Increasing women’s participation in the energy sector – addressing the challenges

The benefits of increasing women’s participation in employment and leadership roles has been globally recognised, and gender inequality is recognised as a constraint to economic growth. However, many barriers continue to prevent women from working in the energy industry. Most estimates suggest women account for just 22-25% of total employees in the power sector, and a low proportion work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles. Programme director Simon Trace explains more, with a focus on gender diversity research being carried out in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It has been suggested there is a correlation between business performance and gender diversity in the workplace, including in the energy industry. Studies have shown that companies with strong female leadership deliver a 36% higher return on equity, and that companies with at least one female executive board member outperformed those with male-only boards. As for the energy sector, it has been demonstrated that a lack of gender equality puts utilities at a disadvantage, with boards with at least 30% women having higher profit margins than those that don’t. It has also been suggested that energy sector organisations that improve gender equality can boost innovation.

Research into gender diversity is a relatively new area with many data gaps, but most estimates put the average percentage of women working in the power sector at just 22-25% of total employees. And the number of women in the most senior roles at utilities remains low. Women account for just 17% of total board members, 21% of non-executive board members, 6% of executive board members and 15% of senior management team members.

In addition, research suggests there are high degrees of gender segregation within electric utilities, with women commonly working in finance, HR, legal and accounting departments, and fewer working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs.

And even though research from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) shows higher percentages of women (32%) working in renewables than the rest of the energy sector (because of its multidisciplinary dimension, renewable energy potentially appeals to women more than the fossil fuel industry), women’s participation in STEM jobs in the sector is still far lower than in administrative roles (28% versus 45% respectively). An IRENA report found this difference to be more pronounced in the wind energy sector, where women account for only 14% of the STEM total, compared to 45% working in administrative jobs.

In Africa’s energy industry, reports show that women account for less than a quarter of employees – and diversity decreases with the level of seniority. An EEG-funded in-depth study on employment in the energy sector in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia, led by the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP), found that, on average, women made up 21% of the workforce in the companies surveyed. The average share of women working in technical positions was 15%. Most women were working in office-based corporate functions, such as HR, finance, and customer service, and women were more likely to assume managerial roles, particularly in mid-management.

The energy sector – and particularly renewable energy – should be offering diverse, rewarding job opportunities for women. But progress in increasing women’s employment, engagement and participation has clearly been slow. Studies suggest this is because women face specific challenges and barriers that prevent them from entering the workforce and advancing their careers.

At our Grid Reliability and Utility Operations Conference held earlier this year, Pamela Baldinger, ESMAP’s women’s employment expert consultant, addressed gender gaps and the challenges facing women working in energy. She discussed societal barriers (laws may prohibit certain types of employment; women experience biased social norms and expectations; childcare/home responsibilities mean women have less time and/or mobility; and there are few/no role models for students or professional women) as well as institutional barriers (including a lack of adequate facilities/equipment for women; sexual harassment; gender bias in recruitment and promotion processes; a lack of internship/training opportunities and leadership commitment; and resistance to change).

Pamela explained that while the energy companies surveyed in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia had non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and gender committees, flexible work options were generally not available (which might contribute to the low percentages of women working in senior or supervisory positions) and childcare options were limited (around half the organisations in each sample provided childcare facilities or financial compensation to employees at headquarters, but not in field offices). A lack of support for working parents is likely to have a larger impact on women, who traditionally bear greater responsibility for childcare. In addition, mentoring programmes were limited or non-existent (for men and women).

The EEG/ESMAP project is developing platforms for networking, training and mentorship in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia, with the aim of informing interventions and increasing gender benefits. The research is also being carried out in Pakistan, before being rolled out in other countries in South Asia.

At our conference, we also heard from Dr Cherub Antwi-Nsiah, director of social and gender inclusion at the Millennium Development Authority (MiDA). She explained that, in the energy sector, gender diversity issues are present at all three major stages of a female employee’s career cycle. At entry-level stage, the industry fails to attract highly qualified female talent; at mid-career stage, the sector struggles to retain female employees; and at senior level, the industry fails to offer viable options to female employees looking for promotion opportunities.

Cherub discussed the Ghana Power Compact Internship and Mentoring Program (GPCIMP), which is helping to address gender diversity problems and contribute to women’s employment in the energy sector. The GPCIMP supports young women in tertiary and technical institutions offering STEM and Technical, Vocational, Education and Training (TVET) courses – helping them gain practical skills relevant for the power sector through internship and mentoring. The target is 600 interns placed in public/private industries/employers for two-month internships (from 2018 to the end of 2021) and at least 200 National Service Personnel by 2021 – and the outlook is positive.

While much more needs to be done to address the barriers women face, fortunately there are many individuals and organisations committed to increasing the participation of women in Africa’s energy sector, and who are providing role models for women and young girls.

Just one example is Ogutu Okudo from Kenya, the founder and CEO of Women in Energy & Extractives Africa (WEX Africa), a social enterprise bridging the gender gap in the oil, gas, mining and alternative energy sectors. The organisation works with women looking to get into the energy industry and works closely with key players in Africa’s energy sector to ensure their programmes are sustainable and gender inclusive. Ogutu featured in Forbes Africa's 30 Under 30 List for 2020.

Another example is the African Energy Chamber becoming a signatory to the Equal by 30 initiative, a public commitment by public and private sector organisations to work towards equal pay, equal leadership and equal opportunities for women in the clean energy sector by 2030. The chamber has been joined in the initiative by a number of its energy organisation partners (including Africa Oil & Power, which has also been running a Women in Energy series, highlighting the leading women working in Africa’s energy sector). As signatories, they have endorsed principles and taken concrete action to accelerate the participation of women in the energy sector and close the gender gap in Africa.

Gender is one of EEG’s cross-cutting themes, and increasing women’s employment in the energy sector was a central part of our Grid Reliability and Utility Operations Conference – it was the top favourite session, as voted for by attendees. All presentations can be found here.

By Simon Trace