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It’s Not “Nice” To Include Women In The Energy Sector, It’s Essential

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s difficult not to notice that at most energy events I attend, I’m one of just a handful of women. Last week’s C3E Women in Clean Energy Symposium at MIT looked and felt a lot different. It provided a forum for female professionals to come together to discuss challenges and opportunities in clean energy.

C3E stands for the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment program launched in 2010 to advance the careers and leadership of women in clean energy. Why do we matter? In policy discussions and research, diversity brings novel ideas to the table. We are also the primary energy decision-makers at home in both the developed and developing world. So if we are truly serious about finding solutions to our most pressing global energy challenges, both halves the population must contribute to the conversation. C3E is a step in that direction by providing mentorship, support, and a network of pioneering women in a field traditionally dominated by men.

The highlight of the symposium was the keynote “Creating a Sustainable Culture of Innovation” by Sharon Vosmek, CEO of Astia. While not an energy expert, Vosmek is passionate to propel women’s full-participation as entrepreneurs and leaders in all roles. She explained why it’s not just “nice” to include women, but essential, pointing out that 95% of venture capitalists are men. If women want to get into that network, she explained that we’ll need greater access. The most memorable take-away was this–which was not energy specific: Reducing barriers to female participation in the workforce can increase GDP up to 9 percent. Translation: When we work to include women, it benefits everyone.

So how do we get there? Vosmek advised the audience to “pursue uncomfortable work situations” where we feel different because of our gender–rather than try to avoid them. Our presence helps to challenge the status quo, which ultimately fosters change and more equal representation. She described the clean energy sector as ripe for inclusive innovation because it is young enough to build in women leaders. I suspect she’s correct.

I left Boston feeling optimistic about the future of women in clean energy. Instead of listening to the same old questions (“where are the women?” or “how do we raise numbers of women in…x?”), C3E is working toward change by fostering a community of women actively involved in the energy conversation.

Sheril Kirshenbaum About the Author: Sheril Kirshenbaum is Director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin where she works to enhance public understanding of energy issues and improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Follow on Twitter @Sheril_.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Derrythe 10:56 am 09/25/2013

    Some of the language here is misleading, women need greater access, it’s essential they be included. Included by whom? Who is limiting their access. If women want to be included in the energy sector, then they should get relevant educations and get jobs in the energy sector. It’s as simple as that.

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  2. 2. Sheril Kirshenbaum 11:34 am 09/25/2013

    “If women want to be included in the energy sector, then they should get relevant educations and get jobs in the energy sector. It’s as simple as that.”

    Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

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  3. 3. Derrythe 12:18 pm 09/25/2013

    So the problem is that, in general women don’t seem to be interested in these jobs and C3E is trying to tell women why they should be interested? Or are women somehow being pushed away from this field by someone/thing and we need to force those bad people to let women who are interested in?

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  4. 4. INeedAUniqueUserName 2:32 pm 09/25/2013

    I think you’re absolutely right in this post and this quote seems like the linchpin of the process: “pursue uncomfortable work situations” where we feel different because of our gender–rather than try to avoid them.

    Women (everyone but women more) (in my experience and to generalize and stereotype, so hold your fire because I know it already) tend to avoid situations that feel uncomfortable. Nothing will change until this attitude changes and enough smart, engaged women decide they have something valuable and needed by the community of life, and that becoming involved in these ways is essential to bring about the major shifts we need. More power to you, in every meaning of the phrase.

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  5. 5. jbuckley 7:55 pm 09/25/2013

    The first person I recruited and hired when I was a supervising engineer for a power company in 1985 was a woman, a Geologist (who later got her masters in Engineering). The first person I recruited and hired off the internet when I was working as a Director for a gas & electric utility in 1996 was a woman, a Chemical Engineer (masters level who later got her MBA). The first two people I sourced and recruited through LinkedIn in my current position as General Counsel of a power industry focused management consulting firm in 2010 and 2011 were both women, an Accountant (with CPA) and Biologist (with a masters in Environmental Policy & Management).

    I have consistently seen women during the interview process who are undervalued by the market, and the national data confirms my anecdotal observations. In some ways I feel like I’ve taken unfair advantage of them by getting the much better qualified candidates that others somehow overlooked; on the other hand, I feel like I opened some doors for people who weren’t getting the opportunities they earned.

    Not every woman I’ve sourced, recruited, or hired has been stellar, but the percentage is higher than the men. You would think more male hiring managers would figure out that women are undervalued in the job market and prices would quickly equilibrate. But national data shows, at the current rate of improvement, pay equilibrium won’t be achieved until 2058. I could be a hundred years old then, but probably not.

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  6. 6. z34aa 8:41 pm 09/25/2013

    I work in the oil business and I know many of the employers in my little corner of the industry, and I can assure you that there is a lot of the old boy’s club mentality. They wouldn’t think of hiring women for most of the positions. There was a lot of gossip when one guy hired a man as a secretary. “He hired a what? A guy? What was wrong with him that he is doing a women’s job?”

    A lot of the positions I’m talking about are towards the bottom of the business pyramid. I’m not talking about people with PhD’s or Masters, these people are good if they have high school diplomas. Most of the jobs are hard work. Of course If your good at your job you can move up the pyramid. The thing is, a lot of women don’t apply for these jobs. This greatly effects the culture of the industry. Just like the culture can be effected from the top down, it’s also effected from the bottom up. Those guys who started as work hands 30 years later might be upper management or even the boss.

    So if you want to change the industry don’t just focus on high level positions where you need advanced degrees, change needs to happen at the bottom too. It’s hard work, damn hard, but I wouldn’t say that women can’t do it. The culture that says women can’t do these jobs needs to change, that includes among women. These guys that start at the bottom and have worked there way up are starting with the impression that it’s a man only job because only men are working with them when they start. They take that feeling with them when they raise in power.

    If you want to change the industry start looking among those with only high school deplomas or GED’s and find some brave, strong, women who won’t put up with bullshit and are willing to work hard and encourage them to try working in the industry.

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