In the 1970s, the Swedish telecommunication authority’s only female engineer revolutionised mobile telephony. Laila Ohlgren, who was also the team’s youngest member, figured out how to configure telephones so that people could make calls on the go, solving a decade-long conundrum and kick-starting the fast-paced development of connectivity.

She proposed that phone numbers be stored in telephone microprocessors so that a connection can be made by simply pushing the call button. Before Ohlgren, you had to make a connection first and dial each digit individually afterwards, meaning that passing a tree or bridge in a vehicle could easily disrupt the signal and you would have to start all over again. Engineers never solved this issue because they never thought to question the traditional dialling method in the first place.

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“A diversity of thinking leads to better decision-making processes and a better outcome,” says Jenny Lieu, co-author of an EU Horizon 2020-funded study on gender and intersectionality in energy transition pathways. Intersectionality is the recognition that everyone has a unique experience of discrimination and oppression, and that various factors – gender, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, physical ability and so on – can marginalise someone.

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In Zanzibar, Tanzania, a woman repurposes seaweed dying from increasing ocean acidity caused by climate change for soap, cosmetics and medicine. (Photo by Sander Meertins via Shutterstock)

“Speaking in a very binary sense, if you only include the male population, you are missing out on 50% of the perspective,” says Lieu. “By default, the policies, programmes or strategy set in place fail to consider at least half of the population.”

Women make up 22% of the workforce and 13.9% of senior management in the global energy industry, says the International Energy Agency (IEA). Within the UK, 79% of the top energy companies have all-male executive boards, and an exclusive Energy Monitor analysis has found that men’s median hourly pay is 17% higher than that of women, placing the industry above the national average of 11.6%.

“We need to ensure women have a seat at the table – if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu – women [need fair representation] as decision-makers,” says Juliette Sanders, director of strategic communications at trade association Energy UK. 

An absence of diversity is a business growth impediment. S&P 500 companies – the top 500 publicly traded companies in the US – with more women in senior management than the median see 30% higher returns on equity and 30% lower earnings risk than their counterparts, says Bank of America.

“But women are just a starting point,” says Lieu. “An even broader perspective must come from the various areas of intersectionality and people with different educational backgrounds.”

Energy in the household

It is widely documented that socioeconomics and cultural norms leave women more vulnerable to climate change. Globally, women shoulder most domestic and childcare responsibilities, which can prevent them from seeking work or escaping when disaster strikes. Of the 1.3 billion people that remain in poverty, 70% are women, reports the UN.

“While women dominate energy use in the household, too much of the literature talks about [them] as energy recipients rather than decision makers,” says Lieu.

Women are in charge of 50–80% of global food production but own less than 10% of the land.

In rural and urban areas alike, women and other under-represented groups face daily socioeconomic challenges that leave little room to focus on bigger issues such as the climate crisis.

“One aspect of social-economic marginalisation is that [under-represented groups] lack the economic resources, authority or even desire to contribute to decision-making,” says Lieu. She argues that the onus for elevating under-represented groups into positions of power is on those who are in power now.

“Women who are struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis – not just in lower-income countries but, for instance, in Canada where I am from or the Netherlands where I live – can't be expected to lead [recruitment and education] initiatives in addition to trying to address their current challenges.”

Rethinking recruitment

Energy companies have committed to diversity and inclusion, but a delivery gap keeps female employment at bay, found an April 2022 report by consultancy Bain & Company and POWERful Women, an advocacy group for women in the UK energy sector affiliated with the Energy Institute, the global professional body for the energy sector.

A quarter of women in energy reported non-inclusive behaviours including difficulty being heard in meetings, a lack of recognition from supervisors and less challenging work assignments than male counterparts.

“[Despite] flexible work policies, 40% of women feel that if they were to use them – for example, working part-time – they would be perceived as less committed or ambitious and their career could suffer as a result,” says Elizabeth Baxter, co-author of the report and POWERful Women board member. She describes how women are put off joining the energy sector because of existing workplace culture.

“When it comes to recruitment, it’s not good enough to say that no women or minorities have applied for a role," says Sanders. "If organisations really want to change, they can work with targeted groups to reach the right people. And it’s about retention too. How do we support minorities’ voices and career progression if their peers and managers are all one homogenous group?"

Tom Hopkinson, CEO of the renewable energy recruitment agency Taylor Hopkinson, describes design challenges to the number of women taking up renewable energy roles: “[Aside from] the grassroots issue of female uptake of STEM subjects and gender stereotypes [deterring] females from technical engineering roles, there are some very practical issues that mean workplaces are designed for men.”

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He says simple changes, such as including women in offshore wind harness design, are levelling the recruitment field and cites offshore wind company Vattenfall’s inclusion of toilets at its project locations as a positive step towards gender inclusivity.

Hopkinson says that while a gender-balanced workforce is far from the reality, he has seen a noticeable shift in employers’ desire for inclusivity. The number of women placed in the renewables industry by Taylor Hopkinson rose from 17% in 2017 to 32% in 2021. He attributes part of this to regulatory changes to how companies must bid for and are awarded project leases.

“[Thanks to the Offshore Wind Energy Council’s initiatives], part of the scoring mechanisms deciding whether a company wins a lease or not is now based on their diversity inclusion policies,” Hopkinson explains. “How are they implementing them? What is their track record? Companies have to take that seriously now if they want to build projects.”

Hopkinson also describes that while the male-dominated sector has traditionally given rise to more experienced male than female candidates, employers have interrupted the cycle by removing ethnicity and gender notifiers from applications and focusing scoring mechanisms on a broader selection of competences and skills than experience in the sector.

Rising through the ranks

Women and minority groups are missing from senior positions across the energy sector. Lieu describes her progress from university student to faculty member: “As students, we were treated equally – we weren’t threats to institutional norms and we were evaluated on similar metrics. Entering the staff space was very different. There were surprising challenges, not just related to my gender but to, for example, my race. How youthful I looked became a [metric] of my experience.”

She grimaces at the irony of academia being a “conventional patriarchal institution which preaches and teaches about innovation and change, while being one of the last [to do so]”.

A greater number of women occupy junior than senior roles in the energy industry. This is perhaps in part because more women have only recently taken up STEM subjects. Nevertheless, some women report a difficult and stunted career progression in the industry.

Sanders describes how she has grappled to rise through the ranks: “I’ve certainly felt that people can be quick to judge my competence based on either my age or gender. I know a lot of women at similar [senior] stages in their career – we all work more hours than we need to pick up the tasks that need doing but aren’t grandiose."

She adds: "I have been “mansplained” many times, including one engineer explaining to me that Kilovolts are written “small K big V”. I’ve experienced and heard many stories of women making points in meetings that are only acknowledged when later repeated by a male." 

“Women are less likely to recommend the energy sector to a female friend and less likely to recommend the energy sector the more senior they are,” says Baxter. “It seems that the [gender imbalance] intensifies as women seek to rise through the ranks […] There need to be visible, accessible and relatable female role models – that is impactful in increasing [women’s endorsement] for the energy sector.”

Sanders describes how her work life has been enriched by female role models: “I am very fortunate in my current role to be surrounded by some fantastic, successful women. Our CEO Emma Pinchbeck has had a massive impact in energy policy and has really changed the public face of UK energy. She’s hugely inspired me and many others both at Energy UK and across the industry. Our Executive Committee is predominantly female, and our board's gender split is roughly 50:50. Being surrounded by other women helps me have confidence and gives me a wealth of experience I can tap into.” 

Lieu agrees that a solution must go beyond representation. “Hiring women to hit quotas for the sake of a box-ticking exercise undermines [those] women that are better qualified to be in those positions […] Studies show that if a particular group passes a certain threshold, it tends to start changing the system," she says. "But it can’t be a greenwashing exercise for corporate social responsibility purposes; it has to be meaningful and come from the top, beginning with CEOs.”

Disruptive thought

Studies have offered insight into how different groups of people think about the energy transition. Women are more engaged by the net-zero agenda, while men cite a passion for new technologies, according to the Energy Institute’s global report on energy career motivation.

“Working in energy is a career with purpose – it’s interesting and that makes it an attractive proposition to women,” says Sanders. “It’s so sad to think that bright women have left our industry because they were not being supported in senior roles in male-dominated environments.” 

Angela Wilkinson, CEO of the World Energy Council, is leading this global network’s ‘humanising energy’ initiative. In conversation with Energy Monitor, she described the initiative’s ambition to “crack the DNA code of demand” and “produce a different type of narrative where people understand their role in the transition”. 

Wilkinson is one of the world’s leading climate and energy experts disrupting the energy sector by criticising its typical modus operandi. “The scenarios and road maps big energy companies produce are intended to bolster their competitiveness," she says. "They are not neutral. I sometimes feel I am in competition for thought leadership where I should not be.” She also delineates a greater role for women and other under-represented groups in the energy transition.

Collaboration and thought diversity are being recognised as crucial tools for the energy transition. They are two major motifs that are empowering women and under-represented groups with the authority to make decisions.

Lieu shares this sentiment but warns of “demonising men”. She concludes: “Having a group of any one trait leads to biases – we all have them. But if we have more different biases [mixed up together], maybe we can balance the extremes and come up with better, multifaceted ways of seeing a problem and finding a solution.”

Editor's note: This piece was updated after publication on 12 May to include comments from Juliette Sanders, director of strategic communications at trade association Energy UK.