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Policy / Just transition

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

Women have borne the brunt of Covid-19 induced lockdowns and economic decline, and they are often on the frontline of climate change. The continuing lack of female presence in energy companies and ministries should worry everyone.

Covid-19 induced lockdowns and confinements have changed working patterns and conditions. Data shows women generally bear the brunt of the burden when children are sent home from school, elderly relatives need care and jobs are lost. These impacts are compounded by the growing economic and societal effects of climate change, in particular the fall-out from extreme weather events and its 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 with clean energy and climate solutions.

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. In management, the numbers are even lower. Women make up just under 14% of senior managers, with representation strongest in the utility sector (17.1%), which 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% for the 30,000 non-energy firms in the analysis.

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Renewable energy firms rank below 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%. The figure for women in senior roles at oil and gas firms is 12.1%.

Women are similarly scarce in political positions related to energy.

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 companies with a more diverse leadership tend to perform better. 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, as shown by Bank of America Global research.

A long way to go

One woman who has broken the glass ceiling is Gillian Howard-Larsen, Global Director for Sustainable Energy and Infrastructure at UL, a consultancy focused on 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-Larsen. “In our headquarters we have portraits of the past CEOs. They are all men and white.”

Howard-Larsen is careful not to attribute her boss’ behaviour to the fact she is a woman, but suggests her ways of working are different to the norm. “Every Monday she sends a motivational message, showing who she is and what her values are," Howard-Larsen says. "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."

Perhaps more important than focusing solely on a male-female split is a broader need to increase diversity. “Mentoring and role models are very important,”  says Howard-Larsen. “Three years ago on International Women’s Day, one of our younger team members said it was easier to join our team because, as a woman, I was someone she could relate to. Seeing people who look like you, who have the same gender or ethnicity, makes a huge difference.”

In short, white, male CEOs are likely to recruit people who look like them. “Look at the reality of who holds the positions of influence in almost all the major companies globally,” says Howard-Larsen. “It is very heavily non-female. We all see the world through a different lens and we need more than just one view.”

Tough terrain

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 does not have children, but she acknowledges that more flexible working is vital for women to get to the top and to enable the “right leadership” at all levels of the energy industry. "In 20 years, I have never met a female wind technician. There are still barriers to break down,” Arnold says.

Arnold would also 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 [in women]. It seems to be OK to make a mistake. Failure is not a bad thing.”

Arnold is also keen to underline this is “not a black or white situation”. While there is still “stereotyping from a young age for girls and boys”, she sees change within 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," says Arnold. "It was very enlightening, they didn’t understand. Younger people will challenge disparities.”

Offering gratitude

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've signed up to the Equal by 30 initiative aimed at getting 30% of our engineers to be female by 2030. Research shows it is 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 having “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," explains Sutton. "It’s a non-confrontational way of connecting and learning what is important to one another. It is important to have the confidence to try something different.”

Women have generally suffered most from Covid-19. 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, said Oxfam in April 2021. Globally, women lost more than 64 million jobs last year —a 5% loss, compared to 3.9% loss for men, says the organisation.

“Flexible working was perceived mainly as a women’s domain. Now we see more of a human side to everyone." Bronwyn Sutton, Clir Renewables

However, for Sutton and Klintström changes to working patterns because of Covid-19 have been more positive. The lockdowns allowed Sutton to spend more time with her children and partner. “Before Covid, you had to show you could work twice as hard to work flexibly,” she says.

“Flexible working was perceived mainly as a woman’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 a guitar against the wall.” Klintström is similarly enthusiastic. “I recently had a baby," she explains. "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 pushed for more than statutory maternity leave while pregnant with 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.”

Challenging cultural norms

Countries, where gender-stereotyping is often most engrained, are often on the frontline of climate change, have higher levels of households without access to electricity, and are 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 UN Sustainable Development Goal Seven. The programme focuses on grid expansion and densification, and the role of off-grid, renewable energy-based solutions, especially for the most remote areas and populations.

The most common of these solutions are home solar systems, usually 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 from TechnoServe, which implements the  Women IN Business (WIN) programme funded by the Embassy of Sweden in Mozambique. “There is no evidence for this.”

Elsa Comé, a sales agent with Engie Energy Access (formerly Fenix International). (Photo courtesy of TechnoServe)

Sorensen and colleagues looked at how sales agents are recruited. "Sales managers go to villages and ask for people who are fit and strong, ostensibly to carry solar panels, though ironically it is women who traditionally carry water long distances, and with sales experience,” says Sorensen. Customer sales also take place through networks; more male sales agents mean more male customers. "The ingrained cultural norm that men make household purchase decisions means that when a sales agent (usually a man) turns up to a household, he will almost automatically address the man," says Sorensen.

TechnoServe is working with Fenix, a leader in solar home systems and since 2017 part of French energy behemoth Engie, to get more women involved. The benefits of increasing the number of women in office roles and out in the field are many, say Luke Hodgkinson and Nikita Smeshko from Engie Energy Access Mozambique. "Female sales agents stay in their positions for longer," 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 tend to be more open-minded because they draw on their own experiences. It makes business sense to try to increase gender diversity."

Hodgkinson adds: "Women working in rural Mozambique, and anywhere with similar cultures, have already worked harder to get to their position [than men] and so are more resilient and 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 or in other roles in the field of clean energy are slowly growing across Africa and other regions of the world, often backed by western companies or governments.

As one Western climate change and energy advisor working in Africa told Energy Monitor: "Energy, or the lack of it, impacts women, time, 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."

Philippa Nuttall Jones

Philippa Nuttall Jones, based in Brussels, has over 20 years’ experience as a journalist and communications expert covering environmental issues, energy and climate change from the UK, France and Belgium.