Fairylights Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

Women in energy

28 March, 2022

Anuja Saunders

Reading time: 4 minutes

To mark the end of Womens’ History Month, Anuja Saunders, EDI Manager at CREDS looks at the work still to be done to break the bias in the energy sector.

The importance of having women as full participants in the energy sector has been reiterated for many years. Whether that is in the traditional energy industry itself, in the renewables and sustainability sector or in the area of development policy for energy justice.

However, women are still underrepresented throughout the energy industry, with only 24% of all board seats being occupied by women. Women are listed in less than 11% of the patent applications related to the energy sector and only 15% for climate change mitigation technologies. Research funding also lags behind, with EPSRC finding that for large grants (in excess of £10 million) only 6% of application bids are led by women.

Work has been done to examine the underlying reasons for the slow progress in achieving better representation but change is never simple.  The causes are a combination of historic factors, structural and systemic problems around funding and rigid academic career pathways. These deeply embedded cultural norms are not easily changed.

Dr Jess Britton’s research identified four areas where action is most important: data, funding, career progression and building on what’s already working. I asked her for her reflections on what she saw as the biggest barriers were to improving female participation in energy research.

For me the biggest challenge is moving away from piece-meal (and often symbolic) interventions towards more systemic changes – so addressing things like the long hours and metric-driven nature of academic culture. I also think the increasing focus on large research centres is a problem as it favours more established academics, who are more likely to be men. There needs to be more done to support early career researchers, who tend to be more diverse across all characteristics.

Her research revealed the scale of the problem too, “I was surprised at just how widespread experiences of gender bias were – we spoke to 59 women across 19 UK universities and most women, across career stages and disciplines, felt that gender bias had impacted their career.”

Energy research and the industry need to transform rapidly to decarbonise, this needs new ideas and perspectives. There’s strong evidence that more diverse teams are both more innovative and make better decisions, so I’d argue that a lack of diversity is inhibiting research innovation and slowing the transition to a sustainable and renewable energy system.

Early hope that the pandemic could improve the workplace for women with flexible working and less emphasis on ‘presenteeism’ do not seem to be borne out. Jess says “There’s increasing evidence that the gender gap in academic research widened during the pandemic with women publishing less and taking on fewer leadership positions.”

So, the work to close this gap must continue. There are some networks and organisations out there, working to bring together women in the energy community and highlight the work that they do. The WISER network (Women & Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research) is one such group. WISER was founded in 2017 as a result of a conversation between two Canadian academics, Dr Christina Hoicka and Dr Bronwyn Lazowski. It seeks to be a resource that can be drawn upon by researchers and institutions, and also to unite voices in energy research across STEM, humanities and social science. Although still primarily Canadian based it is increasingly building its membership to have an international presence and host events.

A successful transition to reduced energy usage, and a lower carbon future relies on maximum participation and new ways of thinking, and women have a crucial role to play at all levels if this is to be achieved.

Women must be able to contribute to energy research, technological and policy  development as well as owning a stake in the energy and implementation industries, in these changing and historic times.

Banner photo credit: Natalya Letunova on Unsplash