Thirsty for Representation: (In)visible Women of the Deschutes River Basin

In the third post of the series “(En)Gendering water diplomacy”, Jahan Taganova and Jaclyn Best present their study on women representation in water organisations in the Deschutes River basin (Oregon, USA). They call for the collection of gender data in the water sector and also urge for more research on the representation of women in water management and governance in developed countries.

Women’s roles have been traditionally connected to the provision of water resources at the household level, while men tend to dominate positions in the management and governance of water resources at the local, regional, state, and interstate levels. This sharp division of labor on the basis of gender roles has led to the use of gender-inclusive approaches in the field of water resource management to promote efficiency and equity. For instance, forums such as the International  Drinking Water Supplies and Sanitation Decade Review (1990), the Dublin Principles on Water and the Environment (1992), the United Nations Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and more recently, the World Water Forum (2018) have endorsed the idea that more action must be taken to promote gender equality in the water resources management field.

Although the vital role of women as decision-makers has been recognized within international development and in global water dialogues, the research and promotion of equality for women in managing and governing water have been primarily focused in the Global South where high-level positions of influence and power are predominantly held by men. As a result, in these regions, the roles of women in the water sector have been studied and quantified for over two decades. While this focus is not without merit, there is little, if any, empirical data on the roles of women in the water sector or research on the gender distribution of water sector jobs in the Global North.

The Deschutes River (Credits: Jaclyn Best)

When visiting the Deschutes River Basin (DRB)—a tributary of the Columbia River Basin in central Oregon (see map 1 below) —in the Summer of 2019, we could not help but notice that in each water-related organization, women often occupied secretarial positions, and the managers or directors that we interacted with were primarily men. We saw this as an opportunity to find out more about the role women play in water resource management and governance in the basin.  

Map 1. Deschutes River Basin
(Credits: Sona Bayramova)

Despite being a thoroughly researched basin, there is no mention of women’s role in managing water resources in the DRB. This was not surprising, as gender data–data that is disaggregated by sex, and reflects gender issues, including roles, relations, and inequalities–in the water sector in the entire USA are lacking. To bridge this gap, we decided to collect gender data in the DRB’s water related organizations to understand the role that gender plays in the governance and management of the basin. We specifically focused on gathering sex-disaggregated data–data is that collected and tabulated separately for men and women. Using publicly available information and organizational contacts, we ultimately identified over 733 employees within 41 organizations and assessed the extent of decision-making power and duties within their roles (e.g., were employees hydrological engineers or were their duties more secretarial in nature?). We conducted this analysis broadly and based on organization type, such as local government, state government, federal government, irrigation district, and non-governmental organization (NGO).

Based on our findings, we argue that sex-disaggregated data in the water sector is needed to facilitate shifts in policy and ignite interest among academics and practitioners to research how changes in the representation and capacity of women in water management organizations can contribute to enhanced democratic norms, respect for human rights, and contribute to improved social cohesion in general.


In the entire basin, we found that women held 31% of all positions and 29% of all decision-making roles. In irrigation districts – small organizations that physically manage water and secure water rights for irrigation purposes – women held only 10% of positions with decision-making power. In administrative/secretarial jobs, women made up 74% of those roles in the entire river basin. (For full breakdown on data, see Infographics 1-2).

Infographic 1. Basin-wide sex-disaggregated data

It is important to understand the larger context within which our study is situated. In the western United States, water has been traditionally managed in a ‘command and control’ style. This style of water management is characterized by large hydro-engineering projects such as building hydro-electric dams and holding water in man-made reservoirs for irrigation.

Water related professions such as hydrological engineers and irrigators have traditionally been male dominated; therefore, it is unsurprising that we found this to be the case in our research. For instance, the data from the DRB show that occupations such as ditch operator, water master, and engineers were predominantly occupied by men — 76% of them to be exact. Irrigation districts, which deal directly with the physical management of water for irrigation, saw very few women in any position other than secretarial jobs. The bond between masculinity and the water sector has persisted even as the antiquated style of water management moves away from its male-dominated origins. To date, in the DRB, decisions on where and when water flows through the river have been predominantly made by men.

The infographic shows sex-disaggregated data
Infographic 2. Sexdisaggregated data within non-governmental organizations and irrigation Districts.

The way forward

It is difficult to discern the complete picture of the role water plays in the lives of women due to the lack of gender-disaggregated data. Without sufficient and thorough gender data, the possibility of producing scientific evidence on gender inequalities related to water is impeded, policy makers cannot make informed decisions, and it is challenging to track the government and water related institutions that are tasked with improving the current situation. Gender data supports organizational decision-making and triggers strategy/policy adaptations in response to gathered data. Reliable gender data is one of the most powerful tools to inform and engage policymakers and funders alike.

As a result of our findings, we conclude that gender-inclusive data are needed to:

  • accurately track and analyze changes in water resource management;
  • identify the least-represented socio-demographic groups;
  • broaden representation and power of stakeholders and include a broad range of voices to create more equitable and sustainable solutions to water management issues and enhance future cooperation; and
  • amplify the formal voice of underrepresented groups in decision-making processes in order to enact effective, equitable policies over how water is distributed among users.

While the lack of gender data in the water sector and its implications are significant, there is also an urgent need to study the representation of women in water management and governance. While our results provide more insight into persistent gender inequities in the water sector, it is only a start. Our study only tells part of the story about gendered divisions of roles within water organizations in the DRB. Specifically, we only looked at data in a gender binary – men/women – and did not examine other intersecting dimensions such as race or education level. It is important to note that the history of Oregon’s racial dynamics and the recent racial and social justice tension felt in this area will impact understandings of how race and gender intersect in the region.

Research like this should not stop with gathering and analyzing sex-disaggregated data, which often happens in gender-based research. Nonetheless, sex-disaggregated data can pave the way forward to tailored responses or, at least, spark the interest of policymakers and researchers for further investigation to unravel how women and men themselves perceive their powers and labor.

Research should go beyond looking at data in a gender binary and expand to include dimensions such as race, class, and level of education. As racial disparities have been extremely visible in 2020 in Oregon and the rest of the country, we are reminded that marginalized groups are often absent from board rooms and decision-making tables.

Finally, as we have already addressed, simply hiring more women in jobs and workplaces traditionally held by men, will not produce gender equality. In workplaces such as hydrological engineering, there are also embedded masculine norms that are more pervasive than the people occupying the workplace, holding women to a double standard of being a “lady” and an engineer.

The ultimate challenge for policy and decision-makers once they are provided with strong evidence of gender data is to take action beyond numbers. This will be only the beginning of meaningful, systematic reform.


Jahan Taganova is a graduate of a joint-degree master’s program in Water Cooperation and Diplomacy from IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, UN Mandated University for Peace, and Oregon State University. She is interested in water governance, climate justice, critical development studies, transnational feminist theories, and social justice, among others. 

Jaclyn Best is also a graduate of the joint master’s program in Water Cooperation and Diplomacy, and is currently a PhD candidate in Integrated Coastal Sciences at East Carolina University in the United States. In addition to studying the intersections between water, conflict, and gender, her research interests focus on how water governance and policy are influenced by marginalized groups and public participation. 


You can read here the first and the second posts of the series (En)gendering Water Diplomacy.

Cite this blog post
Jahan Taganova (2021, July 9). Thirsty for Representation: (In)visible Women of the Deschutes River Basin. FLOWs. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Jahan Taganova

Jahan is a development professional working at the intersection of gender, disability, water and climate change. Jahan obtained MS in Water Cooperation and Diplomacy from IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, UN Mandated University for Peace, and Oregon State University. Currently, Jahan is working as a Senior Project Manager at Panorama Global, where she is supporting fiscally sponsored projects across multiple issue areas such as climate, health and gender equality.

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