By Paolo Cisneros | LiCore AC
For most of us, renewable energy doesn’t fit neatly into our mental conception of big business.
Since we so often talk about it in the context of climate change mitigation, we’re much more likely to associate solar panels with natural landscapes than board rooms. But that ladder image — however discordant — matters just as much.
That’s because debates about whether renewables can truly compete with fossil fuels are generally a thing of the past. In 2018, renewable energy represents an opportunity to make money. As a result, the industry’s good intentions are now just as vulnerable to corruption and social blindspots as they are in every other for-profit industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women are particularly vulnerable in this new landscape.
Data from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) indicate women comprised only about 20 percent of all renewable energy professionals in 2013.1 Unfortunately, many factors play a role in perpetuating this disparity. On the engineering side, women remain underrepresented in university STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math). As for installers and maintenance technicians, some women report hostile work environments that make them unlikely to commit to the industry over the long term.
The sector’s gender blindspots also affect women from other walks of life. For example, many projects involve local consultation to determine how developers will acquire and allocate land for their turbines or panels. Here again, the IDB has documented ways in which cultural and economic factors box women out of these process and prevent them from contributing important insights.
This lack of gender equity is especially disheartening given renewable energy’s potential to empower women and their communities like few innovations in recent history. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, there were about 6.5 million renewable energy jobs worldwide in 2013. That figure is expected to grow by more than 16.7 million by 2030.2 If leveraged properly, that growth can measurably lift up women and their families. It can do so directly, through employment, and indirectly by creating stronger, healthier communities.
For example, renewable energy in Latin America is often employed means to provide electricity to communities that have historically gone without it. While women in these towns are more or less locked out of the formal job market, the arrival of electricity (and therefore communications infrastructure) allows them to engage with the outside world and global economy. What’s more, electrified communities are often safer and healthier thanks to factors such as adequate street lighting and medical care.
Thankfully, many women who already have a foothold in the renewable energy industry are working to close this gender gap. Here in Mexico, Mujeres en Energía Renovable México (MERM) is aiming to provide a larger platform for women at every level. Among their goals: “achieving a true shift in perceptions and inspiring other women to share their dreams and visions for a more sustainable world.”
If this rhetoric sounds lofty, it’s supposed to. MERM and other likeminded groups are under no illusion about the challenges they face. In addition to increasing the number of women in the industry, they’re working to improve labor conditions and ensure everyone, regardless of gender identify, is welcome at the tables where decisions about renewable energy are taking place. They’re one of dozens of organizations worldwide who are working to push the industry toward better, more inclusive practices.
There’s obviously much work left to be done, but thanks to organizations like MERM, but we’re one step closer to fully capitalizing on both the social and environmental benefits of renewable energy. If you haven’t already, be sure to follow them on social media.
1“Género y energías renovables. Energía eólica, solar, geotérmica e hidroeléctrica.” Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo. Nov. 2014. http://idbdocs.iadb.org/wsdocs/getdocument.aspx?docnum=39630426.
2“Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2014.” IRENA. 2014.