The world needs to shift from a fossil-fuel-based energy system to carbon neutrality. Most obviously, this will require countries to roll out renewable energy and integrate it into the electricity grid, boost energy efficiency, upgrade infrastructure, and refine the governance of electricity and energy markets. Less apparent, success will require that women are able to contribute to the transition on an equal footing with men.
Energy transitions will differ depending on countries’ development priorities, the proportion of the population with access to power grids, the current energy mix and projected demand. Some may involve retrofitting old, unsustainable assets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; others may be part of a multifaceted development strategy for societal transformation, including gender equality and inclusion. But all countries should commit to creating jobs and leaving no one behind.
Although the available data varies considerably, women probably represent — at most — one-third of the global sustainable energy workforce. Their share typically is much lower in the Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions and executive positions. Moreover, policies that could help redress the current imbalance in the sector — such as flexitime, parental leave, return-to-work schemes, bias-free recruitment and promotion, and gender-balanced boards and panels — are scarce.
These barriers to the full and equal participation of women are an infringement of human rights. Governments, therefore, have a duty to eliminate discrimination against women and establish frameworks to help to empower them and enable their advancement.
In addition, the under-representation of women deprives energy transitions of diverse talent, and thus impedes the transformational change required to achieve global climate targets and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Conversely, the equal participation of women in the workforce is good for business, the economy, social development and the environment.
These findings are not new. In its 2012 World Development Report, the World Bank emphasised that gender equality not only is a core development objective in its own right, but also enhances an economy’s productivity and improves future generations’ prospects. And during the 2009 economic downturn, a global survey by McKinsey concluded that women leaders represent “a competitive edge in and after the crisis”. Having a higher percentage of women in decision-making positions increases innovation and profitability, decreases risk and enhances sustainability practices.
Green-energy transitions provide opportunities to tackle systemic gender discrimination. That is partly because sustainable energy is a new and fast-growing field: the number of people employed globally in the sector is expected to rise from about 11-million today to more than 42-million in 2050.
The good news is that governments, companies and universities around the world are implementing a variety of strategies to make the green transition more diverse and inclusive.
For example, Rwanda’s 2003 Constitution sets a mandatory minimum female quota of 30% for all decision-making bodies, including those related to sustainable development and energy. This sent a powerful signal to society and was more than doubly filled in the 2013 and 2018 parliamentary elections, in which women won more than 60% of the seats.
In the business world, Turkish company Polat Energy recently took out a $44-million “gender loan” to finance the construction of the country’s largest wind farm. The loan terms will improve if Polat shows progress toward gender equality relative to an initial baseline.
Wind Denmark has gone beyond the country’s already generous parental leave policy for both women and men, and Scottish Power is championing a “return to work” programme. Likewise, wind-turbine manufacturer Siemens Gamesa promotes flexible work arrangements and transparent pay-gap analysis: the company’s female employees in the UK earn 95% of what their male colleagues do.
Academic institutions and nongovernmental organisations (NGO) are also playing their part. The University of New South Wales Sydney has reported a 78% increase in female first-year engineering enrolments since it launched its Women in Engineering Program in 2014. And the Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition recently published a study on how to make sustainable energy more gender diverse.
Energy transitions are essential to limit global warming and build a more sustainable future. As countries everywhere embark on “building back better” after Covid-19, energy-transition strategies should be a key element in any stimulus package. And they will be far more likely to succeed if women play a central role. — Project Syndicate
Irene Giner-Reichl is the Austrian ambassador to Brazil and Suriname, the president of the Global Forum on Sustainable Energy, the co-founder and president of the Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition, and vice-president of the think-tank REN21