I recently had the pleasure of moderating a roundtable on “Women in Clean Energy” organised by Renewable Watch. There was a stellar line-up of panelists: Sushmita R. Ajwani, director, Power and Renewables, ICF International; Prarthana Borah, director, CDP; Ritu Lal, client partner, Infrastructure and Energy Practice, Amrop India; Anupama Ratta, head of human resources, Tata Power Renewable Energy Limited; and Anvesha Paresh Thakker, partner and national lead, clean energy, KPMG India – all women with years of experience working in the clean energy space, in areas such as consulting and research, human resources and business development. The roundtable aimed at shining the spotlight on the changing role of women in the clean energy sector and exploring measures that can be taken at the organisational and sectoral levels to promote gender equity in this sector. A subject close to my heart, in this article, I share some highlights from the roundtable discussion as well as some statistics and experience from around the world on the women workforce in the clean energy sector…
As the world moves ahead on its clean energy transition path, it is important that this journey is inclusive and empowers every citizen. Traditionally, the energy sector has been male dominated, especially with respect to engineering, operations and other technical roles, and women have been chosen for “softer” roles. Perceptions of gender-specific roles, social constructs and sometimes unfair biases have been responsible for this trend. The gender gap, even today, is significant, with women forming a small fraction of the overall energy workforce and an even smaller fraction of the top management in organisations.
The good news is that green shoots of change are emerging, as was evident from the discussions during the roundtable. There is a modest, but notable, increase in the number of women employees in clean energy companies across the country. The sector is so diverse that there are a number of opportunities for women across a variety of verticals. “The opportunities in the green energy space have increased over ten times over the past one year, creating more roles for women in the sector,” noted Prarthana Borah. Anupama Ratta underscored that point, saying, “Renewables provide multi-disciplinary environments to work in the sector, making it more viable for women in the workforce.”
Unlike the conventional power sector, this is a rapidly evolving and dynamic field, giving more women a chance to apply for new jobs emerging in this space. As Sushmita R. Ajwani remarked, “There is a significant gender disparity in the overall power sector. However, with renewable energy, the narrative is changing.” Anvesha Paresh Thakker added, “Change in technology, service orientation and globalisation are leading to more women being integrated in the renewable energy space.”
No doubt, the representation of women is uneven across the clean energy ecosystem, and is particularly low in the areas of development, construction, operations and policy. However, this is expected to change with the expansion of the sector, greater awareness, changing social norms and more women training in engineering, technology, finance and other technical fields that have hitherto been dominated by men. “Not only the renewables sector but the overall corporate sector is witnessing a positive shift towards inclusivity and diversity,” remarked Ritu Lal.
Women are now playing a critical part in promoting clean energy solutions, especially in the distributed renewables space, as they stand to be major beneficiaries in many instances. Take the case of rural India, Africa and other similar regions, where women use animal dung and biomass for their daily cooking needs, owing to the lack of access to cleaner cooking fuels. Often they walk for miles to obtain clean drinking water or manage their daily chores without proper access to electricity. With clean energy solutions such as solar cookers, clean biomass cookstoves, solar pumps and renewable energy minigrids, the lives of these women can change for the better. Moreover, they can even be trained to use these solutions to start small businesses and encourage others to adopt them. For the clean energy transition to be successful, it would need to reach every corner and every citizen of the world and in so doing, it would address the often-ignored problems of society.
There are inspiring cases of efforts being made in India and the rest of the world to empower women and enable them to be key contributors to the clean energy transition, right from the grassroots level. For example, Barefoot College in Rajasthan trains women (including grandmothers) for six months in assembling, installing, operating and maintaining solar-powered products such as solar lanterns, lamps, solar water heaters and parabolic cookers. An impressive number of 2,000 rural women from more than 90 countries have been trained as Barefoot Solar Engineers, widely known as “Solar Mamas”. In Africa, the Solar Sister initiative empowers female solar entrepreneurs, who are trained and supplied with affordable solar-powered products and clean stoves for sale to people who do not have access to power. Over 8,500 Solar Sister entrepreneurs have reached more than 3.5 million people in Africa. There are many other such initiatives that are improving access to clean energy in rural and remote regions of the world, with women as enablers of this crucial transition.There are also shining examples of women entrepreneurs in the renewable energy field who have gone on to bring a transformational shift in their respective regions or countries. For instance, Laura E. Stachel co-founded WE CARE Solar, which manufactures solar power kits to provide electricity for underserved maternal health facilities, primarily in Africa and rural regions in the world. Similarly, Wandee Khunchornyakong has the distinction of being the first woman in Thailand to own an electricity-generating business. She founded SPCG Public Company Limited at a time when solar was almost negligible in Thailand. It went on to become a leading solar developer in the country and is listed on Thailand’s stock exchange. There are many other women role models, who are making an impressive mark in the clean energy sector, holding out a beacon of hope for others in this field.
To substantiate these insights, I refer to global data released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in September 2022. It estimates that the solar PV space, which is responsible for the highest number of jobs in the renewable energy sector, employs the maximum number of women. Around 40 per cent of the solar PV industry is made up of women employees compared to just 21 per cent in wind, 22 per cent in oil and gas, and 32 per cent in the overall renewable energy space. Thus, while progress has been made with respect to gender inclusion in the solar space, there is a lot of scope for improvement in the wind power segment and in the overall renewable energy sector.
Regarding the specialised role of women, IRENA data shows much lower participation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs than in administrative jobs in the renewables sector. In fact, 58 per cent of the women in the solar PV space hold jobs in administration-related work, with only 32 per cent women in STEM roles. The situation certainly needs to improve in the wind space, where only 14 per cent women work in STEM positions. About 45 per cent of the women work in administrative roles in the overall renewables space, followed by 35 per cent in non-STEM technical jobs and only 28 per cent in STEM jobs.
With respect to women’s presence at the top management level, once again solar PV fares better than wind. About 17 per cent of the solar segment’s senior management roles are held by women, compared to just 8 per cent in the case of wind power. Both these shares are quite small compared to 31 per cent of the women present in senior management positions in the global economy, which again reflects a tremendous scope for improvement in this space. Interestingly, it is the decision-making roles where the gender gap is the largest, and it is here that greater women participation is needed. Only then can the clean energy transition address problems from a holistic perspective, rather than focusing on just one half of the global population.
Net, net, women can play a key role in the clean energy transition across the value chain, from planning and conceptualisation to actual implementation and operations. While the desired change towards gender equity is taking place, more women are required at the policy and regulation formulation level as well as in leadership positions in large renewable energy development, manufacturing and lending firms to ensure that the clean energy transition addresses the needs of every citizen in the nation.
By Khushboo Goyal