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Women in renewables: 3 female execs share their stories and recruitment strategies

Women are still significantly under-represented in clean energy, making up only about a third of the workforce. Even worse, women hold just 15% of corporate board positions.
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Episode 25 of the Factor This! podcast will be available wherever you get your podcasts on Monday, Nov. 14. Please subscribe and leave a review!

Nearly 20 years ago, Carey Kling attended one of the first meetings of the Women in Wind Energy networking group.

"I think there were 30 people there," Kling said.

Today, Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy boasts thousands of members. Progress, to be sure, in the pursuit of a more diverse energy workforce.

"I've seen a big growth of women in the industry," said Kling, whose resume includes developing projects for Shell Wind Energy, Invenergy, Renewable Energy Systems, and, most recently, BQ Energy. "I think we're moving in the right direction. It just takes time."

Women are still significantly under-represented in clean energy, making up only about a third of the workforce. Even worse, women hold just 15% of corporate board positions.

The challenge is well-known in renewables. Female executives in clean energy say that addressing it requires collaboration by every stakeholder in the industry— men included.

Kling joined Renewable IPP CEO Jenn Miller and Julia Bell, chief commercial officer at investment platform CleanCapital, on a recent episode of the Factor This! podcast from Renewable Energy World to discuss possible solutions to clean energy's gender imbalance.

Before co-founding Renewable IPP, Miller worked for more than a decade as a professional engineer and project manager in the oil and gas industry. She said she was shocked to find that clean energy wasn't much better off than what she left in the oil patch.

Women in that sector account for 22% of the workforce.

"That to me was eye-opening," Miller said.

Grace Hill, Renewable IPP's operations and maintenance foreman, clears snow from solar panels at one of the developer's projects in Alaska. (Courtesy: Renewable IPP)

The job descriptions aren't so different between renewables and conventional energy. Both involve heavy industry with technical and construction jobs in high demand.

But it can be difficult for women to see themselves in those roles without representation, Miller said. As an engineer and female executive, Miller said she hopes to provide that example as she still sees boards and leadership dominated by white men. 

"I'm no advertising genius, but there's an image campaign in my mind of photos of women doing construction work, photos of women in the c-suite level," Miller said. "We don't create those images for women to associate with."

Miller might be on to something.

Reaching women earlier in their career development path has become a necessity for the clean energy investment platform CleanCapital, which acquired BQ Energy this year and is an investor in Reneawble IPP.

The firm has had to expand their recruiting strategies to include targeting candidates at the college level.

"But even there, that assumes folks have chosen finance majors, STEM majors," Bell said on the podcast. "There's really a pipeline problem."

Apprenticeship provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act could help drive clean energy companies to address the pipeline problem, Bell said. The company is also betting that its corporate culture, emphasizing healthy work-life balance, and generous benefits, including paid parental leave, will enhance recruitment and retention for male and female employees alike.

Perhaps most important, though, is creating a safe work environment.

Bell said CleanCapital isn't afraid to walk away from business negotiations that end up making women uncomfortable—and they have. She added that support from male executives, like CleanCapital CEO Thomas Byrne, is paramount to achieving progress.

"We have fought very hard to keep our culture in a lot of different ways," Bell said. "But one of the really important ones is making sure that we do have diverse perspectives and that those are all being respected and embraced."

Invenergy tracks and publishes diversity, equity, and inclusion metrics. The company participates in a roundtable of 30 organizations to share best practices for creating a diverse workforce. (Courtesy: Invenergy)

The clean energy industry's leading trade groups acknowledge that work needs to be done to create a more diverse workforce;’ several have launched initiatives in the hopes of carrying out meaningful change.

For example, in March, the American Clean Power Association released a national framework to focus on an equitable energy transition.

The Energy Transition for All campaign calls on the clean energy industry to expand opportunities for workers in disadvantaged communities, create value for communities with targeted investments and economic development, and to lead in diverse and inclusive workforce development.

"The numbers are abysmal," Heather Zichal, then ACP's CEO, told Renewable Energy World in an interview. “There is no single solution to ensure a successful energy transition. It will take coordination from policymakers, community leaders, and industry to ensure that the transition is equitable and that everyone shares in the economic growth and opportunity."

The Solar Energy Industries Association, meanwhile, has established working groups within its Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Justice Leadership Council, and has raised more than $100,000 to support programs that aim to make the solar industry more diverse.

"We're making good progress, but we are certainly not at a point where we are ready to stop or stop focusing on it," CleanCapital's Bell said. "As a senior leader of a large or small company, you have to make the world you want.

"I wish we had it already. I wish it didn't take extra effort, but it does. And for me, at least, it's worth it."

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