By Maya Weber
Published: September 1, 2019
The renewables sector might edge past the oil and gas sector by some measures of gender parity, but that has not stopped it from taking a hard look the mirror.
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The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, and the Solar Foundation, a non-profit geared toward accelerating solar adoption, this year released a self-assessment based on two US surveys of employers and employees. The overall verdict: women and African Americans were under represented, and there was a major gender gap in wages and opportunities to move up the career ladder.
“Among all senior executives reported by solar firms, 88% are white and 80% are men, presenting a pronounced lack of diversity across gender, ethnicity and race at the executive level,” the report said.
“We have a long way to go, unfortunately,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the SEIA, even as she explained the desire to take an unflinching look. “There are multiple people in the solar industry who share the deeply held belief as we create this entire new industry … we need to get it right at the beginning, and make sure the issues of equality and equity are addressed and we don’t repeat the mistakes of some of our brethren in other energy sectors who have had a whole different workforce that are more recently coming to the conclusion that they need to be more diverse.”
The report identified several competitive advantages of expanding recruitment to more diverse candidates. One was broadening the base of potential employees to create a better pipeline of skilled workers. Diverse employees also could also help tap into new markets and build a more diverse customer base.
Hopper notes the study showed that many people get jobs in the sector through word of mouth. “Our friends often look like us. One of the biggest challenges is recognizing that culture and then challenging it and doing it differently,” she said.
She is not particularly convinced by the notion that companies would hire women positions if they could find them. “It takes work, you have to perhaps use pathways that are not familiar to you, that are a little outside of your area of comfort zone,” she said.
“We’ve really worked to see if we can help that pipeline issue as we bring women into these fields, but it’s tough.”
Still, she said, the industry is making strides by having the conversation. More than 80 solar company CEOs have signed an action pledge, committing personally to have programs in place. And the SEIA has signed MOUs with a number of organizations, including historically black colleges and universities in the US, to provide career opportunities, she added.
To fully reach its potential, the renewables sector needs to tap a wide pool of talent as it expands. Concerns about talent shortages caused the International Renewable Energy Agency to launch its own study this year. It found that renewable energy employed more women than the energy sector overall, 32% compared with 22%. However, female participation in renewables is lower for STEM jobs than in administrative jobs. Just 40% of men in the study perceived the existence of gender-related barriers, it noted, as opposed to 75% of women.
Kristen Graf, executive director of the Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy, said that the overall numbers in the sector clearly need work, but there is an exciting shift in conversations around diversity and inclusion. “Now I feel like so many companies are saying this is really important and we are not there yet and have a lot of work to do.”
“I’ve seen a sharp uptick in the number of companies reaching out to us, asking questions like what should we be doing, where can we find more information on parental leave policies, on how to build better relationships so that we get a diverse hiring slate,” she said.
According to Graf, the overall representation of women in renewables has been floating closer to 30% in the last few years, but is still low at the far ends of the spectrum – the C-suite level and entrylevel technicians.
Laura Beane, CEO of Avangrid Renewables, said a large percentage of employees in the sector are often in the field, as line workers or technicians at wind or solar facilities, in roles that still tend to be male-dominated. “We’ve really worked to see if we can help that pipeline issue as we bring women into these fields, but it’s tough, there’s not a whole lot of women that appear to be interested in those career fields.” There is stiff competition to draw and retain those people, amid rapid growth in the industry, she adds.
Among efforts to tackle that, she points to scholarship programs and outreach to technical colleges. She also sees more deliberate effort than ever before at her company to address the need for women to move up to leadership positions, with steps such as putting networking groups in place.