No Woman, No Cry: Lack of Cleantech Female Leaders Limits Power & Utility Progress

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Power and utility companies are facing a period of real transformation: how energy is produced, who generates it, the ways it is sold, what distribution networks look like. The P&U sector is starting to hear from clients and the investment community that the business models of yesterday are no longer relevant for today’s marketplace. Since energy is, indeed, amidst a fundamental and disruptive shift, it requires new and innovative thinking and expertise.

Cleantech female leaders are well poised to contribute to the P&U industry at this time of reconstruction and change. There’s just one problem: only a tiny fraction of executive board members of the top 100 utility companies are female.

cleantech female leaders

P&U companies need teams with gender diversity so they can infuse new approaches into static and sometimes antiquated practices. Let’s just say it: the energy sector has minimal women in leadership roles and is primarily older and white. With diverse experiences and backgrounds, cleantech female leaders offer insights that can create significant growth, greater profit margins, trickle-down prosperity, and strengthened communities.

Issues around sex and gender categories are complex, nuanced, and occasionally distasteful to power brokers. Sorting out these issues to enable women to take the place they wish within energy (and society) is complex and multifaceted, according to Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter. She argues that governance processes, which tend to promote continuation, need diverse input into that thinking. “I absolutely do think that the fact that the industry is so dominated by men — and particularly older white men — it is slowing down the energy transition,” said Mitchell, who has worked on energy issues for more than 30 years and advises governments, regulators, and businesses.

It’s time to stop the posturing, mansplaining, muttering, and finger-pointing at the difficulties inherent in the transition to clean renewable energy and turn, instead, to an underutilized group that can make a huge difference: cleantech female leaders.

cleantech female leaders
Infographic courtesy of ISACA

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How Cleantech Female Leaders Are Vital to Competitive Energy Business Models

P&Us aren’t generally considered to be a progressive industry. Alison Kay, global sector vice president at Ernst & Young, says that the global power and utilities sector has underperformed the broader markets in recent years, with global utilities lagging behind the global equity markets on price by almost two-thirds over 5 years. “Little appetite for real action” exists, she admits, even in light of acknowledgement that change is needed.

Juliet Davenport, the chief executive of the energy supplier Good Energy, concurs. “The energy sector is lagging sorely behind other industries in terms of diversity, meanwhile sustainable [green] businesses are very balanced. So the idea that lack of diversity is contributing to the issue of transition to renewables is very plausible.”

Gender diversity creates competitive advantage due to disruption and innovation — alternative strategizing, divergent approaches to problem-solving, fresh experiences and outcomes, a digital culture, new business model applications, shifts from time-based to data-driven decisions, and updated versions of what teams and partners look like.

An overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that companies that embrace diversity outperform their competitors. Financial analysis of the top 200 utilities strongly indicates a correlation between higher gender diversity and higher business performance. Cleantech female leadership has proven links to improved business gains through increased profitability, return on equity, and innovation.

Lack of understanding about cleantech female contributions to P&Us is a detriment to performance. For example, big data and analytics promise to transform and unlock significant competitive P&U advantage. By 2020, global utility company expenditures on data analytics is expected to grow to $3.8b, with gas, electricity, and water suppliers all increasing their investments — never mind the green energy market. Analytics can help large utilities save up to tens of millions of dollars in capex and operational and maintenance expenditures by improving operations, optimizing capital deployment, or understanding their procurement better.

The 2018 Global Forensic Data Analytics (FDA) Survey acknowledges that artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, and advanced data analytics are just some of the new possibilities being explored by P&Us and other companies around the world. 39% of respondents to the FDA survey reported that they are likely to adopt robotic process automation within the next year, and 38% also said that they’re planning to adopt artificial intelligence.

Big data and analytics require people with the right balance of technologies, techniques, business domain knowledge, data expertise, and technical skills. Only 12–13% of FDA survey respondents admitted that they have the right mix of FDA expertise to pull off the necessary shifts. The jobs are there — it’s time to rethink the systems, structures, and institutions in our society that serve as barriers to females when technological advances and new careers in areas like FDA emerge. It takes organizations like Women in Big Data to become sources that encourage and attract more female talent to the big data and analytics field and help them connect, engage, and grow.

Open the Door and Let Cleantech Female Leaders In

There has been little overall energy sector structural disruption in the last 150 years, yet transformation is now pushing P&U business models everywhere. Technology is a primary force behind this change, from data analytics and smart grids to meters to renewables. Investment is being driven by the growing demand for a cleaner, smarter, and more reliable energy supply.

We are in an era in which it is time for utilities to value creation, innovation, and financial transformation to a renewable energy economy. Not only do women have fewer positions within cleantech companies, which means fewer opportunities to offer imaginative contributions to a cleantech energy future, but they are also less likely to hold the top roles at those companies.

Four disconnects are holding back greater gender diversity at board levels, as outlined by Ernst & Young in their Diversity and Disruption in Utilities report:

  1. The reality disconnect: Leaders assume the problem is nearly solved, despite little progress within their own organizations.
  2. The data disconnect: Few utilities measure how well women are progressing through the workforce and in leadership.
  3. The pipeline disconnect: P&U companies aren’t creating pipelines for future female leaders.
  4. The perception and perspective disconnect: Men and women don’t see the problem the same way.

Bias against women can be insidious. It can take subtle forms—from tendencies to acknowledge only males in meetings, to having males get credit for female-originating ideas, to passing over females for promotions. During a recent questioning of energy chiefs by House of Commons’ MPs on the impact of a price cap, the Conservative MP Antoinette Sandbach said, “I am quite struck by the panel. We have four men here.” Sandbach also asked the retail chief executive of SSE, Stephen Forbes, to defend that company’s 19.4% gender pay gap. He faltered in his response.

Clean technology is ever-changing, with female innovators beginning to make their mark in a traditionally male-dominated field. That’s because some in the industry are making an effort to address the problem, such as the big six lobby group Energy UK, which has banned men-only panels at its events. “The energy sector is undergoing a huge period of transition, which brings with it a huge opportunity to increase gender balance,” said the group’s external affairs director, Abbie Sampson.

Before any substantial progress can take place, women must have a more visible presence within P&Us. Once out of school, women need the same kind of tools, support, and training that men do to succeed in tech careers, and women must have opportunities for advancement commensurate with education, expertise, and skills.

Women seeking opportunities in cleantech industries need help overcoming barriers, from wide gaps across genders in STEM education to obtaining capital for entrepreneurial startups. Here are some organizations with missions to help females succeed in cleantech.

◊ The Clean Energy Trust has been celebrated for its $25,000 Female Founder Prize.

SheConnects 2018 is an annual mini-conference that features advice and forward-looking ideas from successful female entrepreneurs, those funding women-led ventures, and leaders behind some of the ecosystems well-known organizations in Boston.

Women in Cleantech and Sustainability (WCS) fosters an influential network of professionals to further the roles of women in growing the green economy and making a positive impact on the environment.

Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) is a national nonprofit with a growing presence working across the renewable energy economy with over 30 chapters and a broad purpose – to change the energy future through the actions of women.

cleantech female leaders
Photo courtesy of WRISE

Final Thoughts about Cleantech Female Leaders

The biggest impact of the changes needed in P&U is that traditional business models must co-exist and co-evolve with increasingly decentralized models. Issues around supply security, affordability, and sustainability require utilities to respond in flexible, innovative ways. Increasing the number of cleantech female leaders can turn disruptive threats into opportunities. Cleantech female leaders offer a capacity to anticipate broad customer needs as a macro perspective while also developing new revenue streams beyond point to point energy supply.

Ultimately, embracing cleantech female leaders can redefine what it means to be a P&U.

Clearly, the lack of women in P&Us is holding back the sector’s efforts to tackle climate change. Women represent more than half of graduates in most of the developed world, yet account for only 11% of board members on average globally. Energy and water are fundamental to our lives, and they reside at the intersection of society, politics, and economics. Renewable energy and energy efficiency systems need to draw upon the wherewithal and expertise of women working in the field of cleantech and sustainability to add diversity and needed leverage to the cleantech conversation.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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