Q&A with Gisela Kaiser |  Women in WASH Leadership Series

Gisela Kaiser, Vice President of Water Globe Consultants LLC, and a member of the ROCKBlue roster of specialists, shares advice for young female professionals.


What is your educational background and how has it advanced your career?

As an undergrad, I studied Civil Engineering at WITS university. It was a time when numbers in engineering faculties were dwindling, and female engineering students were in short supply. In our first-year class of 80, there were three females. By the time we graduated, there were only 23 of us, and the three of us were in the top five. I wasn’t a very good student until final year, when things fell into place for me, and I started understanding first principles.

I later did a Graduate Diploma in Engineering straight after graduating. I would recommend continuing some form of study part-time whenever possible. Continuing education is so crucial and I think that it is easier to proactively embrace it than to resist. Keeping one’s hand in on writing exams and assignments is very useful! I decided to do an MBA shortly after my divorce. With two small children, I figured it was as good a time as any. I thoroughly enjoyed the course content and, after graduating in 2007, realized I would like to continue studying. It took me a couple of years to get a research proposal finalized, but eventually I graduated with a PhD in the built environment in 2013.


Why did you choose to work in the WASH field especially in developing countries? 

I feel women have the edge in naturally caring, and in this field pure technical solutions do not work. I would like to make a positive impact in the world. I believe I can use my experience and skills in effectively contributing to the field of water security, and helping vulnerable communities to be more resilient. 


Did you have a role model who guided you, and if so, what advice have you received from them that you still apply today?

I didn’t really have female role models in my career. However, I was drawn to creative, bold people who had interesting experiences. I also created a few lasting friendships which benefitted me with some informal mentorship. Although there is no match for personal experience and mentorship, in the absence thereof, start reading early – books beyond your field of expertise. I have learnt, and continue to learn, so much from books which find application in daily life. I realized, in my position at the City of Cape Town, that my experience had overtaken everyone I used to rely on for advice, and I had to face uncharted waters alone. I still confided in my network and listened to their advice, but had to rely more on my own instinct. On the journey I have befriended many amazing strong professional women, and I am aware that I would like to remain in closer contact with them. Women provide wonderful emotional support and laughter when most needed. The challenge for me has been that my female friends all have far more responsibilities and less time than my male counterparts, and meeting up has often been tricky, but fortunately electronic communications allow relationships to flourish.


Tell us about your work experience.

I have read a number of books on the merits of talent and luck contributing to general success, and I am well aware that I was lucky, notwithstanding having worked hard. I had the necessary school results and opportunity and perseverance to get to university and graduate.  The first 10 years of my career were a little slow: graduating in 1990 meant that I was thrown into the design office, without much being built prior to the transition to democracy in 1994. In this period, I registered professionally, married, had children, and moved from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth. With small children who did not want to let me out of their sight, I left engineering for three years and worked for an international software company which allowed me much freedom, such as working from home. Over the next 10 years, I worked my way into middle management — being recruited to Coega Development Corporation in the very exciting early days of development of the then-industrial development zone (now known as a special economic zone).                                                                                                                              

After about six years I decided it was time to leave Port Elizabeth and I applied for opportunities in Cape Town. I moved to work for a leading retail company, where I was responsible for property development. This was not a good fit for me, as retail is all about profit — starkly in contrast to the social justice ideology I developed at Coega.                                                                                                                                            

Fortunately, I was then headhunted for a position at the City of Cape Town, where I spent the next three years. From there, I was again headhunted for the position of Executive Director of Operations at the Nelson Mandela University, in Port Elizabeth. This was a great experience, but for family reasons, I returned to Cape Town after just over a year, and completed my PhD.  At the end of 2012, I was appointed as Executive at the City of Cape Town, responsible for utility services.


What have been the most significant challenges and obstacles on your journey and how have you dealt with these obstacles?

I tend to be idealistic, and for most of the time optimistic. The world, however, is not a kind place, and I have been disappointed often in the lack of humanity and empathy displayed by those in positions of power (not necessarily gender based). More often than not the process seems to trump content, and I have at times struggled to keep despair at bay. But then morning comes and the sun rises, and I get up and try again, to make the world a better, kinder place. Being driven to help others seems to be enough to keep one trying harder.


How was your journey different from your male colleagues? 

I don’t think it’s comparable at all! Women still have a very long way to go towards equality in work. I was lucky  to have some power in shaping my day, and I was very aware that women  in non-leadership roles did not have that freedom.  I recall at Coega when I was juggling life with small children, I would run out of the office at  18:00 to follow the evening routine of supper, bath and bedtime with my children. Then returned at 19:30 only to find that the meeting I had left continued into the night. Which meant that I had missed out on  a robust debate, interesting problem-solving and  influencing outcomes. I was always having to try to catch up and always the outsider. Such experiences inevitably left me feeling guilty for neglecting my daughters, but also feeling like a failure at work and personally, as if I wasn’t enough. 

It can also be difficult to command respect in the boardroom. I was supremely lucky to be appointed to positions of authority, which I then had no trouble acting in. To me, the key was authenticity, not trying to act like my male counterparts, but being true to who I am. I think possibly I worked harder at some points in my career than men had to. To ensure that I was so ‘on top of things’ and my authority couldn’t be challenged.


Which of your challenges were unique because you are female?

Society favors males. Maybe less so in younger generations, but certainly for the over-50s. The business world is still a bit of a boys’ club — wealth, leisure, and friendship often excludes females. It will take some time for the world to change. I am not the type to confront every incident head on. I try to weave the message of equality and respect into every public talk I give. Alternatively, I prefer to influence people to change one-on-one. That , however, means it will take a long time. I think women are generally more sensitive. It was often difficult to ignore the emotional impact of certain decisions made, which my male counterparts seemed to be able to do without blinking. As I matured, I became convinced that a nuanced approach — considering emotion and allowing space for vulnerability — is ALWAYS likely to lead to better outcomes when viewed holistically.


What has been your professional experience with male colleagues and how have they supported you or blocked your progress?

It has varied greatly throughout my career, and certainly improved over time.  I recall when I was a bursary student, at a Christmas lunch, when the boss who was twice my age put his hand on my leg. I shrugged him off and moved away without making a scene. Perhaps I should have. It was long ago. For many years, when I walked into a meeting attended predominantly by men, it was assumed I was there to take minutes. Fortunately times have changed, but conflict can erode so much. If you are discriminated against, you have to make a choice on how to address it. I would advise sometimes walking away to better pastures rather than losing yourself in conflict, if possible – but you need to decide when to do that. In my view, building a solid reputation of professionalism provides security against sexism.

Sexism is often covert, and I have focused on moving on rather than confronting it. I realize this has not helped even the playing fields. Though early in my career, I could not conceive of them ever levelling. Even today, in many workplaces It is evident that women have many more obstacles than men. Hard work and a positive attitude can only take one so far – an enabling environment is priceless. Be aware of what surrounds you. Make a call whether to fight for change where you are or move on, knowing that there are pitfalls to both. 


How do you believe your  male colleagues could have championed you more and how do you suggest males support other females in the industry ? 

I don’t necessarily feel I wanted to be championed, but it would have been great to have been treated fairly and with respect, especially early on in my career. As a female engineer on construction sites, I was seen as somewhat of a novelty, and often teased. Boardrooms are easier to navigate nowadays. It would be great if men valued diversity more, not only of gender but of race and age as well.

In an ideal world it would not be necessary. For now, men need to be aware of how their actions – often excluding and humiliating women. This needs to stop! Diversity should not be a numbers game, and everyone should be aware of the value brought about by diverse work teams.


Explain how women have negatively impacted your career, if any, and how you navigate adversarial relationships with female colleagues?

In a male-dominated field, I have not had many relationships with women, and most of them were positive. Where they were negative, it had nothing to do with my gender.



What do you believe are the personal characteristics or skills that are vital to becoming a successful leader?

Humility. Patience. Passion. Sense of humor. Love, and hard work.


What has the experience been like, being both a mother and building a career geared towards senior Management?

Incredibly difficult. I underestimated the challenges of being a single parent. The logistics were really hard even during the times in which I had support, but raising children alone in the world as it is, is not easy. Despite the difficulties, it was wonderfully rewarding and I now have a wonderful relationship with my daughters.


Are there ways in which being a mother has enriched your journey to senior management, and ways in which your professional career may have enriched your parenting?

Motherhood is hugely humbling, and has certainly made me a nicer person. I think empathy makes one a better leader. However, it was intolerably hard to always feel as though I was letting my kids (sometimes half the people in my life) down. 


What do you believe are organizational structures or improvements that would make the work-life balancing easier for women? 

Largely, it is to do with attitude. Men generally do not have frontline responsibility for children, as children often rely on mothers for emotional support 100 percent of the time. Rigid and unreasonable work schedules add untold stress. Where women have little control over their work routines (such as support staff) this becomes especially stressful. Flexibility is key. If employees are valued, trusted and feel secure, their efficiency increases exponentially. Covid-19 may have assisted to make working from home a more common occurrence. 


Research has shown us that there are numerous benefits from having women in leadership positions. Do you think the same holds true for the Urban WASH field? 

Yes, I think women bring particular skills to the table which are incredibly useful in any field. The Urban WASH field requires a balance of technical know-how and sensitivity to human needs at many levels.


What are some of your greatest accomplishments (whether personally or professionally)?

Professionally, running utilities in the City of Cape Town, and navigating the worst drought in roughly 600 years was possibly my greatest career achievement. I loved the role of leading such a large and dedicated directorate, and engaging in technical challenges across a wide range of business units and competencies. It was really hard and my character was repeatedly tested, but I survived much political turmoil and eventually left on my terms. Personally, as a single parent raising my two daughters to become fine young women is certainly my most meaningful achievement.


How do you manage stress? Are there specific coping strategies that you use?

Meditation and breathing is an important part of managing stress. Also having allies, who I could be honest with and blow-off steam when necessary. I found that caring deeply about people and work, resulted in stress being more manageable. It provided a sense of higher purpose, even during the most trying of times.


What are some ways you manage time?

I have battled with time management for much of my life, and never felt I had enough. To manage work, I used to work longer and longer hours, and sleep less, though I realized this was not sustainable. I developed a habit of prioritizing a regular sleep routine (even if too little) and worked over weekends to get ahead and be able to face Mondays without too much anxiety.


 What are some activities you participate in outside of work? What do you like to do for fun?

I started practicing yoga around 10 years ago, and honestly believe that it has kept me alive during the most stressful times of my career. Yoga teaches one such a wealth of life lessons to survive daily modern chaos, conflict and stress. I also run, hike, and paddle in the ocean regularly. I love reading, and writing is starting to become a natural part of everyday – not only for work but journaling and communicating as well. 


Do you have any personal or professional goals that you are currently trying to achieve?

I left a highly political executive position where I had 10,000 staff members and a budget of >R20 billion. I am now consulting and writing, working mostly alone and independently. All my life, my self-worth was linked to achieving success and getting positive feedback. I am still working on being quiet and remembering that super-human achievement is not required to be okay and feel valuable. I am practicing yoga and have embarked on the long journey of meditating to better understand my mind and the world. Writing comes easily some days, while other days it seems intolerably hard. I keep learning, and striving to be better. I love that I have more time to read and learn about new and fascinating topics.


What is your advice to young women who feel overlooked/passed by/sexually harassed in their career?

It is likely that this will be common well past my lifetime, and while totally unacceptable, it is a reality that you have to deal with, hopefully without becoming bitter or aggressive if that is not your nature. Don’t let anyone steal your joy. Find a confidant to discuss the best response with. Ideally, someone more experienced whom you trust.


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