On sustainable team decision-making and the visibility of women in technical professions | Interview with Dr. Gesche Grützmacher, Berliner Wasserbetriebe – #WomenInWater

In the column “Women in the water industry – #WomenInWater”, German Water Partnership, together with female interviewees from the international water sector, highlights the role of women in the still predominantly male-dominated water supply and sanitation sector. The aim of the interview series is to make women more visible in the sector and to encourage young professionals to pursue a career in this field.

For the third issue of the campaign, we spoke with Dr. Gesche Grützmacher. She studied geology in Heidelberg and at the Technical University of Berlin. Dr. Grützmacher earned her doctorate on the topic of opencast lignite mines and groundwater quality at the Free University of Berlin and then worked at the Federal Environmental Agency and the Berlin Center of Competence for Water. Currently, as Head of Central Tasks and Drinking Water Quality at Berliner Wasserbetriebe, she and her team are responsible for the quality treatment and safeguarding of Berlin’s drinking water.

Dear Dr. Grützmacher, As Head of Central Tasks and Drinking Water Quality at Berliner Wasserbetriebe, what activities fall within your area of responsibility? Are you the guardian of Berlin’s drinking water?

(Laughs) I would say that together with my colleagues I form a strong team that helps to ensure the quality and quantity of Berlin’s drinking water. We take care of the process engineering of our nine waterworks, which operate according to the principle of near-natural drinking water treatment. At first glance, this does not appear to be particularly technical, but aeration and filtration must be continuously checked and safeguarded. In addition, there are new challenges that we have to prepare for, such as trace substances or resource scarcity, for which we have to prepare and equip ourselves.

On the other hand, my team and I are responsible for the drinking water quality as it is then fed into the network. We are helped in this by a very sophisticated monitoring system to ensure that Berlin’s drinking water quality is safeguarded in the long term.

A career in the water sector: What brought you here?

Already during my geology studies, I wanted to go in the direction of environmental protection and quickly focused on hydrogeology. The path to water management, was obvious to me after a few years in research, because I realized that the projects that really interest me are those that are not only researched, but also implemented in practice.

I worked in research projects at the Federal Environment Agency, but also at the Kompetenzzentrum Wasser Berlin, where I was already leading a small team. Because of my application-oriented research, it was only logical for me to orient myself in the direction of water supply. As the head of the water management team at Berliner Wasserbetriebe, I was able to work in a really nice area of responsibility that is technically complex and in which I was able to put research findings into practice.

What challenges or even obstacles have you encountered on your way into the water sector? Are there perhaps challenges that women in particular have to face?

At the beginning, right after graduation, the challenge was to find a job in the field of environmental protection or water supply at all – and not just a temporary job in research, but a job with a longer-term perspective. For the first ten years of my professional life, I worked exclusively in temporary jobs. It was a great challenge to stay loyal to the sector under these conditions; I simply got tired of shuffling from contract to contract. Today, fortunately, things are different. Young graduates are usually offered a permanent contract by the second contract at the latest.

Looking back, I would have liked to convey to my 25-year-old self that everything will be fine, that she doesn’t have to worry, that she will find a job, and that she will find a good job. And I think that would have helped me a lot at the time and avoided many sleepless nights.

A challenge that probably primarily women have to face becomes apparent in the course of starting a family. I was very glad that I had found a job at that time that made it possible for me to work part-time. At least in public water utilities, part-time work models are now standard – in contrast to my experience in the private water industry. I would say this is an issue that needs to be addressed. On the one hand, this includes the right working time or job sharing models – because especially in a position of responsibility, it’s less about financial security, since both parents usually work, and more about staying in and maintaining one’s leadership position. But this also includes the young fathers who go part-time and thus make their contribution. I think it’s extremely important that it’s not automatically the women who take a back seat. In the future, we must continue to think in this direction. In my opinion, we’re on the right track here, but we have to follow it.

The number of women in management positions in the water industry is steadily increasing. However, women are still generally underrepresented, especially in technical and management positions. The gap becomes even more apparent when looking at the private water and wastewater sector. Decisions about innovations, technologies and infrastructure are (still) largely made by men. Do you think it’s a problem that women are underrepresented, or is it simply numbers for you?

Sure! You notice that especially the moment you do without the input of well-educated women, then of course you lose something. You have to be aware of that if you don’t offer women the opportunity to take on positions of responsibility as well. I believe that it is important for decisions of great consequence to be shared by many shoulders. If you like, you can call this a female leadership style: I don’t make decisions alone, but together with my team, which has a direct impact on our team spirit.

In saying this, I am not saying that decisions made only by men are worse – but I am convinced that working in an all-male or all-female team is not as fruitful as working in a mixed team, where decisions can ultimately be made more sustainably.

In water management, as in many other technical professions, women are generally less present. At Berliner Wasserbetriebe, we have a relatively good mix. But of course it is the case that only a few women work in the more technical areas, but they are no less successful than their male colleagues. I like to encourage all the women around me, whether they are students, interns or young employees, to stay involved and be visible – the all-male teams that existed in the past are also a thing of the past.

What has been your best or most memorable professional experience so far?

What also inspired me the most was the work I did in a team, where I really worked on a topic together with highly qualified colleagues. There were moments like that in the project work at the Kompetenzzentrum Wasser Berlin, but also here at Berliner Wasserbetriebe. For example, in our strategy development, which builds on a technically sound decision-making process, is then implemented and produces practical results that ultimately lead to an improvement in water quality at best.

What does water mean to you?

To me, water not only means the basis of life for us humans, but it also means quality of life. Not only in the city, but also in nature. That’s why we have to treat water with the utmost care and give it the protection it deserves.

German Water Partnership e.V. (GWP) is a network of around 300 companies and institutions from German industry and research in the water sector. With the column “Women in the water industry – #WomenInWater”, the association enters into an exchange with international industry representatives and shows the everyday working life of women in the male-dominated industry. In the next issue, we look forward to a conversation with Beverly Farrara of The Water Council.

Previously published in this series: