I recently received a phone call from a colleague upon return from her first major conference on clean energy. Before I could welcome her back from her trip, she blurted out that the conference went well, but she was strangely one of only three women attending among hundreds of participants. She wondered, “Is this normal for the clean energy industry?” and “Are women playing a significant role in the clean energy revolution?” My answers were: “Yes,” and “Not yet.”
At clean energy conferences, as well as global climate change negotiations such as the upcoming Paris talks in December on binding carbon emissions reduction agreements, although women are visible in some leadership positions, the skewed participation can be obvious to many in attendance. However, I am struck by how little mention there is at these meetings of who is going to carry out the clean energy transition. There is plenty of discussion of why climate change is urgent, and what kind of mechanisms the UN climate change secretariat should be pursuing at the behest of governments. But there is not a lot of focus on building a new workforce—people who will install wind and solar systems, invent and manufacture sustainable technologies, and lead the world’s most significant economic transition since the industrial revolution. And what my colleague noticed at her conference is representative of the energy sector as a whole—half of the potential workforce is curiously missing.
While jobs in the clean energy workforce have been growing at an astounding pace—up 18 percent from last year’s estimates—the energy sector is one of the most gender imbalanced industries. In the energy industry as a whole, women make up only 6 percent of technical staff, 4 percent of decision-making positions, and 1 percent of top management. In industrialized countries, female employment in the renewable energy sector is estimated to be 20-25 percent, mostly in administrative and public relations positions. About 61 percent of U.S. energy companies have no female representation on their board of directors. Compare these numbers to women making up 40 percent of the global labor force and more than half of the world’s university students.
You may ask yourself, does this matter? Indeed, in the past few years new evidence has identified significant economic, environmental, and societal gains across a variety of sectors that are driven by improving equality between women and men. The World Bank and Goldman Sachs discovered that when women have the same access as men to technology, assets, information, and decision making, the economic productivity of entire countries goes up. Similarly, the United Nations showed that agricultural productivity would rise by 20-30 percent, and the number of hungry people in the world would decline by 12-17 percent, just by giving women farmers the same access to resources that men already have.
A similar phenomenon is seen in gender-diverse senior management. U.S. Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their boards (19 to 44 percent women) were found to enjoy 16 percent higher net income as a percentage of revenue than companies with no women on their boards. Companies with more women on their board are more likely to proactively invest in renewable power generation, and the number of women serving in a country’s parliament correlates with whether that country reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
By extension, if women could play an equal role in clean energy, investment in renewable technologies could soar higher, and we could greatly propel emissions reductions. In short: gender equity could be a smart climate change innovation.
How far do we have to go? One of the major challenges is changing perceptions of women’s roles in technical and infrastructure trades. In China, the country with the largest share of renewable energy jobs, women make up about 40 percent of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but they do not apply for degrees or jobs in mining, tunnel engineering, and naval engineering because China’s labor law draws from the perception that these jobs are unsuitable for women. And in a study of construction workers in India, people believed that women construction workers were unfit to acquire skills for advanced masonry work, despite the fact that their capability and desire to progress into those jobs was equal to men. Countries such as Brazil and Liberia are actively trying to shift perceptions about women’s roles in the most gender-imbalanced sectors, by launching training programs or quotas for women to secure technical jobs in infrastructure projects.
Half of U.S. women who complete undergraduate training report being interested in STEM-related careers, yet 50 percent of those women depart employment or further training within the first decade after graduation. Girls and boys express the same level of interest in STEM careers and achieve an equal level of success through secondary education, but a major barrier for girls and women is the lack of visible role models and mentorship that lead to a culture of isolation in tertiary education and entry-level positions.
While the clean energy industry is growing rapidly, one of the commonly mentioned challenges to continuing that growth is the difficultly of finding workers with the appropriate skills. And a clean energy workforce is becoming more central to countries remaining competitive in the global economy. Engaging more women at all levels of the clean energy sector could be a game changer and unlock the energy gridlock that is threatening our planet. To slow down climate change, we need all hands on deck.