the peak body for water corporations in Victoria. It plays a vital role in the Victorian water industry. Its purpose is to influence government policy, provide industry forums on priority issues, and disseminate news and information to members and stakeholders.
Lim has been with VicWater for close to four years. She has found it to be an industry full of passionate people with a strong desire to come together and collaborate wherever possible.
“In Victoria, we have 18 water corporations that do not compete with each other,” said Lim. “Each water corporation has its service area and is owned by the same government shareholder. That has led to an incredible culture of collaboration where the water corporations want to come together on different topics. Like we say at VicWater, we are better together. The water corporations come together to achieve greater efficiencies across the sector, introduce innovations or achieve better outcomes for their customers and community overall.”
Increasing diversity and inclusion
VicWater operates a Women in Water Directors Network, which came about due to government policy. Lim explained how VicWater came to run the network.
“In 2015, the then Victorian Minister for Water, the Hon. Lisa Neville MP took a deliberative action to achieve a 50/50 gender balance on water corporation boards,” Lim said. “It was government policy, but she was the first minister to implement it by appointing several new female board members in one fell swoop, rather than doing it over a longer period.”
When this happened, it introduced several women to the water industry who had little to no experience with the sector. While there was no doubt that these women were experienced non-executive directors, it took time to adjust to the industry.
“The Women in Water Directors Network was formed in 2016 as an initiative of several female directors. It was originally an informal network but was formalised by VicWater at the request of the female directors. The then-CEO was more than happy to do so. The initial purpose was to support all the new women entering the sector through peer connections, mentoring and networking events,” said Lim.
At the time, they would hold three or four events per year where they would come together and support each other. Over time, the network has become more formal with a fleshed-out mentoring program. It has since introduced an Allies Program, which Lim compares to the Champions of Change Coalition. The Allies Program incorporates male directors who support gender equality.
“VicWater has also expanded its programs to include catchment management authorities across Victoria,” she said. “It’s been fantastic to have about 200 female directors and chairs across water and catchment management authorities. It continues to grow; it’s active and always evolving.”
It’s not about the numbers
Lim is keen to point out that mere numbers are not the point of the Women in Water Directors Network. There are much bigger cultural, attitudinal, and behavioural issues to discuss.
“With the last round of board appointments in 2021, the number of female directors in water corporations reached 67 per cent, and female chairs hit 66 per cent. The question gets asked – ‘If you’ve got the numbers now, what do you still need a women directors network for?’” said Lim.
“Gender equality is more than numbers. It is about embedding gender equality within the entire organisational culture and ensuring that the behaviours and attitudes flow from the boardroom through the whole organisation.”
“I know members of the network are keen to use their position on their boards to influence their organisations around gender equality,” Lim said. “Many are actively doing that. I think that’s where I see the network taking a broader view across the industry of gender equality. It’s not just at the board level or non-executive director level. It’s within the corporation and trying to embed that within the culture of the water industry. The reality is that the requirement for a 50/50 gender balance results from current government policy. That could change in future, so does the industry have a culture that would support a 50/50 gender balance for board appointments without a government mandate?”
The frozen middle
One area of focus for the Women in Water Directors Network is improving opportunities for women at all levels. Lim understands this at a fundamental level and points to the Victorian water industry’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. While the five-year strategy is being updated this year, a lot can be learned from the previous iteration.
“VicWater produces an annual performance report against that strategy every year,” Lim said. “Within that, we have a target of a 50/50 gender balance within senior leadership roles – that is, the managing director level and the next two tiers down. We are currently at 44 per cent female managing directors and general managers, a dramatic increase from two years ago. The same cannot be said for the next tier down, which tends to be stuck at about 35 per cent. The Women in Water Directors Network calls this the frozen middle,” said Lim.
The frozen middle refers to women stuck in middle management and finding it difficult to progress in their careers. VicWater is not the only group in Victoria examining this. The Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) is also studying this area, following instructions from then-Minister Neville to set up a program for executive women in the water sector.
The future of VicWater and Women in Water
VicWater is developing its strategic plan for the next five years, which finishes at the end of June. Lim is engaging with its members and the board. She continues to raise VicWater’s profile, build its reputation, and show its credibility within the industry. At her core, Lim knows what is most important for VicWater.
“We must focus on best supporting our members to meet their challenges and take advantage of whatever opportunities arise,” she said. “We’re working with our members to prioritise the issues they want us to work on. There are obvious things such as climate change adaptation, the sector’s financial sustainability, Traditional Owner participation, and community engagement. There are also workforce issues around attracting and retaining talent as well as looking after the safety and wellbeing of our workforce.”