International Women's Day: How gender equality can transform the energy sector
EXCLUSIVE: A failure to integrate gender equality at board level could be holding the UK's energy industry back from embracing the transformational benefits of renewables and smart-data technologies.
The energy sector is in the midst of a full-scale transformation. Renewables are claiming the lion’s share of energy mixes across the globe, while new technologies such as blockchain and energy storage could potentially revolutionise how companies operate.
The transformation has led to a few casualties along the way. Utilities has been the worst-performing sector in the Morgan Stanley global shares index since 2008 and high-profile energy companies have suffered by digging their heels instead of embracing change.
Despite the recent slump, the sector has been historically fruitful. In the US, for example, the energy sector has had huge lobbying power, leading to beliefs that a “business as usual” approach will always deliver commercially.
Research suggests otherwise, with some reports linking the financial failings of some boards to the lack of women representatives. To mark International Women’s Day, senior figures in the industry have called for more diversity at board level in order to create new discussions and new ways of thinking during a time of mass transformation.
“We’re pushing for companies to have more diversity on their boards, because it leads to better business performance,” RenewableUK’s executive director Emma Pinchbeck told edie. “It’s the alchemy of having different perspectives and more discussion. By the time women get to the board they tend to view the world in different ways, it’s the same for race and ethnic minority representation. There’s a wider diversity issue here too, but you start with women because they’re 52% of the population.
“A broader perspective can help energy companies, and women have grasped the changing role in energy, partially because we’ve got less vested stake in the old methods. We’re used to working collaboratively and thinking about energy in terms of people.”
Research by campaigners POWERful Women found that 46% of the top 80 companies in the energy sector have all-male boards, with just 7% of executive board seats occupied by women. RenewableUK is marking International Women’s Day by launching the Switch List, which makes it easier for industry events to identify expert women speakers and leaders. The organisation will also ensure that at least 30% of speakers, panellists and chairs at its events are women.
Pinchbeck believes that the next generation of young workers are “growing impatient” by a lack of women role-models in STEM-related jobs. Whereas before it was the social norm for women workers to ignore these issues, the growth in understanding that gender diversity needs to be tackled has increased the likelihood that talented young workers will move careers to increase job prospects.
It’s not just gaining access to or retaining talent that businesses in the energy sector need to worry about. A 2016 report from Credit Suisse found that companies where women made up at least 15% of senior management generated 50% more profits than companies where female representation at a senior level was less than 10%.
A year prior, accountancy firm Grant Thornton’s Women in business: the value of diversity report claimed that publicly traded companies with male-only executive directors missed out on £430bn of investment returns.
For the energy sector, renewables are viewed as an economic windfall. Dramatic price drops and investor backing from the likes of Blackrock means that nations could double renewables output while boosting the economy. IRENA’s latest report claimed that the growth of renewables looks set to generate huge costs savings for the EU, with the report noting that £17.8bn could be saved annually by 2030. Businesses in the energy industry are, unsurprisingly, trying to tap into this market.
Good Energy supplies and generates 100% renewable electricity and carbon-neutral gas to UK homes and businesses. The company’s latest financial report notes that revenue increased by 16% in the six months ended 30 June 2017, with a gross profit margin of 28%, despite significant investments into “digital capabilities and systems”.
The company’s founder and chief-executive Juliet Davenport told edie that the gender imbalance in the energy sector could be holding back the transition to renewables.
“The idea that the energy industry’s transition to renewables is being held back by a lack of diversity was put to me recently,” Davenport said. “It’s a thought provoking one as energy is so imbalanced, whilst other areas of sustainable businesses are less so — could that difference be a contributing factor?
“It’s plausible, as in large part both problems are caused by established thinking. When I started joining energy industry groups 10 years ago I noticed that the other senior people across the industry tended to have several things in common — they were male, had engineering backgrounds and tended to think about energy in terms of technology and supply. They would focus on the meters rather than the people behind the meters.”
There are signs that the “established” way of thinking is changing, especially as new technologies become integral to the sector. Women like Galia Benartzi, Rhian Lewis and Elizabeth McCauley have all carved out impressive career paths in the area of blockchain, while Lindsay McQuade, director of policy and innovation at Scottish Power Renewables, gained a place on the international Women’s Power List last year. IEMA's latest job satisfaction survey - for the wider sustainability industry - noted that the gender pay gap shrunk by 2.6% in 2017.
At a national level, MPs Claire Perry and Amber Rudd have used high-profile government roles to talk about gender to raise the issue within the climate change and energy movement. Internationally, Friends of the Earth and C40 cities have collected essays from the likes of Christiana Figueres, Patricia Espinosa and the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo to inspire young women through the “Why women will save the planet” book.
Davenport was awarded an OBE in 2013 for services to renewables, and believes that while the perception of women in the energy sector has changed, it needed to “shift further”. Notably, she called for more girls to enter into science, technology, engineering and mathematics from a young age.
Those calls were echoed by Pinchbeck, who holds a sincere hope that schools teach that STEM subjects aren’t gendered. At a business level, the RenewableUK executive director is also calling for companies to adopt more flexible working approaches so that women, and in some cases men, aren’t held back by parental leave or family commitments.
“Boards know if they don’t get a handle on this it will hurt their business,” Pinchbeck added. “All of us that are in positions to talk are talking, but its incumbent on us to actually do something, and we want it to be better for the next group of women coming through…and the men.
“There’s benefits here for men and having a work environment that focuses on a healthy balance between work and family. It helps them to do more of the caring and it acknowledges a different way of working that benefits everyone.”
Last year, Conservative MP-turned sustainability consultant Laura Sandys told edie that women continue to face “ceilings and barriers” in energy management, and that a more equal gender balance could bring business benefits across the sector. You can listen to Sandys, Network Rail's energy and carbon manager Wendi Wheeler and the Bulb’s co-founders Ruth Weldon and Selina Donald in this podcast episode.