Interview: Inka Schomer, Principal Investigator

What are the different energy issues faced by women in low-income countries?

Affordability constraints can hinder female-led businesses or enterprises from connecting to the grid or to mini-grids due to lower incomes or purchasing power. Once connected, we may see gaps in productive uses of energy between female and male farmers and business owners. In addition, underlying gender gaps between women and men constrain the ability of women-owned enterprises to thrive and livelihoods to be enhanced. For example, in the agriculture sector, women’s access to resources and community participation is often mediated through men, either their fathers or husbands, and their agricultural contributions often go unrecognised, which limits productivity gains through energy access.

Looking at the gaps between women and men accessing financial products and services through development banks and micro-finance institutions (MFIs) to purchase energy products is a really interesting area of work. Development banks and MFIs are often risk averse, and the requirements are often not adjusted to women’s financial realities e.g. cyclical income, limited assets or reliance on less formal financial services. Female entrepreneurs might not be able to show they have two to three years’ experience in a sector, female consumers might not be able to repay loans in a short period of time, and they might not be able to afford an 18-21% MFI interest rate, as not all off-grid technologies are productive assets.

Applying for a loan can also be an onerous and time-consuming process and might involve travel – which is an issue as women face more time constraints and mobility issues. In addition, we have found information sharing to be essential with female entrepreneurs – because if it is a new market, women are less likely to have the information they need, they may not have as many contacts to leverage in the energy sector, and they won’t know the opportunities and risks.  

While low connection rates among female-headed households may be driven by affordability constraints to pay for upfront costs and internal household wiring, it is also about the overall cultural change and awareness around the benefits, such as drudgery reduction or health improvements. However, even if women and men do connect, we see suppressed demand scenarios given that households may not have the money to utilise the energy services they may want to – so looking also at how to link this to rural development priorities is key in project design.

Energy education and customer service can sometimes rely on top-down approaches, with utilities and rural energy agencies transferring information in a certain format via roadshows and group meetings, and distributing pamphlets etc. In these settings, the nuanced information sharing that women would find valuable e.g. on the benefits of energy services and safety aspects, can go missing. They might not be able to find out about their consumer rights and how they will be charged, for example.


What has led ESMAP to carry out work on closing gender gaps in the energy sector?

The Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) Gender and Energy programme is helping to strengthen women's roles as consumers, employees and entrepreneurs in the energy sector. Aligned with the World Bank Group’s Gender Strategy, we work with countries to design interventions and actions needed to close gender gaps in the sector and improve development outcomes.

We think there is a moral imperative to work on these issues, even if we don’t always have the data and analytics to prove the business case for a focus on gender equality. I feel very strongly about this.

Anecdotally, electrification has a positive impact on women’s health and wellbeing (through better lighting and refrigeration) and can result in improved family planning through, for example, exposure to new norms or information on reproductive health on television or radio.

We have started to do a lot of work on quantifying time savings and the reduction of drudgery around cooking technologies. Surprisingly, this is not extensively studied in the energy space. There has been a huge focus on the environment and climate change benefits of, for example, adoption of improved cookstoves, but more and more studies are showing that women really value technologies and products that change their lives through saving time to enhance rest or change norms in the household around who does the cooking etc.

If we want women (and girls) to access new livelihoods and have the ability to re-shape their day, if we want them to access opportunities to develop their skills, they need to get two to three hours of their day back that we see them spending on fuel wood collection and cooking. They can use this time productively, for work or study, but even if they spend it having a rest, that’s a great outcome.

Shifting from cooking to energy access, studies have shown that women are 9-23 percentage points more likely to gain employment outside the home through electrification – which links back to the time allocation of tasks at the household level, which can change through modern energy service provision. Other studies have shown increases in wage labour as a result of decreased unpaid work in the home.

We also focus on incentivising utilities and banks to really think about the market and consumers they are missing out on, and how the uptake of technologies could be increased at a national level. It needs some good consumer-centric thinking; in Ethiopia, for example, women are taking out smaller loans mainly for solar lanterns, rather than adopting technologies such as solar home systems, which are more expensive and require more substantial collateral or larger repayment amounts. Women are often the main beneficiary of these systems, so a large market segment is being missed in terms of sales and marketing.


What led you to design the research project with EEG?

One area we have been working on a lot over the past few years is enhancing women’s employment in utilities – especially in technical and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) positions. The issue can be tackled from an analytical and qualitative perspective, because you can work with HR departments and their skills development counterparts to analyse baseline data and track progress and also speak with employees. A lot of the time utilities are not targeting female graduates in recruitment drives or investing in existing female talent – which is one of the reasons we started this project with EEG.

Gender is one of EEG’s cross-cutting themes, and after conversations between us, it became clear there were certain things we were working on that were really interesting to EEG, especially on-grid electricity and our focus on tackling issues around women’s labour force participation in utilities in Africa and South Asia.

The EEG programme offered the scope for a research focus that could look more analytically and systematically at HR frameworks, hold focus group discussions and develop tools for collecting data on women’s employment. This fitted nicely into the ESMAP programme, and we were able to link the funding to existing interventions in our country programmes. There is a glaring need for more of this kind of work.


What are the benefits of bringing women into the energy workforce?

I do not often have the budget I need to carry out analytics on why employing more women is important for a utility – so I can’t prove to the CEO that their company will run better or be more profitable.  

However, evidence mainly from developed countries shows that utilities reap benefits from enhancing diversity and recruiting more women: greater financial performance, greater innovation, improved employee retention, improved service delivery, increased balance on teams, better sustainability and compliance, and more concern for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and community relations.

In addition, gender gaps cost economies in terms of their GDP, and having safe, respectful working environments are good for everyone.


What opportunities do you think the energy sector offers women?

The women we work with in the energy sector love what they are doing. Women tend to be interested in sectors that are linked to sustainability, and that have a social benefit – the energy sector delivers on both.

The energy sector, including more broadly infrastructure, can also be high paying. Women are overrepresented in health and education and underrepresented in engineering, manufacturing, construction and science. These differences matter because they translate into gaps in earnings and productivity, and occupational sex segregation is a key driver behind these gaps.


What are the current barriers?

We talk about barriers in terms of attraction, recruitment, retention and advancement.

In terms of attraction, women absorb what the world is telling them – and there are many stereotypes around the energy sector. They have internalised beliefs about whether the sector is welcoming, and if they can have a career within it. Self-efficacy, aspirations, and interests at the individual level are influenced by societal level norms and stereotypes. One of the main issues is that women may feel undervalued in male-dominated workplaces and may expend more energy to be taken seriously – thereby undermining their confidence. There are also still some archaic legal barriers in place: for example, in some countries, legislation prevents women from working night shifts and climbing poles.

Then in the recruitment process, we find all-male panels, out-of-date job criteria and job descriptions, and entrance exams that focus on testing skills that may never be needed on the job. It is important to note that bias can sit with both women and men – studies indicate that women also refer male candidates when asked to put forward applicants for a role.

Retention is an issue; we see really high dropout rates (20-30%) in the first year or two for women in STEM in certain countries. Workplace climate and culture were among the most common factors for women leaving the field. Some of the other issues include a lack of workplace facilities (such as childcare or toilets) and safe transport, and discrimination in terms of career progression for women who may utilise flexible work arrangements (e.g. overvaluing of face-time or a culture of long work hours in the office). Even in countries with good laws around maternal rights and health embedded in, for example, collective bargaining agreements, there may be gaps in terms of tackling issues around sexual harassment at a company level.

While some utilities might do well at the recruitment stage, advancement is often a gap that is difficult to address. There have been some improvements, but there are often limited female professional networks within institutions and a lack of mentors and sponsors for women as they advance in their careers or limited succession planning. Women may face discrimination in terms of training opportunities and may struggle to be seen as equally qualified and capable to take up leadership positions.

I do feel for the utilities that sometimes express their issues around recruiting female engineers – but they also have a responsibility to create a work environment that is safe and welcoming. They need to invest in partnering with educational institutions to offer internships or have female role models speak at career fairs. Sending out a strong message that the sector believes in and values a diverse workforce is key.


Are there any places we could be looking to for examples of current good practice?

We have carried out global mapping of women’s employment initiatives in developing countries, looking at what interventions can work across water, transport and infrastructure.

For example, in the Solomon Islands, a water utility has done some progressive work on how domestic violence trickles into productivity and workplace culture. In Chile, a mining company has started to pilot work around childcare and flexible working and returnships for women following maternity leave. The Asian Development Bank has carried out some work in Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) around scholarship programmes for women to study and become part of the water utility workforce.

In Kenya, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company Limited (KPLC) has been part of the EEG gender and utilities project. There is now work underway to map out gaps in employment and the HR frameworks that exist to see what dynamics can be changed to close some of the gaps we see, and we are designing a scholarship programme to grow the future pipeline of women entering the sector.

In Ethiopia, substantial work had been carried out to address gender gaps across the sector. There are strong commitments in national legislation about childcare and employment ratios – but a plan was needed on how to get there, so we have helped the Ethiopia Electric Utility (EEU) map out a five-year strategy linked to a budget allocation of USD 4.5 million in a World Bank financed programme.

In South Asia, the Women in Power Sector Professional Network (WePOWER) has been developed to support women’s advancement in the power sector and to promote gender diversity within utilities and energy projects. It is a platform for networking, recruitment, information exchange, training, and mentorship opportunities across various partner organisations.

Something I feel very strongly about is having budgets in place; you cannot address centuries of under-investment in female talent across the world, but specifically also in the energy sector, without a budget to put in place multi-year interventions. That needs more thinking, as it is not talked about enough at the project and country level.


Why are Ethiopia, Zambia, Kenya, and India focus areas for the EEG project?

We went through a portfolio review and looked at countries where there were already entry points and clear ideas on women’s employment, and where we had existing relationships – it is hard to ‘go cold’ into a country without existing relationships. We had a clear picture in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zambia of what we could shape together with the project team and the client counterparts such as ministries and utilities.

In South Asia, a baseline assessment had already been carried out on all eight countries in the region, so we had a good sense of dynamics of the power sector. The WePOWER network had also been established, so through this engagement opportunities came up to support work on women’s employment at Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL) in India.


What impact are you hoping for?

The opportunity to collect both quantitative and qualitative HR data is a huge win – it is important to have baseline information before you design tangible interventions.

The ultimate outcome would be the creation of a toolkit for utilities to take forward and tailor. It would provide tools for gender focal points or HR departments to think about things like costings/budgets, data collection, childcare, needs assessments, reporting on indicators to track progress, and communication with senior management.

We are also focused on exchanges between the Africa and South Asia region on what works e.g. five representatives from Africa participated in the 2nd WePOWER Partnership Forum in Manila in November 2019.


How does the project fit into the agenda at the upcoming Grid Reliability and Utility Operations conference in Ghana next February?

We hope to share some really good, rigorous data on women’s employment in Africa and South Asia and to map out some of the barriers around attraction, recruitment, retention and advancement. We’ll talk about the interventions that have worked – we believe this will be of the most interest to practitioners.

We will present some inspirational pieces around what an innovative, functioning, progressive, modern utility looks like – and aim to spark conversations around that.

We hope to meet HR and skills development specialists from utilities, as we are always looking for partnership opportunities.


What drew you to work in the sector?

I hold a Master of Science degree, and have a background in climate and carbon finance and renewable energy. I have a technical understanding of the realities of energy project design and implementation, but I am also guided by feminist thought and thinking on social and anthological dynamics. Energy services are intertwined with livelihoods, culture, norms and poverty dynamics that are constantly evolving, so it’s key to think inter-disciplinary.

While I didn’t study gender equality, it was talked about when I worked at the Climate Investment Funds. I thought it was a fascinating area of work and decided to switch to this area of focus and have immersed myself in the topic over the past six years. I enjoy helping to create a culture of change, and the work is perplexing and interesting, especially in boardrooms or in communities in-country.

Clean cooking used to be the main focus of what was considered an entry point on gender and energy, but the space has really opened up. Clients come to us with really tangible ideas about things like gender-based violence (GBV) or young professionals’ programmes – areas that we wouldn’t have conventionally worked on in the energy sector. This is really exciting to see globally – although we do need to also continue to pitch for change with CEOs of companies, ministers and employees.