Women have long been underrepresented in conventional energy industries such as coal, oil and gas, whether in exploration and extraction activities or in running power-generating plants. All available information suggests that men outnumber women in most of these workplaces, and especially in technical, managerial and policy-making positions.
Energy is still often seen as a man’s domain, where persistent cultural and social norms sway hiring decisions. More prosaically, workplace disparities reflect educational pathways and recruitment networks that remain heavily male-oriented. The widespread perception that the energy field requires technical skills above all else, and that energy is a “dirty” business, reinforce these patterns. Another factor is the relative scarcity of women in clean energy is female role models in the sector and inadequate peer networks for women.
Yet greater gender equality and equity is an issue of fundamental fairness: equal job and career opportunities should be available to all, irrespective of their gender or other distinguishing characteristics.
Upsides of hiring women in clean energy
The benefits to companies are compelling. Studies in many sectors of the economy show that workforce diversity is good for an organisation’s growth, culture and sustainability (World Economic Forum, 2019). Eliminating the barriers that dissuade or prevent women from entering the wind or solar sector (and remaining in it) offers several advantages to the industry. These include the ability to draw on a much wider and deeper pool of talent in technical, business and administrative occupations, and to gain from the fresh ideas and perspectives that women in clean energy bring to the industry.
Society at large also benefits from a stronger female presence and voice in the energy sector. Women’s perspectives and priorities may differ from those of men; having them reflected in decision-making on energy technology choices, market design, and scale and scope of specific projects can bring about more balanced outcomes for society as a whole. This is of great importance in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Women in renewables and the SDGs
Renewable energy enables the achievement of key social, economic and environmental objectives expressed in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The triangle of sustainable energy, jobs and gender objectives finds expression in three of the 17 SDGs: SDG 7 (access to modern, clean, and sustainable energy), SDG 5 (gender equality and empowerment), and SDG 8 (inclusive growth and decent work).
They are closely interconnected. Achieving SDG 7 is indispensable to a vibrant, clean and inclusive economy. The close interaction between the energy system and the broader economy implies a symbiotic relationship between SDGs 7 and 8. The gender objectives expressed in SDG 5 shape the way the energy industry and the economy at large function, aiming to make them inclusive.
Women in Wind
Launched in 2019 by the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) and Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition (GWNET), the Women in Wind Global Leadership programme’s mission is to advance the role of women as agents of change in the global energy transition, in line with SDGs 5 and 7, and to contribute to a more just, innovative and prosperous society.
As a multidimensional programme including mentorship, learning and development, webinars, a study tour and an online storytelling campaign, Women in Wind is designed to accelerate the careers of women in wind power, support their pathway to senior leadership and foster a global network of knowledge-sharing, inclusion and empowerment.
Women in Wind represents the voice of women in the wind sector at international forums like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and IRENA. In its inaugural year, it was supported by MHI Vestas, Mainstream Renewable Power and GE Renewable Energy.
German women’s cooperative
Windfang Frauen Energie Gemeinschaft is the first German energy cooperative exclusively run by women. Windfang (literally “wind catch”) was initiated in 1991 by a group of female engineering and natural sciences students. In March 1995, Windfang’s first wind turbine was connected to the grid. Today, the co-operative owns and operates eleven wind turbines in four German federal states (along with three small solar rooftop installations).
Since its inception, Windfang has generated more than 146000 MWh of wind electricity; just in the last three years (2017-2019), annual generation increased by almost 60% to 16523 MWh. Windfang supplies some 3,140 households with wind energy, avoiding 8,280 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.
The co-operative enables women to participate in male-dominated technical and strategic fields. Women run Windfang’s technical and commercial management and its finances. A general assembly of 300 associates decides democratically on the further development of the co-operative and on how profits are used. The co-operative offers a return on investment of more than 4% to its members.
Swedish women for clean energy
Qvinnovindar, a cooperative formed by 10 Swedish women, was inspired by the Swedish words for women (kvinnor) and wind (vind). It exists not only to support renewable energy, but to empower women in rural areas. Initiated in 2007, the group expanded to some 80 members with diverse professional backgrounds. Qvinnovindar has invested more than 10 million krona ($1.5 million) in various wind projects. Individual members have invested various sums, some as much as $46,000. However, regardless of the amount, each member has an equal vote in how the company is run.
Replicating women’s initiatives in the field
Mainstreaming gender into policymaking, programme design and project implementation in renewables is a must to heighten awareness of restrictive cultural and social norms and to challenge persistent gender myths. Mainstreaming is best accomplished by presenting gender-disaggregated data and boosting the visibility of the diverse roles women are already playing in expanding the wind energy sector and in promoting the energy transition.
While changing men’s perceptions is important, women themselves are the best agents of change in the quest for greater gender balance, whether as employees of companies or, as in the Windfang and Qvinnovindar cases by setting up women-operated organisations.