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Women in hydrogeology

The Hydrogeological Group celebrated the technical work undertaken by women in this field, highlighting the challenges women face and the actions needed to move things forward

Words by Rolf Farrell and colleagues
4 September 2023

A salt marsh in Tollesbury, Essex, UK. As part of the 2023 Darcy Lecture, Prof Alicia Wilson discussed the importance of salt marshes for carbon sequestration

Gender balance in the hydrogeological community has been a focus of the Hydrogeological Group for some time. The Women in Hydrogeology meeting, held at Burlington House, London, in February 2023, provided the opportunity to discuss not just the science, but the women who have contributed to that science, the challenges they continue to face in the field of hydrogeology, and the actions and policies we can adopt to overcome barriers. This well-attended event generated an overwhelming feeling of positivity, with delegates enjoying a relaxed atmosphere and the opportunity to network with friends and contacts, old and new. 

Then and now

A quick internet search of the history of women in hydrogeology often draws a blank. Xenia Boyes (H. Fraser Consulting, UK) uncovered a selection of women who have held key roles in the evolution of the hydrogeological sciences over the past century. Amongst a number of women, Xenia highlighted Norah Dowell Stearns [1891–1954] who, in 1924, was the first woman employed as a hydrogeologist at the USGS, the ‘Water Babies’ recruited to monitor groundwater for public supply during World War II, and Shirley Jean Dreiss [1949–1993] who made a wide contribution to hydrogeology, including the role of groundwater in subduction zones. 

In a wide-ranging keynote talk, Jane Dottridge (Mott MacDonald, UK) described her long and respected career in hydrogeology. She drew upon her experience as a technical reviewer on groundwater modelling projects to emphasise the important point that while conceptual models must be convincing to both specialist and less-technical stakeholders, some people have unrealistic expectations of what such models can predict. It is essential to be able to defend complex but flawed models against simplistic yet superficially more convincing models, and to recognise that improved understanding is achieved via further data collection and local refinement. Jane also drew attention to various declarations from around the world that recognise the significance of groundwater, highlighting the need to understand the paradox that whilst over-abstraction of groundwater is often a problem, for the two billion people living in water poverty, groundwater abstraction must be part of the solution. 

Viviana Re (University of Pisa, Italy) discussed socio-hydrogeology – an unfamiliar area to many of us. She emphasised the power of transdisciplinary sciences and the importance of linking our science with social, behavioural and cognitive sciences to engage the public and stakeholders with our activities. Viviana highlighted that it is essential to understand both how specific hydrogeological cycles work and how people use groundwater (as well as the alternative options they may or may not have available). The key is to directly engage with well owners and local informants to gain otherwise inaccessible data; a participatory approach, rather than top-down, to ensure water users understand the science. This method can help mitigate communication issues.

Alicia Wilson, a professor of hydrogeology in the School of the Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of South Carolina, USA, gave the 2023 Darcy Lecture – an annual award by the Groundwater Foundation given in honour of Henry Darcy to an outstanding groundwater professional. Alicia, who specialises in coastal ecohydrology and submarine groundwater discharge, discussed the eco-hydrogeology of salt marshes, illustrating how groundwater flow influences plant zonation, the impact of drought and sea-level rise on salt marsh migration, and the carbon budgets for salt marshes. This is a key point given the effectiveness of salt marshes for carbon sequestration against substantial losses of these habitats to development over the last 200 years. Alicia also showed how, if wide enough, salt marshes might function as salinity buffers for coastal development. 

Equality and equity

The technical discussions also highlighted the ongoing challenges women hydrogeologists face. For example, Tessa Gough (Newcastle University, UK) spoke of her time in a refugee camp in Jordan managing water supply and wastewater, as well as joining a team responding to major flooding from rainfall and a storm surge after a typhoon in the Philippines, providing water and cleaning contaminated wells. Recounting her experiences, she highlighted the personal challenges of being the only female in remote camps in Australia, as well as completing a PhD whilst being parent to a toddler. 

A panel discussion hosted by Hannah Fraser (H Fraser Consulting, UK) noted recent improvements in equality in the workplace, particularly in the UK, where there is currently reasonable gender equality at the early career stage. However, it will take time for parity to be reached at more senior levels, and senior staff have an essential role to play in supporting junior staff – something that is improving but cannot be taken for granted. The discussions made the important distinction between equality and equity. It is not sufficient to simply give every individual or group access to the same resources or opportunities (equality), rather we need to recognise that every person has different circumstances that require different resources to ensure an equal outcome (equity). For example, ‘women-friendly’ company policies, such as flexible working, are actually ‘everybody friendly’. However, with the shift to home working, it is increasingly difficult for junior members of staff to network, particularly if funding restrictions limit their ability to attend external face-to-face events; reliance on virtual meetings is not an adequate substitute. The development of various early career networks (including that of the Hydrogeological Group) may play a key role here. 

The hydrogeology community is a thoughtful one that cares about its people but this should not allow for complacency

During the panel discussion, the audience were asked whether they believed their organisations supported women’s issues in the profession and the vast majority did. It is encouraging to hear that the hydrogeology community is a thoughtful one that cares about its people but this should not allow for complacency. 

Rolf Farrell (Environment Agency, UK, and Hydrogeological Group Chair) provided an overview of the endeavours of the Hydrogeological Group to understand and quantify the contributions that women make to our activities, providing recommendations for how we can ensure that women are adequately represented. Women make up approximately 40% of our community but often only 25-35% of the oral presenters at our events; conversely, women submit proportionately more posters. To help address this disparity, it is important to avoid picking male keynote speakers by default; it is rarely difficult to identify appropriately qualified, high-profile female speakers. We improved the proportion of women serving on the Hydrogeological Group committee through positive discrimination, asking for only female candidates in the 2019 intake of new committee members. As a one-off, this approach was very effective and hopefully it will not be necessary to repeat this in future years. To aid accessibility, we now offer virtual attendance for all our technical meetings. The first meeting we held with a virtual attendance option was the May 2023 Aquifer Monitoring conference and, interestingly, 55% of the virtual attendees were women compared to 46% of in-person attendees. We are currently considering other ideas from delegates and welcome further suggestions. The Hydrogeological Group aims to keep these issues at the top of our agenda going forward. 

Rolf Farrell, Environment Agency, UK, and Chair, Hydrogeological Group  

Elanor Hodkin, Environment Agency, UK, and Secretary, Hydrogeological Group

Hannah Fraser, H Fraser Consulting, UK

Norline Martin, Atkins Global, UK

Read more www.hydrogroup.org.uk/women-in-hydrogeology

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