Gender and Energy: Bringing All Hands on Deck

Wednesday, December 11, 2019



Expanding renewable energy sources, reducing carbon emissions, becoming more energy-resilient, making electricity more affordable and accessible—these are big challenges that require all-hands-on-deck teamwork. Yet too often, women aren’t even on the team. At the ECPA Ministerial Dialogue on Gender and Energy, several women in the energy sector talked about how to improve the dismal statistics and increase gender diversity in this traditionally male-dominated industry.


Some Advice from the Speakers


  • Keep pushing STEM for girls. Not everyone in the energy industry needs a STEM-related degree, but a strong STEM foundation provides an advantage.
  • Shine a light on women in the industry. When girls see women in nontraditional roles, they can visualize themselves doing those types of jobs.
  • Build a network. Sometimes it’s easier for men to get together informally, whether for a drink or a round of golf, and a lot of business can result. Many professional organizations now help women in the energy industry make those same types of connections.
  • Create a healthy workplace culture. If companies want to retain women, they need to pay attention to the office environment. Do workers respect and value each other? Do they have the flexibility they need to balance work and home life?
  • Consider quotas. Affirmative action has helped reduce the gender gap in some countries. The best way to avoid being perceived as a “diversity hire” is through high performance.
  • Stress the business value of gender diversity. Companies perform better when they bring a more complete perspective to the table.


Transitioning toward “transformative energy solutions” will require innovative thinking and new business models, she said, and a diversified talent pool will help make that happen. “Closing the gender gap is vital to achieving equitable distribution of economic and social benefits, including innovative solutions in the marketplace,” Marks said.

The gender gap is considerable. The EY Women in Power and Utilities Index—developed by Ernst & Young Global Limited—has been tracking the number of women in the boardrooms of the world’s 200 largest utilities in the last five years. The latest numbers, released earlier this year, show that worldwide, women now make up 17% of board members at utility companies, 21% of non-executive board members, 6% of executive board members, and 15% of senior management team members.

The figures remain “disappointingly low,” EY reported. In fact, an earlier version of the index calculated that at the current rate of growth, it would take up to 42 years for women to have a 30% representation on utility boards and 72 years to reach 40%.

Why does this matter? Aside from simple fairness, studies have shown a link between diversity and the bottom line. As the EY Women in Power and Utilities Index puts it, “boards with at least 30% women have higher profit margins than those who don’t.” Other studies have shown that companies with diverse leadership teams make better decisions and are more innovative and more likely to capture new markets.

“When you bring women in, there is an exponential benefit,” explained Ambassador Elizabeth Thompson, Permanent Representative of Barbados to the United Nations. She was the keynote speaker at the Ministerial Dialogue on Gender and Energy, held on October 23 at the OAS. (A video of the event is available here.)

An energy lawyer by training, Thompson said she faced skepticism when she first chose her field of practice—oil and gas law, with subspecialties in renewable energy—and she sometimes wonders how much has changed over the years.

The situation of women in energy-related professions, she said, must be seen in a broader context in which people tend not to value much of the work that women are doing, “day in and day out, to run families,” adding that in the course of running families, they “are running the world, really.” Even many accomplished female scientists go largely unrecognized, she said; among the examples she cited was that of Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, who orbited the Earth for three days in 1963 and is still the only woman ever to fly a solo space mission.

Thompson laid out several suggestions that could help increase opportunities for women in energy and widen the talent pipeline. Like some of the panelists at the event, she stressed the importance of getting young girls involved in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. If girls aren’t being drawn to math at the same rate as boys, one reason is because they absorb information differently, she said. “So,” she added, “we have to change how we teach.”

Middle school is an especially critical time for STEM outreach to girls, before they start choosing classes in high school, said one of the panelists, Anne Marie Horowitz, Director of STEM Rising, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Public Affairs. She talked about some of the organizations and programs doing work related to girls and women in energy, including She Can STEM and C3E (Clean Energy Education and Empowerment), an initiative of the Clean Energy Ministerial.

One essential step is to raise women’s visibility, Horowitz said, citing the motto of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: “If she can see it, she can be it.” The Department of Energy, which employs thousands of women through its national laboratories, makes it a point to showcase women in STEM fields on its website, she said.

Several panelists mentioned that organizations need to include more women speakers and panelists at conferences on energy and make the all-male panel—sometimes sarcastically referred to as a “manel”—a thing of the past.

“There is an amazing wealth of women available on every single topic that you could possibly conceive of. There is no reason, in 2019, you should ever be at a conference in the renewable energy space and have to listen to a manel,” said Lauren Glickman, a Managing Partner at RenewComm and a consultant to the organization Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE).

Networking and mentoring are also critical to women’s advancement. Rachel Miller, a Managing Partner at Forbes Tate Partners and a leader in the Women’s Energy Network, talked about how women can help each other build the confidence they need to pursue new opportunities. Women will sometimes hesitate to apply for a job if they don’t meet every single qualification listed, whereas most men don’t tend to second-guess themselves in the same way, she said. “Why should women tell themselves no before they are told no by the person who is doing the hiring?” she asked.

Of course, not all energy-related work happens in the corporate world. In Antigua and Barbuda, Ruth Spencer has been advocating for climate resilience and renewable energy at the community level for several years. After she received a grant that allowed her to install a rooftop solar PV system at her small business, she began to devote much of her energy to helping others lower their electricity bills and come up with clean energy solutions. Through her efforts, 10 small community organizations or churches have installed rooftop solar.

“When we have these successes, we can’t keep them for ourselves,” explained Spencer, who also serves as National Coordinator of the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme in Antigua and Barbuda.

One point driven home by several of the speakers: The energy transition is such as huge undertaking that it will require the collective efforts of everyone. That means women will play a critical role, said Janine Finnell, Executive Director of Leaders in Energy.

“We are in the right place, we are at the right time, and there’s so much that needs to be done,” she said.