Mini series: Women at work

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From August pv magazine

The solar power industry offers great promise. A promise for cleaner air, fixed electricity costs, job creation, economic growth, energy security, decentralized structures, and energy access to those who need it most. The promise to address what many consider to be the greatest challenge of our time: global climate change.

A transformed energy supply supports the creation of a more just and sustainable world, where future generations can continue to thrive. And the solar PV industry is at the forefront of leading this transformation. Of the reported 11 million jobs in the renewable energy sector in 2018, an estimated 3.6 million positions came from the solar PV industry.

The International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) sixth annual Renewable Energy and Jobs report, published earlier this year, found that women currently represent 32% of the renewable energy workforce – significantly higher than the 22% reported in the global oil and gas industry. Similarly, national polls from The Solar Foundation show women accounted for 26% of the U.S. solar industry workforce in 2018, up from approximate 19% in 2013, and a much higher representation than the approximate 13% employed by the country’s oil and gas industry.

Yet it still doesn’t take more than attending a global solar trade show to identify the challenge that our industry faces pertaining to gender equity in the workforce. In 2019, several industry groups have shed light on the disparity that exists with newly released reports tailored specifically to gender and equality.

IRENA’s Renewable Energy: A Gender Perspective program surveyed approximately 1,500 men, women and organizations from 144 countries across roles in the renewable energy sector. Responses showed that only 40% of men, as opposed to 75% of women, perceived the existence of gender-related barriers. In looking at barriers to retention and advancement for women, survey respondents found the glass ceiling to be the most important factor. Coincidingly, men represented at least 75% of board members in nearly half of all participating private companies.

The Solar Foundation and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) released the U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study 2019, which was a survey of nearly 300 solar companies. It found that nearly all executive-level positions are comprised of white (88%) men (80%). The report further demonstrated a vast discrepancy in pay, with a 26% gender wage gap, with women in solar making 74 cents on the dollar to men. The median wage was $29.19 for men, and only $21.62 for women. Just over one-third of solar companies formally tracked employee demographics and diversity, with 45% not tracking, and 19% not knowing or refusing to answer.

Changes afoot

This year has also marked action from the industry on promoting gender, diversity and inclusion in the workforce. SEIA and The Solar Foundation recently launched a Diversity Best Practices Guide for the Solar Industry. The guide provides a strategic approach with key focus areas to help companies improve.

“Senior leaders should be vocal about diversity, set measurable goals, and make staff accountable for meeting these goals,” says Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of The Solar Foundation. “For a solar company, it starts by setting goals and continues by developing inclusive processes, from recruiting and hiring to performance reviews and workforce development.”

Sunrun – whose CEO, Lynn Jurich, is featured in In Conversation this month – claims to be the first solar company to achieve 100% pay parity. “Fair and equal pay for all genders and races is a fundamental human right and integral to the Sunrun ethos,” said Jurich. Sunrun has developed other programs to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace, such as affinity groups and commitment to representation of diverse groups across all levels of the company.

In May, SEIA launched a Diversity Challenge to encourage its members and the broader energy industry to make diversity and inclusion a core part of company culture. The effort includes social media presence by using the hashtag #DiversityChallenge and also encourages companies to take the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion pledge.

“We cannot continue to exclude and limit the talents of extremely capable groups of people from the professional workplace,” said SEIA CEO Abigail Ross Hopper. “We have a responsibility to take account of our own actions and ask ourselves, are we doing enough?”

While progress appears to be on the horizon, there is still much work to be done to address gender inequality and imbalances within the solar PV industry. Efforts to mitigate barriers of entry and the glass ceiling can be implemented to support a more representative workforce. Diversity policies and targets, hiring practices, flexible work hours, mentoring and networking opportunities, and access to education and training, can all support diverse perspectives in our workforce. And data shows that it pays.

In McKinsey & Company’s Delivering through Diversity report, released last year, the consultancy evaluated profitability (EBIT margin) and value creation (economic profit margin) for more than 1,000 companies across 12 countries to find a correlation between diversity in leadership and financial outperformance. According to the study, companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have a superior value chain.

The transition toward gender equality represents tremendous opportunity for the industry. IRENA estimates that jobs in the sector could increase from 11 million in 2018 to 29 million in 2050, and the organization has found that the renewables sector appeals to women in a way that the fossil fuel industry does not. The PV industry has, and continues, to disrupt the global power structures that exist. And mainstreaming gender shows great promise for the market to continue its lead in transformation.