Women bucking the trend in renewables

Globally, only 22% of employees in the energy sector are women. The renewables sector performs slightly better, with 32% of positions filled by a woman[1]. However, there is underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, with just 14% of executive director roles in the UK energy sector held by women[2].

The reasons behind unequal gender representation in the renewables industry are not clear-cut. To delve into the issue of gender in the renewables industry, Tracy Giles, Stevie Leeks, Emma Smith and Alison Dring share their thoughts and experiences of working in the sector, starting with a glimpse into what their current roles involve.

Roles in renewable energy

Tracy holds the position of Operations Director at Privilege Finance Services. Her role is varied overseeing HR, business support, legal and contracts and project management functions. She is a board director at Privilege Finance, and sits on the boards of some of the companies developing AD projects which are financed by Privilege Finance.

As the Operations Support Manager at Eco Verde Energy (EVE), Alison steps in to manage operations at anaerobic digestion (AD) plants which are not performing to their potential. She works with the operations team to ensure they are using the technology in the way it was originally designed to be used, to achieve the best results. A significant part of her role is managing people, upskilling teams and ensuring training needs are met. She also ensures the AD plant is complying with all relevant regulations, such as those which fall under the health and safety at work act.

As a Sales and Marketing Coordinator, Stevie has a multifaceted role which includes promoting the benefits of climate change reduction projects both within and outside of the industry. She works with project managers to market current projects to the local communities and has set up and manages the Climate Change Thought Leadership Award for students.

Finally, in her role as a Contract Assistant, Emma manages the legal process for all projects. She liaises with clients, solicitors and internal departments supporting all parties with delivering final contracts for sign-off and enabling funds to be released.

This is just a snapshot of the types of careers available in renewable energy, for more information visit our blogs on careers that will change the climate and careers in renewable finance.

How do women find a role in the renewables sector?

Reflecting on their careers to date, it emerges that Tracy, Stevie and Emma all began working in the renewables sector by chance.

Tracy has worked at Privilege Finance since 2011, when the company specialised in project finance for farm businesses. In the last 10 years, she has witnessed and been part of some enormous changes:

“When I joined the team, we were primarily focused on lending within the agricultural sector. I’ve been part of the evolution from where we were then to where we are today, funding renewable energy and climate change mitigation projects.”

Stevie and Emma came across job opportunities which matched their skillsets and expertise. As Stevie explains, the role being related to renewables was a positive, although she had not set out to find a role in the sector:

“I was looking for a marketing role, the fact that it was at a company which funds renewable energy projects was a huge bonus for me. I care about the environment and I was excited that my work could contribute towards advancing something I believe in.”

There is appetite among women to take opportunities in the renewables sector. 40% of applicants for Privilege Finance’s award for students, now called the Climate Change Thought Leadership Award, have been women, with the award being won by a women earlier this year. So perhaps the focus needs to be on making women aware of the career opportunities available in renewables?

Renewable energy career pathways

There is a lack of clear career path in specific sectors within the renewables industry. For example, there are no university courses focused entirely on AD and there are few apprenticeship opportunities, because of the high level of responsibility required when working on site at an AD plant. Alison found her role based on experience. She grew up on a farm, worked in composting and then gasification before starting her first role in AD. She suggests introducing a route for younger people who would naturally have less experience to enter the sector.

“A qualification on anaerobic digestion will help all young people, not just women, to find out about and enter the sector.”

Education does not have to be limited to further studies. Stevie is passionate about how careers education could be improved in both primary and secondary schools.

“Many of the jobs which today’s children and teenagers will end up doing don’t even exist yet, which is as true for the renewables sector as it is for all industries. However, the renewables sector is growing in response to the climate crisis, so it should be up there in options promoted by careers advisers. Furthermore, careers education should centre on people’s values, skills and what is important to them, to help young people make informed decisions as they start their careers.”

What is it like working in the renewables industry for women?

It’s important to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all, and many women will have totally different experiences during their careers in any industry. Workplace culture, job role and when they started out can all influence this. Stevie and Emma both highlight that they have never known a workplace which is not gender balanced.

Alison’s experience has been somewhat different. Working on site she has generally worked in male dominated environments, often being the only women on site. She shares that when she first started working in AD operations, she felt a lot of pressure to be better than her male colleagues and industry peers:

“I was conscious that I was not likely to be remembered for my achievements, but that if I made any mistakes they would stick. I put a lot of pressure on myself to avoid getting anything wrong, as I didn’t want to be remembered as a failure.”

She also acknowledges that site positions come with specific challenges for people raising a family, and it is still the case that in most family’s childcare responsibilities fall disproportionately on women. This can make an AD operations role unrealistic for some women who would otherwise thrive in the industry:

“An AD plant is like a living organism, a career in operations is not a nine to five job, and it certainly cannot be done from behind a desk.”

Tracy reflects on her experience when she was promoted to become a member of the board, as she recognises it could have been a real challenge in different circumstances:

“I’m aware that for some women, when they join an all-male board of directors they come up against challenges such as hostility, as other directors feel uncomfortable with a women encroaching on what has traditionally been a male space. I was fortunate in that Privilege already had a female presence  on the board before I joined, so it was one less hurdle to jump.”

She adds that throughout her time at Privilege Finance she has found the culture to be open and supportive to all employees in the business.

Advice for women progressing a career in renewables

Emma, Stevie, Alison and Tracy all agree that they would advise any women starting out in a renewables career to work hard, take every opportunity which comes along, keep new skills and never stop being inquisitive about the industry, as there is always more learn.

Tracy adds that self belief is essential and, for women looking to progress to leadership roles, not to limit their ambitions, as they have every right to be sat at the board table.

Net zero pledge

Working in the renewables industry, Tracy, Alison, Stevie and Emma share a common motivation to reduce their own carbon footprints and impact on the environment. To finish, they each make a net zero pledge.

  • Tracy pledges to pick up litter which she comes across when out walking, to improve the environment for other people and wildlife
  • Alison pledges to grow more fruit and vegetables at home, to reduce the food miles associated with her diet
  • Stevie pledges to consider the impact of her diet and to meat less frequently
  • Emma pledges to buy less fast fashion, which she can achieve by investing in better quality clothes and renting dresses for special occasions.

[1] https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/Renewable-Energy-A-Gender-Perspective

[2] https://powerfulwomen.org.uk/board-statistics-by-company-2021/