Will the energy transition fuel more opportunities for women in energy?
January 21, 2021

The renewables sector has had a good year. The election of Joe Biden in the US and the targets from the UK and other nations for phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles all point to future growth.

Alongside contributing to carbon reduction, does the renewables sector offer better opportunities for gender parity and for women in leadership?

The data here is encouraging. Renewable UK figures indicate that the global renewable energy sector workforce is 32 per cent female, compared to only 22 per cent in the energy industry as a whole.

We interviewed women who agreed that a key factor is that renewables offer a strong sense of purpose.

“Purpose is often important for women’s engagement in work,” said Elizabeth Baxter, Renewable Energy Banker at European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. “In renewable energy finance I am able to combine finance with my interests in environment, policy, geo-politics and science and find meaning in seeking to address climate change.”

Gallup data shows 32% of women say a company’s cause is very important to them compared to 22% of men, so it is important for businesses to factor this in their outreach to women.

“The renewables sector provides the opportunity for direct impact,” said Marina Valls, Chief Economist at Renewable UK. “How do you create the market where it doesn’t exist? How do you make sure everyone has access to electricity? How do you regulate it? It’s interesting to work in an area that’s transitional and being defined.”

This was echoed by Wood Mackenzie’s Shimeng Yang, a Renewable Energy Analyst: “I work on projects that help to mitigate real global issues. This job allows me to make deals happen that drive markets to a brighter future.”

Marina’s experience however is that a lot of women work in energy and renewables “by accident” and that it is not an automatic choice for women.

“The traditional image of energy is oils rigs and wells in emerging economies,” she said. “Having worked in oil and gas before I can definitely see the difference in renewables. I was often the only woman in a meeting, and the youngest. Renewables has a median age of 39. It’s more dynamic, and there is more opportunity. There is a window now because we’re creating a new market.”

Shimeng Yang agrees. “I did not choose to go into renewables. In general the industry is very driven with people from an engineering background, who are mostly men. Women are good engineers, but if you look at the graduate pool, women are in the minority. For women with a finance background it’s a more obvious choice to go into banking. It’s only a few women who choose energy.”

Elizabeth’s experience from financing wind development in Eastern Europe is that gender representation may be better in post-communist countries especially at senior levels.

“They tended to be more systematic about educating both genders,” Elizabeth explained, though it’s less clear what the situation is now. “Globally businesses are starting to understand the  importance of diversity and inclusion. They want to better reflect their clients and customers. Unfortunately women still face barriers.”

Despite this, given current investment and growth rates, the level of recruitment and the number of new businesses and funds, renewables offers opportunities for everyone, and perhaps especially women.

“I feel lucky to work in renewables and offshore wind,” said Shimeng. “No one thought offshore wind could become a key technology and a centre of investment for the energy transition even just 10 years ago.”

Shimeng says the working culture in a renewables business inherently offers more flexibility for women.

“Fundamentally it’s different. It’s a manufacturing culture as opposed to trading a commodity. The deals are smaller and there is a lower rate of return compared to oil and gas so there are wider motivations. There is more travel in oil and gas because the deals are so huge. It’s a high profile, deal driven culture.”

Elizabeth Baxter’s said that being female can be an advantage, though female power has a penalty.

“There is a well-documented trade-off between likability and power for women,” Elizabeth said. “It’s a double standard in how women are judged for exercising power in leading negotiations and teams or in having difficult conversations, and how this can then negatively impact their likability and careers.”

Overall, the picture is positive and there is a shared sense that renewables businesses are aware that need to harness the opportunity to be diverse and accessible. The UK wind sector has set a 40% target for women in the workforce by 2030 and there are also gender targets for the recruitment of apprentices.

“I’m optimistic,” concluded Marina Valls. “But it is going to be slow and we need women to access more senior positions. The vast majority of CEOs are still men. Deeper change will happen when businesses renew their senior teams. If we can get it right then we can disrupt the market at all levels.”

Women working in the renewables sector can register on the Renewable UK database in order to increase visibility in the industry. Follow the link at https://www.renewableuk.com/page/SwitchList for more information.

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