Increased women’s participation in water users committees has been a popular policy tool in Nepal to enhance women’s access to water and roles in water management since the 1990s, yet its effectiveness was not known in-depth. This study examined the gendered policy process at the levels of policy discourses, implementation and outcome in the irrigation and drinking water sectors in Nepal. It found a gap in policy discourses to link efforts to increase women’s participation within the wider goals of the water sector. Lack of formal incentives, and contradictions in policy goals with professional culture and the identities of implementers, have had negative effects on implementation. Leaders of water users associations were more interested to access external resources for system rehabilitation than in internal issues of equity and water distribution. Ability to pay and to negotiate with others determined women’s access to water rather than formal participation means.