Some may argue that the glass ceiling has been all but broken, and some would say it is still rigidly attached. The truth is, it’s still difficult to find equal female representation within the renewable energy sector’s higher-ups. But, does the issue lie with an older male generation's refusal to adopt change, or is it that women across the renewables industry lack the skills and experience to compete with their male counterparts?
Now before we begin to delve further into the relevant statistics, debates and discussions I’d like to confess. I am male, and while I try my hardest to advocate for women and equality in general I can’t empathise with the day-to-day experience of being a woman. Therefore, I would like to kindly ask for forgiveness for any lack of understanding about the reality of gender inequality from the perspective of a female.
The Clean Energy Council (CEC), who provides accreditation to industry professionals and advocate for the adoption of green energy policies and technologies within Australia, recently held a ‘Women in Renewables’ lunch. Interestingly, while this indicates the CEC has a proactive voice in the industry for gender equality, in reality the lunch was held in response to an overwhelming disparity between the number men and women among their executive board members. When five positions became available, out of the ten nominees, only one was female. Worse still, the nominees were voted in by the CEC’s members, not the original board committee. This means that the majority of member companies from a wide range of industries decided to either willingly ignore the experience, qualities and attributes of the female contenders, or there were simply not enough female contenders in directorial or managerial positions to allow them to be considered in the first place. Both are dismal options to choose from.
While the ‘Women in Renewables’ lunch was an impetus to greater conversation and led to the creation of a permanent Women in Renewables group, the solutions discussed focused largely on a lack of skills and proper training among women rather than a shift in perspective among members. For example the group list on their webpage such suggestions as, ‘a mentoring program for women in renewables’, and , ‘....if necessary [to] train potential women... [to create diversity among conference speakers]’. It seems difficult to believe that there are no talented and knowledgeable women within the industry that could both contribute to discussions and succeed within managerial and executive positions, without the need of further training and mentoring from a clearly male dominated directorship. Alternatively, couldn’t the CEC and the associated member companies be advocating for and empowering women to take up these positions internally (rather than mentoring them, implying a current lack of required skills)?
Furthermore, while discussions and initiatives to further promote the contribution of women are beneficial for promoting awareness; the ominous pay gap between genders has worsened for women within the positions currently being held by them. Over the past several years the pay gap has actually widened to an average of 18%, yet can be as large as 28.5% among ASX 200 companies. So while promoting an increased participation of women in renewables is a start, we could also take a more indepth look at the conditions that either motivate or demotivate women to actually consider taking up these higher positions in the first place.
To put it simply, one could argue that the onus of creating an environment that allows for equality lies with those already in a position to do so. Finding ways to increase women’s participation through scholarships and ‘policies’ for greater representation is of course beneficial and important, but is this kind of activity enough? Or is it really only a thin veneer, covering over what genuine gender equality ought to look like? By directly acknowledging the women who currently already possess the skills, qualifications and experience today, to take up these positions, we would bypass the need for such a veneer. Perhaps we are complicating the issue, when we just need to identify the root cause of it and ‘it’ probably has more to do with shortcomings within the broader attitude or way of thinking endemic within our society, than any shortcomings within company policies. The fact that a company needs to consider a scholarship program to address gender imbalance is indicates the existence of a far broader societal imbalance.
So without having to look as far back as the immediacy of gender bias from the day we’re born and wrapped in either pink or blue, let’s look at current statistics within higher education to see what trends have been developing, and how this affects women taking up professional positions later in life.
We would assume that in the 21st century the myth that women are somehow less capable of successfully pursuing mathematics based subjects (and vice versa for men and literary pursuits) would have been extinguished by hard science, or at least the retirement of our more elderly academics within the education sector. A study conducted at the Melbourne University suggests otherwise. The study surveyed the opinions of 700 first year physics students regarding the role gender plays in a student's ability to excel within the subject. Over 50% responded that men were more inclined to do well at physics, while women were more likely to struggle, simply due to their gender. Most surprising was that all of the students surveyed were female.
This begs the question, how pervasive are these gender stereotypes, if women attending one of the most prestigious universities in Australia believe they are innately worse at mathematics and physics? If this is the case, how does this affect women when choosing career paths such as engineering or areas of related academic research which will, in the future, benefit the renewable industry?
Consequently, it becomes almost impossible to take an objective look at how women compare to men in the area of mathematics or physics due to the fact that people’s ‘self beliefs’ often have very real impact on their ability to excel. For example, research has shown that females who tick a box indicating their gender before taking math tests perform worse than those who tick the box afterwards. This is an unfortunate indication that women themselves are (perhaps unwittingly) subscribing to sexist ideology purporting the notion that women are less capable than men of achieving excellence in certain academic fields. Do these self limiting beliefs extend to the areas of directorial or managerial positions? If so, then restructuring company policy is not the fix.
In the end, these studies indicate women don’t require more training, skills, education or tutoring. Women, especially younger women still considering their career paths, simply require greater positive reinforcement that ‘they are capable’. Not because we need to see more diversity, for the sake of diversity, but simply because they are. If mentoring is required then it should simply be on the basis of reinforcing this fact.
Are Women Worse at Math? It's Time to Stop Asking:
Physics is too hard for women, according to female physics students:
Gender Pay Gap Fact Sheet