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Advancing Women’s Representation and Leadership in the Energy Sector

June 6, 2023

Although they represent 48 percent of the global labor force, women account for only 22 percent of the conventional energy sector workforce. This percentage is even lower at management levels, where women make up less than 12 percent of leaders, according to a recent IEA report. In the renewable energy sector, the numbers are more promising, with women representing 38 percent of the workforce. Meanwhile, global investments in energy are estimated to reach approximately $2.8 trillion USD in 2023, $1.7 trillion of which will be going to clean energy. So, we have a population that is economically undervalued and under-represented, and an industry that is growing dramatically. There’s an opportunity here, and there are ways to seize it.

A History of Disenfranchisement

First, let’s look at the challenges. The benefits of diversity in any organization are well documented. Entities with gender-balanced leadership teams and workforces see consistently higher financial returns (as much as 19 percentage points) and lower earnings risk. Diversity also promotes innovation and resilience – both essential in the global drive for a clean energy transition. But this empirical evidence has not translated into higher representation in the energy sector.

Due to a range of cultural and organizational barriers, women continue to be under-represented in the sector across developed and developing economies, especially as technical experts and leaders. In 2020, the World Bank studied the energy sectors of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zambia and found that women make up only 21 percent of the organizations surveyed and that women filled only 15 percent of technical roles. In the U.S. energy industry, women represent only 25 percent of the workforce, versus 47 percent of the overall American labor force.

Influenced by long-standing cultural and social norms, many societies have a prevailing view that energy is a male domain. This discourages many women from pursuing careers in the sector, especially as technical experts. These stereotypes are perpetuated early when girls make decisions on what studies to pursue. Even if they perform similarly or better than boys in science and math at the middle/junior and high school levels, they are often either encouraged or decide on their own to pursue “non-technical” fields, resulting in a smaller pipeline of female STEM graduates. This is a phenomenon that seems to happen in both developed and developing countries. According to the World Bank gender portal, the percentage of women who graduated with a STEM degree in Mongolia in 2018 was 34 percent; in Australia, this figure was 32 percent.

Women who do enter the sector face challenges once they get there. They deal with an institutional culture in which gender bias—manifested in both subtle and overt ways—stands in the way of advancement. They are often not given the same access to education and training, networks, mentoring, and sponsoring opportunities that are needed to thrive and advance. Human resource policies and practices are also inflexible and insensitive to their needs. Short maternity leave, lack of paternity leave, lack of options for part-time or flexible work hours or telework, and lack of accommodations (e.g., lack of childcare facilities and lactation rooms for nursing employees) all fail to address women’s multiple roles and needs. They also often encounter pay equity issues. All these result in low retention rates for an already-under-representative workforce.

Because many women play the role of caregiver in the home, they often find themselves having to balance professional responsibilities with personal or family obligations. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, which looked at 33 countries representing almost 55 percent of the global working age population, women’s share of unpaid work (as a proportion of time spent in total work) was 55 percent, almost triple men’s share, which was 19 percent.

Strategies for Inclusion

Here are some proven pathways to address these challenges by advancing women’s representation and leadership in the energy sector and positioning economies for a clean energy transition.

Provide training and education opportunities. Increasing women’s access to training and education via scholarships, tailored curricula, and internships for those still at the post-secondary level—and via technical and “soft skills” (e.g., management, leadership) training opportunities for those already in the workforce—will address many of the attraction and retention issues currently plaguing the sector. Engineering departments at several top universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and King’s College London have adapted their curricula to increase women’s enrollment. Internships championed by private companies and donors have provided women with on-the-job training and opportunities for employment in the sector. Governments, donors, NGOs and women’s networks such as Energia have trained women as energy entrepreneurs. Energia alone has successfully trained over 7,300 women energy entrepreneurs. Private companies like SELCO and donors such as USAID and GIZ have also been promoting the training of women in what are considered unconventional roles in the energy sector, such as solar home system installation and operation and maintenance, enabling women to develop specialized skills to work across all segments of the energy value chain. 

Break cultural and social norms in the workplace by raising awareness, providing systems, and enforcing accountability. Challenging long-standing cultural and social norms takes time and must begin with an examination of the current culture, followed by a reframing of goals and priorities, which workplace leaders must be committed to as meeting new goals will require time, planning, and resources. What should follow is raising awareness among the organization’s leadership and employees as to why equity is part of a company’s practices: (1) it makes good business sense and (2) it is the right thing to do. Organizations should start by agreeing on and adopting an overarching gender equality policy, then outline specific policies and measures on how to operationalize that policy. These might include measures that ensure a better work-life balance in recognition of women employees’ unique needs, such as flexible time; telework; longer parental leave; a code of conduct; training on unconscious bias; and training on gender-based violence and harassment. Enforcement of accountability measures (e.g., including equity as a metric in measuring senior leaders’ performance) is critical to success. USAID’s Engendering Industries Program strengthens organizations in male-dominated industries and works expressly to address many of these issues. To date, they have partnered with over 100 organizations in 41 countries and facilitated the promotion of 3,900 women into leadership and technical positions.

Create networking and mentoring opportunities. Being part of a network where women can share experiences, hear advice from peers and experts, and establish contacts that could open up employment and advancement opportunities is known to help. Having mentors who can provide trusted advice on how to navigate an organization or a broader sector is another tried and tested way to help women navigate any industry. In the energy sector, the Global Women’s Network for Energy Transition (GWNET) supports women in energy through networking training and mentoring on a global scale. Solar Energy International provides networking and mentoring opportunities and facilitates employer/job connections. Many other networks are specific to certain geographies, such as the South Asia Women in Energy (SAWIE), or sub-sectors in energy such as Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE). Some organizations establish mentorship programs with a male allyship theme where senior male employees serve as mentors to junior female employees or reverse mentorship programs where a junior employee might teach a senior employee new digital skills.

Integrate the gender perspective in energy policy and programming and generate data to monitor progress. To ensure that women are part of the solution and utilize their knowledge, it is essential for gender to be integrated into energy policy and throughout all stages of the energy project cycle, from design to implementation and monitoring. Many countries and regions have adopted policies or integrated gender clauses focused on mainstreaming gender in energy access. For example, Kenya’s National Energy Policy defines access to clean and reliable energy services as an essential prerequisite to human development—contributing, among other things, to economic activity, income generation, poverty alleviation, health, education, gender equality, and environmental safety. The policy explicitly states that gender inclusiveness must be incorporated in all government appointments pertaining to energy, and mandates the inclusion of considerations for gender, youth, and persons with special needs issues in energy policy formulation, planning, production, distribution, and use.

As the world accelerates the shift to clean energy and decarbonization, women and girls must be fully engaged in the sector as decision-makers and agents of change for the transition to be just, equitable, and sustainable. Abt is currently advancing women’s representation and leadership across its energy programs in Mongolia and sub-Saharan Africa and will further explore the pathways mentioned above through a presentation at the Asia Clean Energy Forum 2023

Learn more about Abt’s work in clean energy and equity.

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