Hemetsberger wages battle for gender parity at SolarPower Europe


This month Walburga Hemetsberger celebrates five years as the CEO of SolarPower Europe – the European Union’s largest association advocating for the solar panel industry from the seat of European policy, Brussels.

Speaking to pv magazine, the former competition and finance lawyer – who made a stunning switch to a career in the energy industry in 2009 – said she has a lot to be proud of over half a decade steering SolarPower Europe’s ship. From the outside looking in, one could assume the high points were navigating the solar surge and numerous European Union policy shifts to meet demand.

But a surprising milestone for Hemetsberger is achieving almost equal male-to-female representation on the board of her 39-year-old workplace.

“When I came in, I was working with a board which was male-only,” Hemetsberger said. “By now we've already almost reached equal representation of men and females.”

Six female board members are sitting on the 15-member strong leadership team, recommended and appointed by the respective companies. Additionally, 28 of SolarPower Europe’s 50-member workforce identifies as female. This means that almost half of SolarPower Europe is staffed by non-males.

Hemetsberger said she knew she needed more women on the board on her first day of work.

“We were just encouraging companies who wanted to have a board seat to put forward women,” she said. “At some point, we discussed whether we should put forward quotas, but then the development was just very positive so there was no need.”

According to the sector’s leading research agency the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), this parity is almost par with recently published data that found 40% of the 4.9 million-strong workforce in 2022 was female. This is twice as much as oil, wind and gas.

Despite the optimism, women’s employment in solar was reportedly “uneven” – non-males were mostly hired to fill administrative positions (58%) followed by science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs (32%) and managerial roles (30%). An even smaller amount (17%) held senior management positions.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency said the historically male-dominated energy sector is impacting pay packets, and in 2018 women in the energy sector earned an estimated 15% less than their male counterparts – a pay gap wider than other industries.

In contrast, the three-year-old Brussels-based association representing the local solar manufacturing sector, the European Solar Manufacturing Council (ESMC), has no women on its 14-member strong board and only one female staff member out of four employees. pv magazine sent questions to ESMC about the lack of female employment and board member representation. Secretary General Johan Lindahl said the two associations could not be compared in size and age but conceded that the ESMC's all-male board represents the “unfortunate reality” of the solar sector's gender imbalance.

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“There are far too few female founders and C-level executives among the approximately 200 companies in the European PV manufacturing industry,” he said. “The same goes for the downstream sector, but I don't have current numbers on this. But yes, the scarcity of female leaders in European PV manufacturing is reflected in the current composition of the ESMC board, which regrettably consists entirely of male members.”

Although Lindahl said the topic of gender diversity is relevant, “I think it's wise to start looking at the industry first.”

In Nov. 2022 the European Commission adopted new rules on corporate board gender balance aiming to help “break the glass ceiling.” This includes targets, such as 40% of non-executive director positions and 33% of all director positions held by the underrepresented sex. However, the directive falls short of calling for quotas – something Hemetsberger personally advocates for but has not pursued on a SolerPower Europe level; she said it is not her association's job to mandate rules but to recommend best practice. But in saying that, Hemetsberger does believe a policy framework could be established to attract and retain women in higher-paying, senior positions.

“We're trying to encourage companies in the sector to look at the great benefits that more diversity has, and encourage them to look at the best practices that we've been bringing to the forefront,” she said.

Getting women excited and employed in solar should start well before they want to climb the professional ladder, Hemetsberger said, adding “it needs to start in the kindergarten to get girls excited about more technical jobs.”

Data published by the organization STEM Women shows women graduating from these higher education programs in the UK grew to 26% in 2019. But few role models, exclusive workplaces and harmful stereotypes about women’s intelligence could be driving those who graduate out of the industry, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

There are also unspoken deterrents specific to women working in solar, such as the predominance of men, according to Solar Energy International. But there are efforts to combat this. The Colorado-based training organization runs a specialized program encouraging female participation and claims to have connected more than 450 women and non-binary individuals to solar energy training, networking and mentorship opportunities.

Then there is the Women in Solar Europe (WiSEU) advocacy group, spearheaded by Carmen Madrid, the founding director of London-based renewable energy consultancy firm Circular Synergies. The organization aims to address external and internal barriers preventing women from progressing in their PV careers and gaining leadership positions. WiSEU does this through in-person networking, mentorship matchmaking, masterclasses and other initiatives.

Asked whether Hemetsberger has personally experienced any sexism during her time in the PV industry, she said there have been no “aggressive barriers”. But sometimes during discussions she has to stand her ground, “maybe a little more than the men have to do,” she said. Compared to her previous workplaces, however, she describes solar as “cool”.

At the top of SolarPower Europe, Hemetsberger has ridden the ups and downs of the solar wave for five years. The technology itself has changed, as well as access, manufacturing and policy. She has played a hand in balancing the gender scales within her association and believes that the whole team “can be proud” of the achievement. But Hemetsberger is aware other businesses, organizations and institutions need to ramp up their efforts to attract and retain women in the solar renewable race because according to her, “it’s not good enough yet.”

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