What Will It Take to Get More Women in Green-Energy Jobs?

Woman in energy

Claire, Carly, and Arzoo are ambitious, some of the hardest working people I’ve ever worked with. They are determined to make a difference with their college degrees in sustainability and communications when they graduate in 2014, and with supportive families and greats , they are off to a strong start.
Working with me at Green Connections Radio, they hear about all these cool green energy jobs, and how the average pay in STEM careers is about $7,000 above the average. They listen to successful women and men talk about the industry and the opportunities for rewarding careers in this field. They get excited about their own career prospects. But also see how few women are in this field.
A Promising Jobs Sector
Kate Gordon, Director of the Advanced Energy and Sustainability program at The Center for the Next Generation, compared the massive impact of the innovations in energy and sustainability to the high-tech revolution. “(W)ould you call a police officer in his patrol car…. part of the hi-tech economy? Probably not, but he’s using a computer every day during his job and it’s fundamentally changed his job…. The green economy is sort of similar to that…it will have a profound impact on the entire economy as we do these transformations.”
It’s starting to transform the economy already.
Employment in 2011 in Green Goods and Services grew by 4.9 percent, much higher than overall job growth, which was 1.2 percent, according to Nicholas Fett, an Economist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This includes jobs in renewable energy, but not in fossil fuels.
The Pew Clean Energy Action Plan 2012 declares the global economy is at “The Clean Energy Tipping Point” with worldwide clean energy investments 600 percent higher than in 2004, to $263 billion, creating “thousands of jobs in the United States and around the world. Globally, an estimated 5 million jobs were connected to the clean energy sector by the end of 2011.” They predict the clean energy sector “could expand to $1.9 trillion in revenues between 2012 and 2018….” And says, “The International Energy Agency forecasts that clean energy will provide half the electricity generation capacity installed over the next 25 years….(attracting) up to $5.9 trillion worth of investment.”
The fossil fuel-based energy sector is bursting at the seams, too, especially in natural gas, expecting to create up to 3 million jobs over the next few years, according to George Blitz, Vice President of Energy and Climate Change at Dow Chemical.
Public and private Investors are investing in disruptive and incremental energy-related technologies, because they all see the need for and transformative nature of clean-tech—and the economic boom it will bring.
Arzoo wondered aloud in blog post whether there will indeed be a job for her upon graduation. “With the U.S. mired in political gridlock, ‘sequester’ spending cuts taking effect, and an economy riddled with unemployment, does a focus on green energy make sense in this financial climate? Will there be a job for me in this field when I graduate college in 2014?”
Maybe Not
Of the millions of jobs in the energy sector, only 12 percent are held by women, according to the renowned research firm Catalyst, and the BLS reports that only 13.6 percent of engineers and architects are women. One key job growing as a result of clean tech innovation is that of electrician, especially with development of the smart grid and new energy efficiency technologies. The BLS projects the number of electricians to increase by 23.2 percent by 2020. How many electricians are women? Just over two percent, the same as in 1970, according to the Census. Another economic opportunity lost to women.
Furthermore, the most growth in Green Goods and Services jobs in 2011 by far, according to the BLS, came from the heavily male-dominated manufacturing and construction industries. What’s worse, the jobs being cut are generally held by women, that is, state and local government jobs. Heather Boushey, economist with the Center for American Progress, explained in Slate that, “State budget crises have led to job losses that disproportionately affect women, who make up the majority of state and local government employees.”
Only 18.4 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering are awarded to women, 22.6 percent of master’s degrees, and engineering Ph.D.’s to women decreased one percent to 21.8 percent in 2011.
A key entry point for entrepreneurial innovations and the funding to back them are Small Business Innovation Research grants, or SBIRs, awarded by the government. SBIR grants provide seed funding and are a kind of “seal of approval” that attracts more investment from both public and private investors. How many cleantech SBIRs go to women?
Only six to seven percent of the applicants for SBIR grants are women and that number hasn’t changed since 1983, according to Dr. Tina Kaarsberg, SBIR/STTR Lead in the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office.
Women not getting these critical research grants, or energy and STEM jobs, or engineering degrees, means that women are not in the pipeline for the economic gains from these innovations and jobs of the future.
Lack of Women in This Key Sector is An Economic Threat
So what? It matters that women are not landing many energy/green jobs, because the U.S. cannot compete with half our talent on the bench. This seriously handicaps America’s competitiveness, at a time when the competition is fierce.
The Pew Clean Energy Report states the stark reality, “With the global clean energy sector growing in size and reach, the United States finds itself at a competitive crossroads. Once a world leader in innovation and manufacturing of clean energy technologies, it now faces considerable competitive challenges as worldwide clean energy leadership shifts from the industrialized Western powers to the emerging economies of Asia.”
How can a country be competitive with half its workforce out of the fastest-growing, most innovative industry?
Fewer women means less diversity; less diversity means less innovation; less innovation means less economic growth; and less economic growth is a serious economic threat. So is a huge skills-jobs gap. As the new breadwinners, the threat to women’s economic prosperity also means that families can be at further risk as well.
Women Can Be the Competitive Advantage
Innovation is at the heart of growth in any new sector, especially STEM-related ones, and the best driver of innovation is a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and expertise at the table. We need women’s ideas, perspectives, solutions and ingenuity. As a UC Davis Graduate School of Management report on women on corporate boards put it: “Diversity = Return on Investment.” UC Davis’ Amanda Kimball said, “Innovation happens when new perspectives are celebrated….” and she added, “women brought a clear financial benefit to the firm.”
But There’s a Lot of Catching Up to Do, and Fast
Kimball pointed out that “(women) will stand out as being unique and bringing something new to the table…. women bring a perspective to the table that businesses are sorely lacking right now…”
I have complete confidence that Claire, Carly, and Arzoo can gain the skills and make a convincing case that they “bring something unique and new to the table.” If, they have the opportunity to gain the experience and hone the skills that will make them “qualified.” We must make sure they, and all women, have those opportunities.
This article first appeared in The Atlantic.
Joan Michelson article in TheAtlantic.com on women in energy