Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Women in Energy: A Powerful Case for Inclusion

two wind turbines

March brings the annual celebration of Womens History Month. Whatstartedas a week of activities sponsored by the Sonoma school district in 1978 expanded to a national commemorative month by order of Congress in 1986. That same year saw a remarkabletwo-day Congressional hearingon Ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect and climate change. As climate-driven hazards such as wildfires, sea-level rise, and unprecedented heat waves and snowstorms grip the world,CITRIS and the Banatao Instituteand theEDGE in Techinitiative at UC will unite the themes of women and climate in the annual flagship conference,Diversity in Tech: Advancing Climate Resilience.

The intersection of gender and climate is marked by activism, environmental impact and unrealized opportunities for workforce participation and leadership. Women are important decision-makers with respect to household energy consumption and sourcing. Yet despite their role as consumers, women comprise only20 percent of the energy sectors labor forceoverall, and are underrepresented as corporate executives and in government leadership roles related to climate policy and practices. Indeed, a2014 studyby USAID of 72 countries showed that just 6 percent had women in ministerial positions responsible for national energy policies and programs. Increasing representation of women in high-level public office, not just in the U.S. but internationally, is an essential climate-change mitigation strategy: research shows thatgreater participation by women in such rolesresults in stronger climate legislation. Significant appointments in the Biden-Harris administration include Jennifer Granholm as Secretary of Energy and Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior.

In the corporate world, results advancing sustainability are correlated with companies with greater participation of women on their boards. A2012 studyfrom Berkeleys Haas School of Business showed that boards with at least three women demonstrated improved environmental, social and governance (ESG) measures, including better energy efficiency of operations, reduced carbon emissions, reduced product packaging and greater investments in renewable energy sources. Progress has been made since this study, when only three of the 1,500 companies the research project examined met this threshold. Today, although still far from parity, the percentage of women on corporate boards has increased significantly, and is now indouble digits globally. Power companies and utilities have actually outpaced progress in other industries; in fact,eight of the largest electric utility companiesin the U.S. are led by women.

A key to building female leadership is strengthening the talent pipeline at all levels. Some companies have highlighted stories of women successfully navigating careers in male-dominated fields. The Southeast Lineman Training Center, for example, featuresGirl Poweron its website, offering stories of female lineworkers and training opportunities in the field where only 14 percent of electrical lineworkers are women (a relatively high average considering that in California, onlyseven of PG&Es 1,900 lineworkers are women). The job is physically demanding for anyone, and innovation to improveequipment and physical work environments built for male workerswould help recruit and retain a wider range of body types. Theunemployment ratefor lineworkers is already below 1 percent, and nearly 70 percent of lineworkers spendless than 2 years on the jobbefore moving on. Given these statistics, the need for skilled workers in this andrelated fieldswill far outpace available talent in the near future. Surely conditions could be improved to provide a better return on investment in training and increased job satisfaction.

What are the obstacles to expanding participation? According to a2019 reportby the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), many challenges mirror those faced by women in other industries: wage inequities, minimal training opportunities or career on-ramps, and lack of role models, information networks and mentorship. The benefits of recruiting and training more women are also common across industries. An increased pool of talent expands the diversity of ideas and life experiences leading toimproved business outcomesand reduced financial risk.

two wind turbines

The transition to clean energy and renewables brings opportunities for greater gender diversity. IRENAs2019 reportshowed that morewomen are involved in renewable energy(32% of the sector) than in traditional energy sectors of oil and gas (22%), though these rates may belie important differences within the industry where employees in manufacturing or solar installation, say, are stilllargely male. In any case, job growth in renewables over the next few decades will be significant, projected to increase nearly three-fold between 2017 and 2050. Several organizations have been launched in the recent past to encourage leadership and broader participation by women in this part of the energy sector. These include theClean Energy Education and Empowerment Initiative(C3E),Women in Energy, leaders of a2018 workshopby theInternational Energy Agency(IEA) and many local professional networks.

California is pioneering policies and practices, both to increase energy from renewable sources and offer role models for women in the field. In March 2020 the California Independent System Operator (ISO) Board of Governors unanimously electedAngelina Galiteva, the first woman in its 20-year historyto serve as its Chair. As of 2019, the University of Californialeads other universitiesin the amount of green power it both uses and generates on its campuses, and the university counts many women among its staff and faculty who are advancing energy efficiency and climate resilience on their campuses, the national labs, the natural reserve system and UC headquarters.

The U.S. energy sector could further lead the way by encouraging power companies to set diversity targets and create written diversity policies for their boards and senior leadership (a majority of companies inCanadas utilities sectorhas adopted these measures), borrow proven strategies fromother industriesto recruit, retain and promote women; and work with colleges and universities to offerexperiential learning opportunities. To improve the worlds capacity to face and mitigate potentially devastating effects of climate change, it will take the best minds and a collaborative spirit, to be found in women and others from historically resilient communities.

EDGE in Techs annual symposium on March 10-11 will provide inspiring ideas and role models, including live remarks by Secretary Granholm. Pleaselearn more and register.