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Clean Technica — Can We Achieve Gender Equality With Renewable Energy?

Climate Change & Disaster Recovery | 8 Minute Read

This originally appeared in Clean Technica on February 15, 2021.

The ongoing energy transformation, driven by renewables, is bringing far-reaching, systemic change to society. Renewable energy employs about 32% women, compared to 22% in the energy sector overall, according to a 2019 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). IRENA estimates that the number of jobs in renewables could increase from 10.3 million in 2017 to nearly 29 million in 2050. The global energy transition offers the chance to create new jobs and reshape all aspects of how energy is produced and distributed. Renewables offer diverse opportunities along the value chain, requiring different skill sets and more progress toward gender equality when opportunities are equally accessible and the benefits evenly distributed.

Why The Gender Gap?

The Solutions Project has uncovered how people of color and women are underrepresented in media coverage of clean energy and climate issues, despite the fact that they so often lead robust renewable energy actions. Across the US, nonprofits directed by women and people of color are on the forefront of developing innovative solutions to climate change, but they are severely under-funded. 95% of all US philanthropy dollars go to white-led organizations, and 70 to 80% of these are led by men.

Maybe it’s because power-brokers orient investment, training, and job descriptions to fit a primarily male target audience. Take this comment from Remy Pangle, director at James Madison University’s sustainable energy division, who identifies as female. “By the time women go to college, they’re gravitating toward consulting and project management rather than traditional construction jobs. How do you get girls interested in things that are more interesting to boys,” she said, “without having to make your LEGOs pink?”

We live in a society in which “pink” is a negative connotation. Maybe that’s why young girls don’t respond to “things more interesting to boys” — precisely because the field has been designed to appeal to males, and women are expected to fit into a male mold.

Indeed, the Pew Research Center has determined that, “for women working in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) jobs, the workplace is a different, sometimes more hostile environment than the one their male coworkers experience. Discrimination and sexual harassment are seen as more frequent, and gender is perceived as more of an impediment than an advantage to career success.” Many respondents attributed the limited diversity of the STEM workforce to a lack of encouragement.

Let’s look at solar, though, as an example of incremental change. The solar industry already has a global workforce of more than 10 million workers and, by 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency says, this number is expected to triple. By embracing inclusive practices that reflect its workforce communities, the solar industry will contribute to advancing not only the rights of women and other diverse groups but will also yield better performance for companies as a result of highly competitive, committed, and motivated teams. The expanding field of solar has real potential for women in jobs from installation through management.

Organizations That Foster Gender Equity In Renewables

We’ve been trying to do our part here at CleanTechnica to promote gender equality. In 2019, we scored first place in the category “top outlets with articles containing renewable energy promotes equity and justice messaging” with the Solutions Project’s report, “Renewable Energy Narrative Trends.”

So, too, have many others made conscious decisions to foster gender equity in the renewable energy field.

Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) promotes the education, professional development, and advancement of women to achieve a strong diversified workforce and support a robust renewable energy economy These steps are essential if women are to benefit from the conversion to clean energy.

Founded in 2016 by Chelsea Clinton and the Clinton Climate Initiative, the Women in Renewable Energy (WIRE) Network is a professional development group for women working in energy in island nations in the Caribbean and Africa. Women are disproportionately affected by climate change as it exacerbates existing structural gender inequalities.

Clean Energy Trust, a Chicago-based nonprofit with a mission to support cleantech innovation in underserved markets, identifies and helps to support high-potential founders of startup companies who are female or people of color working on innovative clean energy, sustainability, and environmental solutions.

The Clean Energy Council’s Women in Renewables initiative enables and champions women working in the renewable energy industry. Through building a united community of people who share a collective mission and vision, they support women to step up as empowered leaders within their organizations.

The American Solar Energy Society is acknowledging long-term contributions by women in the field with their Women in Solar Energy Award. This is an award to acknowledge an outstanding woman in solar who is technically competent in a specific solar or solar related technology, or who has contributed significantly to the acceptance and advancement of women in solar by meeting one or more of the following criteria: advocacy/ political; educational; technical; contractor; or social change/developing nations.

The Solar Energy Industries Association held a webinar this week in which SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper and 3 prominent industry leaders for the 2021 Women & Diverse Voices in Solar discussed navigating the challenges women and people of color have faced over the past year. They shared insights into how the industry can move forward with confidence and hope to make the clean energy industry and our country a more welcome and inclusive place.

In 2019, the US Department of Energy (DOE) embarked on a renewed push to recruit more women into the clean energy field (our own Tina Casey described how problematic the process was). In 2020, the DOE recognized 9 accomplished women for their achievements and leadership in clean energy as part of the US Clean Energy Education & Empowerment (C3E) Initiative.

The winners of the 2020 US C3E Awards, who will be honored at the Ninth Annual US C3E Women in Clean Energy Symposium, represent a diverse range of women leading in clean energy. The US C3E Initiative is led by DOE in collaboration with the MIT Energy Initiative, Stanford Energy, and the Texas A&M Energy Institute.

Powered by Women helps renewable energy companies build the business case for gender diversity. They promote business growth, efficiency and enhanced sustainability by supporting the private sector to “walk the talk” and close gender gaps within their organization and the communities they work in. They also aim to assist member companies to achieve Powered by Women commitments in a range of different areas through access to relevant research, tools, and resources.

The Potential Impact Of Renewable Energy On Gender Equality In Developing Economies

What changes occur when renewable energy enters into communities?

– Secure energy access from renewables can open up new opportunities for small businesses and commerce
– Access to renewable energy helps reduce poverty
– Renewables can broaden education and improve public health by providing better access to clean water, sanitation, and lighting
– Less time spent collecting fuel for household use or exposure to indoor air pollution
– Reaching the last-mile is essential, yet it cannot be achieved without intentional and meaningful investment in local women.

According to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), the renewable energy sector presents one of the biggest opportunities to tackle gender equality in developing economies. By 2030, the UNEP says renewable energy sources are likely to power over 60% of new access to electricity. The statistics are stark: although 39% of women currently work in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector, just 14% of agricultural landholders are women. Men are 75% of parliamentarians, hold 73% of managerial positions, are 70% of climate negotiators, and almost all of the peacemakers

At the same time, new and innovative ways of delivering this energy are beginning to democratize access to electricity and are giving women and vulnerable communities new economic freedoms. According to UN Women, in order to catalyze systemic and lasting change, there is a need to vastly increase financing for gender equality, harness the potential of technology and innovation, and ensure that development is inclusive of women and girls who face multiple forms of discrimination.

The annual Commission on the Status of Women will focus on the need for women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life. UN Women also plans to convene its Generation Equality Forum which will take stock of progress and chart the way forward to realize gender equality before 2030. The global multi-stakeholder gathering will kick-off in Mexico City from 29 to 31 March and culminate in Paris in June.

Final Thoughts About Gender Equality & Renewables
Alice Evans, a lecturer at King’s College London, has studied women movements across the globe and was invited by the IMF Africa Department to talk in a podcast about how feminist activism helps women overcome barriers to greater economic autonomy and is key to achieving gender equality. Evans says feminist activism thrives in societies with female mobility, economic development, and labor-intensive growth.

And Annette Wallgren, program management officer of gender and climate change at the regional office of Asia and the Pacific office at UNEP, says, “For women, renewable energy is an open door to economic empowerment.” She describes how UNEP’s goal with the EmPower project is to “have more women using renewable energy in order to both provide more climate-resilient livelihoods and improve communities’ ability to adapt to climate change.” UNEP supports around 400 women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia with direct economic support, training, access to finance and technology, and policy dialogue with governments. UNEP also supports around 1,000 women who are using renewable energy with indirect economic benefits, such as support for health, education, access to water and food.

International Women’s Day will take place on March 8. But let’s not wait until then to work to include women in all facets of the renewable energy transition, shall we?