March brings the annual celebration of Women’s History Month. What started as 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 remarkable two-day Congressional hearing on “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 Institute and the EDGE in Tech initiative 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 only 20 percent of the energy sector’s labor force overall, and are underrepresented as corporate executives and in government leadership roles related to climate policy and practices. Indeed, a 2014 study by 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 that greater participation by women in such roles results 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.
California is pioneering policies and practices, both to increase energy from renewable sources and offer role models for women in the field.
In the corporate world, results advancing sustainability are correlated with companies with greater participation of women on their boards. A 2012 study from Berkeley’s 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 in double digits globally. Power companies and utilities have actually outpaced progress in other industries; in fact, eight of the largest electric utility companies in 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, features “Girl Power” on 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, only seven of PG&E’s 1,900 lineworkers are women). The job is physically demanding for anyone, and innovation to improve equipment and physical work environments built for male workers would help recruit and retain a wider range of body types. The unemployment rate for lineworkers is already below 1 percent, and nearly 70 percent of lineworkers spend less than 2 years on the job before moving on. Given these statistics, the need for skilled workers in this and related fields will 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 a 2019 report by 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 to improved business outcomes and reduced financial risk.
The transition to clean energy and renewables brings opportunities for greater gender diversity. IRENA’s 2019 report showed that more women 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 still largely 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 the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment Initiative (C3E), Women in Energy, leaders of a 2018 workshop by the International 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 elected Angelina Galiteva, the first woman in its 20-year history to serve as its Chair. As of 2019, the University of California leads other universities in 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 in Canada’s utilities sector has adopted these measures), borrow proven strategies from other industries to recruit, retain and promote women; and work with colleges and universities to offer experiential learning opportunities.
To improve the world’s 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.