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15 September 2021

Women in energy: “It makes business sense to increase gender diversity”

A lack of female presence in energy companies and ministries should worry everyone – they are intrinsic to the industry's sustainable future.

By Philippa Nuttall Jones

Covid-19 induced lockdowns and confinements have changed working patterns and conditions the world over. Data increasingly shows women bear the brunt of the burden when children are sent home from school, elderly relatives need care and jobs are lost. These impacts are compacted by the growing economic and societal effects of climate change, in particular the fall-out from extreme weather events and impact on food and farming in developing countries . As the energy sector transitions, it can help lead the move to a more gender-balanced workforce, creating more jobs for women and ensuring a broader set of voices engage on clean energy and climate solutions.

Solar lighting systems

Female engineers check solar lighting systems in the village of Ambakivao, Madagascar. (Photo by Laure Fillon/AFP via Getty Images)

“The energy sector remains one of the least gender diverse sectors and closing this gender gap will be vital as women are key drivers of innovative and inclusive solutions,” says the International Energy Agency (IEA). “A clean energy transition will require innovative solutions and business models to be adopted and greater participation from a diverse talent pool.”

Despite making up 48% of the global labour force, women only account for 22% of the traditional energy sector, highlights the IEA. For management levels the numbers are even lower. Women make up just under 14% of senior managers, with representation strongest in the utility sector (17.1%), shows an OECD/IEA analysis of data from around 2,500 firms in energy-related sectors. Excluding utilities, women hold less than 12% of leadership roles, compared with 15.5% of the 30,000 non-energy firms in the analysis.

Renewable energy firms are well below the average, with women holding just 10.8% of senior roles, only slightly better than the coal sector, which has the lowest representation at 10.6%. Women represented in such positions in oil and gas firms is 12.1%, while firms in the oil and gas equipment and services sub-sector were slightly higher at 13%.

Changing these statistics is not a matter of political correctness or a nice-to-have, but likely vital to a successful and inclusive clean energy transition. It is well-documented that women in leadership positions enable companies to maximise the power of diverse perspectives and innovative decision making, helping to improve the overall success of a firm’s performance. S&P 500 companies with higher numbers of women in senior management saw a 30% higher return on equity and a 30% lower earnings risk relative to lower-ranked peers, shows Bank of America Global research.

One woman who has managed to break the glass ceiling is Gillian Howard-Larsen,  Global Director, Sustainable Energy and Infrastructure at UL, a consultancy focused on providing environmental, social and governance (ESG) solutions. British born, she has lived in the US for the last 20 years. “There have been major changes,” she says from her home in California. “If you go back 30 years, out of 300 people in the wind company where I was working, there was only me and two other women; now, there are many women from all sorts of backgrounds. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

She cites her boss as an example of this change in practice. “One-and-half years ago, we got a female chief executive in the 125th year of the company,” says Howard. “In our headquarters we have portraits of all the past CEOs, they are all men and white.”

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While being careful not to attribute her boss’ behaviour to the fact she is a woman, Howard, she highlights her ways of working as being different from the tone generally set by corporate CEOs. “She sets the culture from top,” says Howard-Larsen. “Every Monday she sends us a motivational message, showing who she is and what her values are. The call for inclusivity and diversity comes from the top; she wants us to be one of the most diverse companies out there. That says a lot.”

Whatever our gender, “we are all uniquely different,” insists Howard, but suggests women tend to “put more emphasise on teamwork and making sure everyone is heard; to be better at drawing people in”.

But perhaps more important that focusing on a binery male-female split, is the need more widely to increase diversity across the board. “Mentoring and role models are very important,” to bring about such change, says Howard-Larsen. “Three years ago on International Women’s Day, one of younger team members said it was easier to join our team because, as a woman, I was someone who could relate to. Seeing people who look like you, who have the same gender or ethnicity, makes a huge difference.” Hence, the importance of diversity. White middle-class male CEOs are likely to recruit people to look like them. “Look at the reality of who holds the positions of influence in almost all the major companies globally,” says Howard. “It is very heavily non-female. We all see the world through different lens and we need more than just one view.”

Megan Arnold grew up in a small country town in Australia. She has spent her career working on environmental and energy issues for a variety of organisations from Greenpeace to oil companies. “When I started out, I could count the number of women on one hand working in wind in the UK,” says Arnold. “The number of women has increased, but wind remains heavily dominated by men. For women, the path to get to positions of higher leadership is tough.”

She doesn’t have children, but acknowledges that more flexible working is vital for this to change and to have the “right leadership” at all levels of the energy industry. “Being the first woman to have a certain role is important. For example, in 20 years I have never met a female wind technician. There are still barriers to break down.”

Arnold adds: “I would like to see more women taking up apprenticeships and more role models across the industry, including leaders in small communities, who will be at the forefront of climate action. You don’t have to have an amazing university education to be a pioneering leader.”

The main difference she sees between men and women in positions of “middle ranking managers” is “more inclusiveness and less fearlessness in making mistakes. It seems to be OK to make a mistake. Failure is not a a bad thing.”

She is also keen to underline that this is “not a black or white situation” and while there is still “stereotyping from a young age, for girls and boys,” she sees change with the younger generation. “We did some work with interns where we explained that in the UK female graduates earn, on average, £2,500 less than men, the male interns were furious. It was very enlightening, they didn’t understand. Younger people will challenge these disparities.”

Bronwyn Sutton and Rebecka Klintström work for Clir Renewables, a tech company. “To make innovative software we need a diverse team with diverse ideas,” says Klintström, the company’s inclusion and diversity lead. “We have an equal by 30 initiative aimed at  getting 30% of our engineers to be female by 2030. Research shows is it when you reach such levels that you start returning talent and have an easier time recruiting diverse talent.”

As a tech company, Clir tends to attract a “very young” workforce and people from a wide range of background and geographies. But this diversity is also helped by the fact “we have created a culture where we think everyone can contribute,” says Klintström. This includes “not having a fixed image of how a manager should be,” contributes Sutton, who, after nearly a decade of experience advising on major offshore wind projects, is now an Offshore Wind Principal at Clir. One example of outside-of-the-box thinking is “having a gratitude moment at the start of team meetings”. She adds: “One of the team members has gone to another consultancy and introduced the same idea. It is important to have the confidence to try something different.”

While women around the world have generally suffered most from Covid. Analysis published in April 2021 by Oxfam estimates the crisis cost women around the world at least $800bn in lost income in 2020, equivalent to more than the combined GDP of 98 countries. Globally, women lost more than 64 million jobs last year —a 5% loss, compared to 3.9% loss for men, says the organisation.

For Sutton and Klintström, changes to working patterns because of Covid have been rather more. Sutton says the lockdowns allowed her to spend more time with her children and partner. “Before Coivd, you had to show that you could work twice as hard to work flexibly,” she says. “Flexibility was a women’s domain. Now we see more of a human side to everyone. We don’t see a person in a suit barricaded in an office, but someone in their spare room with guitar against the wall.”

Klintström is similarly enthusiastic. “ I recently had a baby,” she explains. “From a personal perspective, it would not have been possible to have such an equal relationship with my partner had we not both been working from home.”

With a previous energy employer, Bronwyn fought to get more than statutory maternity leave for her second child. She won and got the company to change its policy for all women. “It takes some confidence, but if things don’t feel right, you should try to change them and often you will find that people are supportive. When you bring things up, there is often a receptive audience.”

Countries where gender-stereotyping is often most engrained are often also on the frontline of the impacts of climate change, suffer from high levels of households still without access to electricity and where women are most affected by these challenges.

In Mozambique, the overall electricity access rate was estimated at below 30% in 2018, with only around 5% of the rural population having access to energy. In November 2018, the country’s government launched a National Energy for All Programme to advance the country towards achieving clean energy for all by 2030, as set out under Sustainable Development Goal Seven. The programme focuses on grid expansion and densification and the role of off-grid, renewable energy-based solutions, especially for reaching the most remote areas and populations.

The most common of these solutions are home solar systems, generally sold by men to men. In addition to cultural norms, it is generally accepted that “men are more resilient and can travel further,” says Julia Sorensen, Programme Director for Women IN  Business (Win) Mozambique, a not-for-profit. “There is no evidence for this.” She and colleagues at looked at how sales agents were being recruited. “They were being told you need to be strong,” she says. And they found that the sales practices of these “strong” men generally followed the same pattern of going to a village and asking the male leaders to refer people (men) who might be interested by home solar systems. In short, women were being excluded from start to finish.

Since then, Win has worked with Fenix, a leader in solar home systems and since 2017 part of French energy behemoth Engie. Luke Hodgkinson and Nikita Smeshko from Engie Energy Access Mozambique say there are many benefits from increasing the number of women working in the teams, not just in office roles, but also out in sales teams in the field.  “Female sales agents stay in their positions for a longer time,” says Smeshko. “They tend to create higher quality customer portfolios with fewer defaults, and don’t self-select people. Men often think, for example, that a single mother in a village couldn’t afford a solar system, while women are more open-minded. They don’t self-select people. It makes business sense to try to increase gender diversity.”

Hodgkinson adds: “Women who are working in Mozambique and countries with similar cultures, have already worked harder to get there and so pay more attention and are less likely to quit quickly. They have a greater sense of responsibility.”

Similar schemes to increase the number of women working as engineers, sales representatives in the field of clean energy or other roles are slowly growing across Africa and other regions of the world, often backed by western companies or governments.

Claire Nelson is a climate change and energy advisor with USAID in Rwanda. ” There is lots of support in Rwanda for gender equality,” she says, but adds that there also many challenges. “A similar proportion of women and men study STEM subjects at university, but women then don’t enter technology sectors. There are lots of stereotypes that stop them doing tech work. There is no physical limitation why women can’t go put into the field.”

However, energy is still seen as a sector for men, she says. But this continuing perception is problematic, not least because “energy, or the lack of it, impacts women, time, and health and well-being, and children, and climate change has a bigger impact on women. We need to have more women in the room making decisions on energy to get better results for everyone”.

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