As the world faces both the immediate threats and long-term impact of climate change, data shows that women and children are already the most affected. Globally, eight in 10 climate refugees are women. And they are exponentially more likely to die in natural disasters. Despite this, women are still too few and far between in the places and roles where they can make a difference in helping chart a clean energy future.
There are far too few women in boardrooms, senior management roles and technical jobs in the energy sector. This is despite the recent momentum behind gender equality and all the work that has been done by the international community around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5: achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.
When it comes to renewable energy – perhaps more than any other sector – the case for involving more women in the workforce that will shape the way we live in the years ahead could not be clearer: it means an enhanced and accelerated capability to fight against climate change. On International Women's Day 2021, the UN's theme – "choose to challenge" – is timely and relevant for our industry. Now is the time for all of us, men and women, to choose to challenge the status quo of every industry.
Today, women comprise 52 per cent of the world’s population. Yet, according to Unesco data, seven in 10 science researchers are men. And women hold only 32 per cent of jobs in the renewable energy industry. This narrative of under-representation runs through vital industries: just three per cent of new enrollments in information technology courses and five per cent in mathematics are women. And the percentage of women in careers associated with science, technology, engineering and mathematics hover around the 25 per cent mark, according to research from the World Economic Forum. If we continue along this trajectory, we will keep creating a world that favours one gender over another.
Moreover, according to the latest annual PricewaterhouseCoopers' Women in Work Index, women were more likely than men to lose their jobs in 17 of the 24 rich countries where unemployment rose in 2020. The report, which looked at 33 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's club of "rich nations", said progress towards gender equality at work would not begin to recover until 2022. That is too long a wait.
There are plenty of warning signs surrounding this current and projected state of affairs. We only need to look at recent examples of technology development and engineering to see the dangers of these fields being dominated by one gender. In 2019, it was officially announced in a report released at the International Transport Forum in Germany that women are more likely to be injured or worse in motor vehicle accidents than men.
Why? Because for years, research and development teams in the automotive industry consisted almost entirely of men, and they produced crash test dummies that represented the average man. It stands to reason that the way a man’s and a woman’s body reacts under a high-speed crash is totally different, and the female experience is forgotten in the mass planning, design and development of technologies and products that are used by everyone and not just one gender. This exclusion of women from a vital industry has set the course of safety design for decades.
We cannot afford to set a similar precedent with renewable energy, especially given the context that 80 per cent of climate refugees are women, and they are also the ones most likely to be affected by a lack of access to energy. We must champion an industry that is designed and delivered by a workforce representative of the world that will eventually use what it is producing – that is, everyone on the planet.
The renewable energy sector is charged with creating the conditions for the world once it has transitioned to clean energy. Imagining what that world looks like and how its people interact cannot be done by men alone – we need experiences and perspectives from all sides of the spectrum. That should go without saying. The point is all the more urgent considering that by 2050, our planet will be home to more than nine billion people, one billion of whom, it is forecast, might not be able to afford any source of energy.
Not only is it our moral imperative to right the course of history when it comes to female representation, it’s in our socio-economic interests to harness the talents of all women and close the gender gap, too.
An example from the mid-1900s makes this point clear. In the UK in the 1960s, the standard indoor temperature for working offices was based on the metabolic rate of the average man. It was only recently that a study out of the Netherlands found that the metabolic rate of women performing the same office work as men is significantly lower – up to 35 per cent. And so, for half a century, women have been working in office conditions where the regulated temperature is five degrees too cold for them to work at their optimum. As well as the obvious, this is bad business management: when has an unsettled workforce ever been productive?
If we are to create a more equitable future powered by sources of clean energy that are designed for the benefit of all, then we must continue choosing to challenge the conditions and perceptions of the status quo until we reach a balance – in renewable energy and other vital sectors.
Working with the global community, as we do at the International Renewable Energy Agency, consistently throughout the year on this issue, and many more, is essential to making continuous progress. In the UAE, we are championing this year’s upcoming High-Level Dialogue on Energy, with a particular emphasis on the third of the event’s themes: energy action to advance other SDGs. For us, energy action goes hand-in-hand with gender equality – a case we will continue to make in the build-up to the event in New York in September, and well beyond.
Dr Nawal Al-Hosany is a permanent representative of the UAE to the International Renewable Energy Agency