Gendered occupations in the water sector

This blog is a collaboration between Cecilia Alda Vida, Maria Rusca, Margreet Zwarteveen, Klaas Schwartz and Nicky Pouw to introduce their publication Occupational genders and gendered occupations: the case of water provisioning in Maputo, MozambiqueGender, Place & Culture, 1-17, 2017.

Madalena lives in Magoanine, a periurban neighbourhood of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Together with her husband, they own and run a water provision business that gives service to more than fifty households. When we first went to interview her about her work, her husband was not at home and she feared she would not be able to answer our questions. She did not consider herself as the one responsible for their small water business. Yet, after half an hour of conversation, it became clear that Madalena is very actively involved in the family enterprise: from buying materials, to the collection of water payments, to borrowing money for business expansion. Madalena herself was amused when she realized, after explaining to us what she did: “I have seen that I even do more than him”.

There are many women like Madalena in Maputo, who own, run, or participate in various ways in the more than 800 small water provision businesses of the city. Yet they and their investments and contributions go mostly unnoticed. What is it that makes it difficult for them to present themselves, and be recognized by others as, visible actors in these water businesses?

How water provisioning becomes masculine

In everyday talk in Maputo, entrepreneurial water provisioning is clearly associated with a masculine identity. We often heard assertions like “it is a job for men” (man, water provider), “it is a masculine thing” (man, owner of water business), or “it is not a work for women” (woman, water provider) to describe this occupational activity

When prompted, people would explain how they define water provisioning through qualifiers – such as technical prowess and an entrepreneurial disposition – that are more readily associated with men than with women: men are thought to be ‘naturally’ more technically oriented and gifted, as well as more risk-taking and therefore entrepreneurial. Paulo (man, water provider) for instance affirmed “there are only a few women working in this business, because many of the things that it involves are man’s things, you need to be strong to work with heavy pipes, to dig for their installation, you need to walk a lot to read the meters, getting the money for the first investment is also quite difficult”

Strong enough?

Dismantling the stereotypes

A detailed focus on the everyday activities of water service provisioning provides a much less stereotypically gendered image of what the profession and the business entails. Thus (re-)defining what water service provisioning consists of also calls into question how the business is associated with men or the masculine.

In most water provisioning businesses, the infrastructure is located in the residential compound of the owners. This implies that the day-to-day operation of the business de facto often becomes the responsibility of those who happen to be near-by, making it relatively logical and easy for women – who happen to be at home more often than men – to become involved. Yet, as the boundaries between the household and business are blurred, women tend to label their involvement in water provisioning activities as an extension of their domestic or household duties, rather than labelling it as a contribution to the business. This is one reason why their participation becomes invisible.

Furthermore, describing the business as dominated by technical activities downplays the importance of many other tasks, which are equally or more prominent and time consuming. These include the management of the company and maintaining relations with the customers, including billing and revenue collection, following up on non-paying customers and managing customer complaints, which is more often done by women. In actual practice, technical knowledge is not a prerequisite for successfully running a water provisioning business. In fact, most of the owners – men as well as women – do not themselves undertake the technical and physical work, but instead hire employees or plumbers.

The difference in the way women and men approach and talk about the technical part of the activity seems to derive more from the pride each gender can take in doing technical work, than it is a reflection of how much they actually do it. While women tend to hide or downplay their involvement because as Paula (woman, water provider) said: “they don’t want people to tell them that they work as a man”, men often take pride in their technical prowess and overstate their participation in technical activities.

In relation to entrepreneurial abilities, our interviews show that women do not perceive themselves as lacking an entrepreneurial disposition or being risk averse. They are well aware of the income-earning opportunity the business offers, describing it as relatively low monetary risk (but coming with social risks) and with (potentially) high return rates.

When we started selling water there was no one doing it here, […] We knew water was a good business, profitable, the boreholes do not fail and they last in time so they can be used in the future by our kids” (woman, water provider)

Rather than risk-aversion, the populist explanation for why women are less successful entrepreneurs, a main barrier to enter this market is capital. As Esperança (woman, water provider) explains:

“the main problem is that one needs to have something to pawn, otherwise the bank does not give you any money. […] In addition you have to show that you know for what you need the money and that you understand the business.”

The high investment costs explain why there are fewer women leading water businesses than there are in other small-scale informal businesses requiring smaller capital investments.

Who controls the flows?

What are the implication for gender and water?

Our research shows that the dominant portrayal of the profession as something technical, entrepreneurial and therefore masculine, makes it more difficult for women to draw attention to and take pride in their water provisioning work, as it may make them appear less appropriately feminine. Therefore, they attempt accounting for this work in ways that makes it seem compatible with their womanhood, (i.e. downplaying their participation or describing it as an extension of their domestic and caring activities). By doing so women risk undervaluing their own importance as water providers, while also making it more difficult for others to recognize or support their contributions.

Strategies to effectively support and create more space and power for women involved in the business require the explicit recognition and re-conceptualization of provisioning as a household activity. This will allow for occupational femininities behind the business to be acknowledged, and effectively supported and empowered.



Here you can read the details of our research and the implications of our findings for urban water and gender:

  • Alda-Vidal, C., Rusca, M., Zwarteveen, M., Schwartz, K., & Pouw, N. (2017) Occupational genders and gendered occupations: the case of water provisioning in Maputo, Mozambique. Gender, Place & Culture, 1-17, doi:10.1080/0966369X.2017.1339019
  • INHABIT Cities:



This research has been undertaken in the framework of the collaboration between INHAbIT Cities (Investigating Natural, Historical and Institutional Transformations in Cities) and UNHIDE (Uncovering Hidden Dynamics in Slum Environments). INHAbIT Cities is sponsored by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 656738

Cite this blog post
Margreet Zwarteveen (2017, November 30). Gendered occupations in the water sector. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Margreet Zwarteveen

I am professor of Water Governance at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and the University of Amsterdam. Trained as both an engineer and a social scientist, I study water allocation policies and practices, focusing on questions of equity and justice. My research includes the study of different institutional and technical modalities for allocating water and regulating water flows, and of different ways to understand or legitimize these. I use an interdisciplinary approach, seeing water allocation as the often contested outcome of interactions between nature, technologies and society.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Marion Wesely says:

    Dear Hypotheses blogger,
    We found your article particularly interesting. To increase its visibility so the community can more easily appreciate it, we made it a headline article on the slider.
    Best regards,
    The team

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search