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Interview 5/7: YWP-ZA showcases inspiring women contributing to South Africa’s water sector

Inga Jacobs-Mata, former YWP chairperson, now at the CSIR

Water&Sanitation Africa magazine interviews Inga Jacobs-Mata, former Young Water Professionals South Africa (YWP-ZA) chairperson:

1. What are your current professional activities?

Research Group Leader for the Integrated Water Solutions Research Group at the CSIR

2. As a ten-year-old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a singer or an actress (also the president of South Africa).

3. What has been your journey as a water sector professional to date?

I didn’t find the water sector, it found me. Social scientists do not necessarily think of a career in the water sector. One of my masters’ professors did a short module on the political debate around water wars and after doing a small assignment on the topic, I was advised to do my Masters and later a PhD in water governance.

4. What personal strengths have assisted you in your career trajectory?

Using my creativity to think outside the box has helped. As a social scientist working in the water sector, you have to have a working knowledge of other disciplines because the types of water challenges we are faced with today are complex and require adaptive and courageous responses. This means working outside outside the confines of a specific discipline. There are many opportunities for social scientists wishing to pursue a career in the water sector if you can be creative and apply yourself to real-world examples.

5. What drives you day-to-day?

Being a better version of me today than what I was yesterday. Self-improvement is what drives me.

6. What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in your career to date?

Dealing with bullies.

7. How do you balance work-personal commitments?

Before I became a mother, I must admit I wasn’t very good at maintaining a work-personal life balance. But having a one-year old hanging on your leg really jolts you out of your work bubble and into the ‘here and now.’ Also, having a good employer is a bonus – one that supports you to grow and develop holistically, and helps you to grow in the areas you are passionate about, as well as challenge you in the areas you’re not.

8. Now that you are working, what tip would you give your ten-year old self?

I would tell her to keep on imagining – even though I’m not an actress or the president of South Africa, I’ve had to rely on public speaking skills and leadership skills that would’ve stood me in good stead in the careers I imagined as a ten-year old, but that are also relevant in my career today.

9. What inspires you about the water sector?

Its complexity. The water challenges we are faced with today are riddled with uncertainty. There is often no one solution. I love how it requires different kinds of people to work together. It’s a microcosm for South Africa in many ways. I also love how if you do things right, you can see tangible results.

10. What are the main challenges for implementing water and sanitation for all?

Reconciling the cost and value of water is by far one of the biggest challenges. As much as water is a human right, it can’t be free – someone needs to pay for the infrastructure, the maintenance thereof, and the service.

11. How are women’s experiences in the water sector different from men’s?

In the workplace, I think women are still underpaid relative to their male counterparts. In the community, women still bear the brunt of the water service delivery challenge and suffer the greatest impacts as a result.

12. How do women need to be supported in the water sector?

Women need more woman mentors. It’s amazing how few women are prepared to mentor younger women. Having male mentors is great, they teach you to focus on your career and grow professionally – but women mentors will help you maintain the work-home life balance.

13. What role has YWP played in your life to date?

It has played a critically important role in growing my network, helping me profile myself nationally and internationally, and ultimately, it introduced me to several previous employers. It’s also a great place to make life-long friends with professional peers that will grow with you throughout your career.

14. How is YWP helping increase the women’s share in the water sector?

All except one of the YWP-ZA chairpersons have been women – there is some serious girl-power there. YWP has therefore helped young women leaders to gain experience in the sector, serve on various committees and boards, and ultimately make a positive change at scale.

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