Policy - 07/March/2018

Mind the gap

On International Women’s Day, FORESIGHT looks at the gender gap in the energy sector and why more women could boost the transition to a renewable energy economy

The energy sector globally is one of the most gender imbalanced sectors. Given that a lack of women at the table is not good for business or innovation, how can the energy industry narrow its gender gap? 


“We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored,” says Sheryl Sandberg, the senior Facebook executive who encouraged women to “Lean In”. This would seem particularly true for the energy industry, which, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), “remains one of the most gender imbalanced sectors” with women making up substantially less than half of the workforce and continuing to be underrepresented in leadership positions. “Closing the gender gap is not only a moral and social imperative, but makes good sense for business,” says the agency. But if this is so important, why is change so slow?



The women interviewed by FORESIGHT highlight the relative lack of girls and women studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects as one of the reasons for this lack of diversity, meaning that there are fewer qualified women around. Elbia Gannoum, who heads ABEEólica, Brazil’s wind energy association, highlights how the “social stereotypes encouraged in boys and girls from a very young age don’t help. If you go into a toy store, you see dolls and toys more linked to the emotional universe in the aisle aimed at girls and on the boys’ side a wide range of more challenging and creative toys, more connected to the universe of logic”. She is, however, “optimistic that this is changing”. Brenda Martin, CEO of the South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA), concurs, and hopes that this distinction “is one day looked back on as a passing phase in history”.


Closing the gender gap is not only a moral and social imperative, but makes good sense for business


While this is doubtless correct, Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter, is keen to underline that there are “really good women out there”. Indeed, for many of the women interviewed, the real issue is the tendency of white middle class men to appoint…white middle-class men, not least because of connections made through old boys networks and a penchant for discussing business between themselves out of hours. Frauke Thies, executive director of smartEn, the European business association for smart energy, found that she had to invent her own ways of networking, realising that trying to exchange ideas with a group of men smoking cigars in a bar after a conference would not, as a woman, be the best way for her to connect with others.
Mitchell also highlights the fact that many energy companies remain rather old-fashioned in their ways of working, while more recently set up renewables organisations are often more flexible in their outlook and hence more happy to accommodate the demands of working mothers. Heidi Paalatie is operations manager at the Finnish Wind Power Association, one of the few, if not the sole, women-only staffed energy organisation. She insists that the lack of men was not intentional, but wonders whether the fact the posts were initially advertised as part-time could account for women filling them (even if they now all work full-time).

There are indeed many women who have helped to create and continue to lead the renewable energy world. But even here the gender gap seems to persist. A survey of 90 renewable energy companies worldwide by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in 2016 revealed that women represent an average of 35% of the workforce, a greater share than in the traditional energy sector, but lower than in the broader economy.

Good for business

The obvious question to ask, though, is whether all this matters, and the definitive answer seems to be yes.

The importance of diversity for business is borne out in numerous reports. Research from 2017 by consultants McKinsey found that companies with significant gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely than companies led mainly by men to achieve above-average profitability. A study entitled Is Gender Diversity Profitable? in 2016 of more than 21,000 public companies in 91 countries by the Peterson Institute, a US think-tank, suggested that a company with 30% female leadership could expect to have a net margin six percentage points higher than a similar business with no female leaders.

At the beginning of March, the car company Toyota appointed the first woman to its board in its 80 year old history. Its president Akio Toyoda, said: “Having speed and being open are key to survival in this era of profound transformation. By appointing people with like minds, but a with a wide range of professional backgrounds…we can discuss things with an open mind and go beyond past ways of doing things to speedily implement bold new ideas.” The energy transition is clearly in need of “bold new ideas” that can be up and running quickly and Mitchell is convinced that the lack of diversity in the energy sector is hampering the move to a more sustainable future. “I do think that the fact that the industry is so dominated by men and particularly older white men is slowing down the energy transition,” she says.

Jelica Matoricz, communications manager at Aalborg CSP, a Danish developer of renewables technologies, is sceptical about Mitchell’s take. “Creating linkages between gender gaps and the energy transition, such as in the UK case, is a wild assumption,” she says. “While it is true that the energy sector is typically male dominated even in the Nordic countries and could welcome more women, these countries are leading the way and are role models in green energy solutions. The innovation value is therefore not necessarily a gender-related question, but a matter of national strategies, energy policies and highly competitive technology providers supporting this process.”


The gap
  • Women’s representation in energy policy is limited, across all levels of leadership. In a 2013 analysis of 72 countries, only four countries (6%) worldwide had female ministers overseeing national energy policies and programmes. Of the 39 countries invited to the 2017 IEA Ministerial, the percentage was still low (10%) with only four women in the top jobs.
  • A study investigating more than 1,500 companies found that having more women on their board of directors led to more investment in renewable energy and greater consideration of environmental risks in their financial decision making.
  • A study by the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence analysed group decision making and found that greater diversity, including more women, leads to better decision making.
  • Less than 16% of authors publishing in energy journals are women.
  • Women represent 52% of the world population, but make up only 30% of science researchers globally, according to the United Nations.


Brilliant guys

Mitchell does not disagree and willingly credits men for the tremendous steps forward towards a renewable energy economy. “Much of the sustainable energy transition has been led by older white men and there are lots of brilliant guys,” she states. But she insists that from a systemic point of view, this homogeneity is blocking progress because “men of the same age and similar backgrounds discussing emerging issues are likely to come to the same conclusions”. Thies likewise questions whether roomfuls of “white, middle-aged men” are the best way to generate new ideas. Martin insists that “things are always different when women are involved as they tend to focus more on the long-haul, on the common good and they often value diversity more”. She adds: “I hope we can see more women involved in all the transitions that are underway –- climate, energy and politics. Rooms that are not diverse, are the poorer for it”.

“The [energy] transition is a huge, complicated, intricate thing that nobody knows how to handle,” comments Claire Bergaentzlé, a postdoctorate researcher in Systems Analysis in the Management Engineering department at the Technical University Denmark (DTU). “For this reason we need all kinds of people with different skills and sensitivities. I am generalising, but I do believe that women have a different way of interacting and solving problems [than men]. Nowadays, we have magnificent technologies that only nerds and scientists fully understand. I think that women can be as good as men to develop those solutions, and can be better than men at making them work on societal level.”

A big part of the energy transition is research and here too, there is a clear gender gap. Mitchell underlines the difficulties of, in the UK at least, juggling the significant demands of an academic career, in particular during the early years as a postdoctoral researcher and a young family. Scandinavian countries tend to offer more support to young families and Lena Kitzing, a 35-year-old researcher on renewable energy policy at DTU and a mother of two small children, says she has experienced nothing but support and gender equality “at my level”. But she recognises “there is still significant imbalance in the higher echelons, at the level of group management and professorships, which remain rather male dominated”. And despite Scandinavian countries topping the World Economic Forum’s gender equality charts, Iceland, Norway and Finland took the top three spots in 2017, with Sweden in fifth place and Denmark in fourteenth position, Kitzing suggests the situation could be better across the whole of the energy sector. “I often encounter women [in Denmark] in the work force and lower management levels [of] energy companies, energy associations and the energy agency, but only very few in top positions”.

She, like many of the women FORESIGHT interviewed, also called for the number of women speaking at conferences on energy to increase. “There needs to be a change of attitude from women and from employers, event organisers and journalists. It would be too easy to say that women need to be more pushy and bring themselves more forward in the public debate. They need to do that, certainly. But convenors need to make an effort to open the doors for women to walk through,” states Kitzing. Thies agrees. She says that she instinctively dislikes the idea of quotas and that her younger self (she is now 37) would have been outraged at the idea, but now believes that this may be a “necessary stepping stone on the way to a more open culture”. Mitchell with her 61 years of experience accepts that “women hate the idea that they are picked for being a woman,” but suggests it is most important that there is a woman at every table, commenting wryly that she has “virtually spent her whole life being the token woman”.

There are no lack of actions aimed at tackling the issue, offering hope that the gender gap in the energy sector will narrow in the years to come. One of the first to appear was Women of Wind Energy (WoWE) in 2005. Rebranded in May 2017 as Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE), the organisation works via chapters across the US and Canada to recruit, retain and advance women in their careers in the renewables sector. More recently, the Women in Clean Energy (C3E) initiative, led by the governments of Sweden, Italy, Canada and the IEA, was set up in 2010 to encourage women to pursue careers in the energy field, recognise their accomplishments and generally promote their leadership. In 2017, it became an IEA Technology Collaboration Programme (TCP) and now promotes itself as an international platform to push greater diversity and encourage more women to pursue careers in the energy field. Meanwhile, the International Confederation of Energy Regulators (ICER) launched its Women in Energy initiative in 2013, offering members access to networking events and mentoring programmes. And certain countries have set up their own groups. Nordic Energy Research, for example, held a meeting in November 2017, including high profile professionals from the region’s energy sector, to discuss ways of accelerating change and reducing the gender gap.

Sandberg insists that: “gender equality is one of the biggest ideas of our time…We would be a lot better off if half of all countries and companies were run by women and half of all homes were run by men, and we shouldn’t be satisfied until we reach that goal. We need to do more and do it faster to change the core dynamics of our world.” Given the importance of the transition to a renewable energy economy, it would seem to make sense on all fronts if the gender gap were narrowed in the sector as soon as possible.


Women closing the gap

Need some inspiration? Here are ten women who are leading developments in the energy sector and helping to narrow the gender gap.

Christina Aabo

Head of R&D in wind power at Ørsted, Denmark, Aabo trained as a wind turbine engineer and worked with several leading manufacturers before moving to her current role. She has been a member of the advisory board for the Danish Research Consortium for Wind Energy since 2013.

Laura Beane

President and CEO of Avangrid Renewables, Beane has worked with the company for over 20 years. She is also chairman of the board of The Climate Trust based in Portland, US, that works with carbon offset projects and innovative climate change solutions.

Jan Blomstrann

For over 20 years, Jan Blomstrann has been integral to the development of the wind industry as a mainstream source of power. She is president, CEO and owner of NRG Systems, a manufacturer of measurement equipment and turbine optimisation systems for the wind and solar energy industries, one of only a few independent, woman-owned companies in wind energy.

Karen Conover

Working in the renewable energy sector for over 30 years, Conover has a particular focus on wind energy and has served on the board of directors of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) since 1997. She is also vice president of DNV GL Energy, a global risk management company. She received the Industry Women of the Year award from Women of Wind Energy in 2010 and the Britt Theismann Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Wind Industry from AWEA in 2012.

Jan Hamrin

She is CEO of HMW International, a consulting firm that specialises in the implementation of sustainable energy policies. Her influence in the energy sector stretches globally, providing policy and technical support for the implementation of renewable energy and energy efficiency programmes throughout North America and in Mexico, Brazil and Europe. She also serves on advisory committees for the International Energy Agency and the US Department of Energy.

Nancy Rader

Nancy Rader has over 25 years of experience in renewable energy. She has represented the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) since 2000, serving as executive director since 2002. She was awarded Wind Industry Person of the Year by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) in 1996. As a consultant, she has advised renewable energy industry companies in the US and Canada, and Japanese and European government agencies and officials.

Susan Reilly

With extensive experience of working in the renewable energy industry in the US, Reilly is president and CEO of Renewable Energy Systems Americas. Previously she held a number of senior positions with Scottish Power/Iberdrola and had responsibility for the development of the renewable energy business in Scottish Power.

Christina Grumstrup Sørensen

A former senior vice president at DONG Energy Renewables, Denmark, where she headed the company’s offshore wind construction projects and played a key role in building DONG Energy’s offshore wind business, since 2013 Sørensen has been a senior partner at Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners.

Audrey Zibelman

She is the CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator. She has extensive experience in the public, private and non-profit energy sectors and has worked for numerous energy companies and institutes in the US and Australia. She believes that Australia will lead the world in the transition to a smarter, cleaner and more reliable energy system and that: “resisting this change is a little like trying to resist the internet. It’s just going to happen because of where technology is going”.

Cathy Zoi

Her career has primarily focused on energy and the environment, working in the US government for the Obama administration as assistant secretary of energy and for the Clinton administration as chief of staff for environmental policy. She has held numerous CEO roles in energy companies, including EVgo, the largest fast-charging network for electric vehicles in the US, and is the co-founder and executive chairman of Odyssey Energy, a software start-up helping to bring distributed, renewable electricity to communities and businesses in emerging economies.

Text: Philippa Nuttall Jones

This article is part of the Nordic Clean Energy Series, published by FORESIGHT Climate & Energy to support Nordic Clean Energy Week. A week where energy leaders from around the globe gather in Copenhagen and Malmö to discuss the policies, business and technological solutions and challenges involved in tackling climate change. 
Learn more about the week – Nordic Clean Energy Week
Take a look at FORESIGHT’s Nordic Clean Energy Special Edition published in May 2018.  

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