Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which celebrates the role played by women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It also reminds us that women continue to be significantly underrepresented in these fields.
According to the United Nations, women only account for 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics. What’s more, in cutting-edge areas, such as artificial intelligence, just one in five professionals (22%) is a woman.
As a planet, we face huge problems – problems that include climate change, social inequality and health inequity. If we are to solve these problems, it is vital that we empower women to participate fully in science and particularly in critical sectors such as energy, which is driving the transition to a carbon-neutral economy. So how can we do that?
“At a time when we need to move faster towards a clean energy transition, it’s crucial the energy industry has the right mix of mindsets and perspectives to overcome the challenges in the years to come,” says Cordi O’Hara, president of National Grid Ventures, which invests in projects intended to accelerate the clean energy future.
O’Hara believes that while progress has been made in recent years, energy businesses can take more action to build their pipelines of future female talent and intensify efforts to tackle climate change in the long term. She says: “This includes proactively highlighting inspirational role models, fostering a diverse and inclusive environment and engaging with local communities and schools.”
Leadership and development
Emma Pinchbeck, CEO of industry trade association Energy UK, says that with the energy industry in the midst of a massive transition towards a decarbonized energy system, there is a need for “innovative, creative thinking”. She says: “Involving more women and more people from diverse backgrounds in the work of the energy sector isn’t just about looking more like the society we serve, but also about making sure we capture all the perspectives we’ll need to do the transition well.”
Women only hold around 13% of executive board seats in the U.K. energy industry. As a result, Pinchbeck argues that the sector needs to focus on leadership and development. “We need to spot talent, nurture it, and be more open-minded about what diverse candidates bring to leadership, not changing them to fit a mold,” she explains.
Pinchbeck also emphasizes the importance of employers providing flexibility. She says that she wouldn’t be in her own job if her board and team hadn’t accommodated flexible working – before the pandemic made it typical.
Advice for the next generation
While there is clearly more that the energy industry can do to attract and retain its female talent, women should also be open to the opportunities associated with working in the sector. Research by energy company National Grid shows that 83% of women want to help the U.K. reach its target of net zero by 2050. A career in engineering presents a huge opportunity for them to do this.
“It’s a really exciting time to join the energy sector and become part of the workforce helping to tackle climate change,” says Nicola Medalova, managing director of National Grid. “The U.K. is going through a huge energy transition to a cleaner and greener future, with exciting projects that will help reduce our carbon footprint. These range from significant engineering projects that will enable the U.K. to share renewable energy with other countries via big subsea cables, to projects that will help society and business move to electric vehicles.”
O’Hara’s advice for young women who may be considering a career in science or engineering is this: “Don’t assume that engineering isn’t for you based on stereotypes. Misconceptions can quickly discourage people from pursuing a role in science or engineering before it’s been properly researched. Speak to people in the industry and get first-hand insight into what it’s like, what the opportunities are, and ask questions to find out if it’s for you.”
The Women in Engineering Society helps raise the profile of inspiring women and provides insight into the different career options. Meanwhile, annual events like National Careers Week and National Apprenticeship Week can provide more information about different routes into the energy sector.
“Whether you’re still at school and studying, or looking for a career change, these steps are a good place to start,” advises Medalova. “And it’s worth noting that you don’t need an engineering degree to become an engineer – programs like apprenticeships can provide the training you need, while studying for a qualification and earning a salary at the same time.”
Women as change-makers
By pursuing careers in the energy sector, and supporting the clean energy transition, women can have a positive impact on the lives of others. “The impacts of climate change fall more heavily on women and girls,” says Pinchbeck. “Globally, more women are responsible for sourcing food, water or fuel for their households, are often the primary care givers, and are often relatively poor. This makes them more exposed to a rapidly changing environment.
She notes, however, that women are also change-makers, saying: “The low-carbon transition is creating new opportunities for women, from managing community adaptation projects to taking jobs in the nascent renewables sector.”