Women’s leadership and the clean energy transition

Blog banner image

Recently, I  watched a video posted by the Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition (GWNET) and a quote from the CEO, Christine Lins, caught my attention. She said, 'if more women were working in the energy field, the energy transition would advance more quickly, but also more inclusively.'

As a woman, with over 10 years’ experience working in renewable energy, instinctively I agreed, however, I was curious to know if there was data available to support this belief. I spent the next week diving into the topic of women’s leadership, reading McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report and engaging in informal conversations with some magnificent women working in the clean energy space, across three continents; Sub-Saharan Africa, North America and Europe. What I learnt was that indeed both empirical research and anecdotal experience reinforces the idea that women’s leadership has the potential to accelerate an inclusive transition to a clean energy economy.

Today, women constitute 32% of employees in the renewable energy sector compared to 22% in the energy sector overall. Most of these women hold administrative rather than technical roles and a major gap remains between men and women at the leadership level of renewable energy organisations. In the Energising Development Results-Based Financing for Off-grid Solar project (implemented by SNV here in Tanzania where I’m based) our survey of seven off-grid solar firms in 2020 found that 25% of all solar sales agents were women. While this represents a significant increase from past project phases, it still exemplifies that these gender disparities exist at both corporate and field level positions.

Together with my sector colleagues, I explored this topic. We discussed our views and experience of women’s leadership in clean energy and why increased women’s participation in the sector could accelerate the energy transition more inclusively. I saw three themes arising: an inclusively mindset, the significance of women role models and mentors and a ‘whole person’ approach to management.

An inclusive mindset

Diverse teams generate better outcomes: both in terms of gender diversity and ethnic and cultural diversity. Research shows that an organisation’s financial performance can be close to 50% higher when women are well represented at the top of the organisation. According to the McKinsey report, women are 'more likely than senior-level men to embrace employee-friendly policies and programmes and to champion racial and gender diversity.'

While we all have a list of the successful women leaders we admire across our industry, we also acknowledged that though they stand out for their dynamism and effectiveness they are often still not at the very top of their organisations, which is what is needed to reach that accelerated organisational performance.

The significance of role models and mentors

Representation matters, especially in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The American Association of University Women reports on the key factors perpetuating the gender STEM gap. Of significant importance is the lack of female role models and male-dominated cultures: 'because fewer women study and work in STEM, these fields tend to perpetuate inflexible, exclusionary, male-dominated cultures that are not supportive of or attractive to women and minorities.'

I  recently attended an idea pitching session for the Hivos/ENERGIA Gender and Energy Innovation Facility when a woman pitched a programme aiming to familiarise young primary school-aged girls with construction tools. It got me thinking that these are the types of interventions we need to design if we are to disrupt the norms around jobs that are typically seen as for men only. My colleagues agreed; in every one of my conversations, we came around to the point that to get more women into technical roles we must start during early childhood education.

McKinsey’s report also touches on the importance of role models and mentors with evidence that women are more likely than men to mentor other women. Thus, as more women enter leadership roles, we both disrupt gender stereotypes and male-dominated cultures as well as increase opportunities for representation and mentorship for the next generation of women to enter the field.

A ‘whole person’ approach

We couldn’t make it through a whole blog post in 2021 without mentioning the pandemic. It has shaken up our world in so many ways. With extended periods of working from home and so much time on video calls, we may have screen time fatigue, but there has been an interesting development from this situation … we are starting to see each other as 'radically human', as one executive put it.

It is widely acknowledged that more household and childcare work typically falls on women’s shoulders. With the increased level of transparency into each other’s personal lives, brought on by the shift to working from home, this is now coming more into focus. McKinsey reports that due to the challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis a significant number of women are considering leaving the workforce or taking a leave of absence. It  is vitally important that organisations take a serious look into what efforts they need to make to retain female talent.  If these women leave the workforce, they will be leaving with all the positive attributes mentioned earlier.

With the loss of these women, organisations will lose female role models, mentors and employees who value gender and ethnic diversity, which all lead to improved performance and organisational outcomes.

In the renewable energy sector, where women are already drastically underrepresented, we cannot afford to go backwards. The good news is that companies across the globe are aware of this risk and are taking measures to increase flexibility and add enrichment programmes to support employee mental health and well-being in their organisations, leading to a ‘whole person’ approach.  As the McKinsey report puts it: 'When employees feel like they can bring their whole selves to work, good things happen: they are happier with their job, more optimistic about their company’s commitment to gender and racial equality, and less likely to consider downshifting their role or leaving the workforce.'

The question is how do we ensure this extends to last-mile renewable energy employees as well? Off-grid solar companies that have made great strides in gender equality in their workforce should consider what needs to be done to attract and retain female staff especially during economic downturns brought on by COVID spikes.

Women in leadership

With clear evidence that women are champions for diversity and inclusion and that diversity leads to improved organisational outcomes, there is no question that the transition to a global clean energy economy will be faster with women in leadership. When we create the conditions for women to excel and lead, they will support the next generation of women to do the same.

And while this week we mark International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate women’s leadership, let us also acknowledge how incredibly important it is that leadership from all across the gender spectrum, and especially men, aim to be more inclusive and support increased participation of women leaders. There are some amazing men out there doing just that!

To accelerate the clean energy transition, leaders of all genders must strive to move towards a whole person approach to ensure leadership diversity continues to be enhanced and is not threatened by the external and difficult circumstances we find ourselves in today.

Author: Inga Brill, Energy Sector Lead Tanzania