The growth of renewable energy is providing us with a unique opportunity to pull down the long-established gender division within the energy sector. The green game will be fair, clean and feminine.
This piece was written as part of the Transatlantic Media Fellowships programme, in which the Heinrich Böll Foundation supports engaged journalism and provides scholarships for journalists to travel to the United States. Agata Skrzypczyk, a journalist specialising in renewable energy and sustainable development, is a scholarship recipient this year. During her visit to the USA she engaged with, among others, topics related to energy transformation in the Midwest and the role of women in developing the renewable energy sector.
There is a powerful relationship between women and clean energy at several different levels. Early this year, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a report summarising employment in the energy sector. IRENA calculated that while 22% of all employees in the fossil fuel sector are women, this increases to 32% in renewable energy sources.
One reason for this may be the fact that the renewable energy sector is relatively new and has no tradition of male dominance inherited from coal and mining cultures. Renewable energy is a young and rapidly developing sector, so it provides women with multidisciplinary work, which the fossil fuel market did not previously offer. Total employment in renewable energy is constantly growing. While the number of jobs in the sector was 7.1 million globally in 2012, in 2017 the number exceeded ten million. Of those, over three million were women.
Energy that needs women
It is not only women who need RES for their professional development. It turns out that green technologies also need women in leadership positions. Researchers at the University of Berkeley have noted a positive correlation between gender-diverse management and a company’s ability to invest in environmentally-friendly projects. Businesses managed or co-managed by women are more likely to invest in renewable energy and take environmental risks into account in their operations.
Despite being different from the conventional energy sector in this regard, gender balance is still a very delicate issue in emerging sectors. According to the IRENA report, women still sense strong barriers to entry and do not opt for technical careers. In the renewable energy sector, as many as 45% of those taking up administrative positions are women, but only 28% in STEM positions are women. Over half of the respondents in polls conducted by the report authors replied that cultural and social norms are still the main barrier deterring them from a career in engineering. Another important factor turned out to be the lack of work policies tailored to mothers, unequal access to training, and fears of the danger of working in the field. Interestingly, social norms were most often mentioned by respondents from Europe and North America, while in other parts of the world the main barriers were a lack of skills and limited access to education.
Solar girls in forgotten Detroit
Detroit is the forgotten city of the US state of Michigan. Once the capital of the automotive industry and a dynamic music industry, after declaring bankruptcy in 2013, the city lost its prospects and became known for its burned-out buildings and empty lots. In its search for possible development paths for the city, Detroit City Hall turned to renewable energy. Together with the local energy company, DTE Energy, a two-MW photovoltaic farm was built in one of the most dangerous districts. The shiny solar panels have restored local residents’ hope that they have not been forgotten. DTE Energy went a step further in this thinking by involving young girls at the local school in renewable energy.
The Solar Girls project was initiated by several DTE Energy employees and is currently run by Cynthia Hecht, a woman who has been in managerial positions in the energy sector for years. “All their lives, the girls who grew up in the city’s worst times saw rising unemployment, poverty entering their homes and desperate parents,” says Cynthia. “Without appropriate role models, they have even less faith in themselves. Solar Girls is meant to be an opportunity to show them that girls can bring the sun back to this city.
As part of the Solar Girls project, DTE Energy employees conduct special classes for elementary schoolgirls, where they teach the secrets of solar energy. They stimulate the participants' interest in engineering qualifications and develop their self-esteem and their prospects.
“Interesting ten-year-olds in solar panels is a real challenge,” says Cynthia Hecht. “Especially in the poorer parts of Detroit, children have other things on their minds and they’re not thinking about college yet. But this work must begin right from the very beginning.”
DTE Energy and the city held a neighbourhood picnic to mark the opening of the new solar farm. A group of girls from the local primary school each got a specially dedicated shirt bearing the words “Solar Girls”. Solar Girls – they are to be advocates for the opportunity that clean energy represents to revitalise their neglected city. The girls were proud. Awarding this little distinction at such a young age can pay off throughout life.
Support and release into the world
Similar work is being done with young women by Kristen Graf, head of the New York organisation WRISE (Women of Renewables Industries and Sustainable Energy). Kristen is from Pittsburgh, the capital of Pennsylvania, which until recently was a coal region comparable to Poland’s Silesia. “I knew from childhood that my career would revolve around ecology,” says Kristen from behind her desk in Brooklyn. “I was driven to study engineering mainly by teachers, who quickly picked up on my technical skills and helped me to develop them.”
Kristen has taken up the baton and is helping other young women get on green energy’s technical path. Every year, the organisation she runs awards several female high school students a scholarship to study wind energy. Scholarship recipients are taken to the USA’s key wind energy conferences, where they have the unique opportunity to meet the heads of the largest energy companies in a small group. They have the opportunity to ask them about a potential career path and, most importantly, to make important contacts for the future.
“I have been watching the professional development of our scholarship recipients since 2005,” says Kristen. “The girls I once helped to choose a career path now sit in the upper management levels of energy companies. Once we believed in them, they believed in themselves. And from then on, the career path is straightforward.”
Interestingly, when working with WRISE, it is the men on the boards of renewable energy companies who are the more helpful. They are increasingly aware of the importance of gender diversity in the workplace. They know that women bring new insights, different qualifications and greater sensitivity to environmental issues. Kristen Graf's experience is that women who have reached senior management positions often do not want to be identified with any women's associations. They are afraid that their status as experts will be damaged and they will be seen more for their gender, and not their skills.
Is the top-down imposition of parity in the workplace a good solution? “It is important to balance the carrot and the stick,” says Kristen. “There is some artificiality here, but if such laws are well put together, they can stimulate companies to change. Gender equality will bring an organisation a new style, and the bosses will realise that it works.”
The power of her voice
The Amplify Her Voice initiative is now known in the United States. Women have signed an informal pact committing themselves to reinforce one another in high-level meetings, which are often dominated by men. They ensure that their voice is noted and taken into account in such situations. The Amplify Her Voice pact began in the Obama administration, but quickly moved into business, including the energy sector.
It is important to develop the organisational culture early on as the sector is being formed. Diversity at all levels of positions in the organisation will guarantee not only a hygienic workplace, but also a greater chance of success for the company.
The views and conclusions contained in the text express the author's opinions and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
This text was also published in Krytyka Polityczna on November 26, 2019.