The ongoing energy transformation, driven by renewables, is bringing far-reaching, systemic change to society. Renewables offer important opportunities for greater inclusion and equality, as the solar industry already has a global workforce of more than 10 million workers and, by 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency says, this number is expected to triple. By embracing inclusive practices that reflect its workforce communities, the solar industry will contribute to advancing not only the rights of women and other diverse groups but will also yield better performance for companies as a result of highly competitive, committed, and motivated teams.
Gender equality is essential to shaping positive social and economic development outcomes. The number of women in engineering in the US has not risen since the early 2000s. In particular, representation of women in the solar industry remains weak: just 1/4 of the US solar industry workforce is female, and women make up only 5% of leadership positions in the tech industry.
Female Representation in STEM & Renewable Energy
The multidisciplinary solar sector employs a larger share of women compared to the conventional energy field. But like in other fields of work, women still encounter numerous obstacles, from the lack of equal access to education, training, mentoring, professional networks and finance, to the glass-ceiling in companies or institutions.
Solar: Representation of women in the solar industry remains weak – in 2018, just 26% of the US solar industry workforce was female.
Renewables: In the renewable energy industry, about a third (32%) of jobs are held by women, but the breakdown reveals an imbalance of women contributing to the value chain: while women hold nearly half (45%) of administrative roles in renewable energy, they hold just a quarter (28%) of the jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
Representation: Half of women in tech say they lack female role models, and more than a third say they have unequal growth opportunities compared to male colleagues.
Benefits: Companies with women in 50% or more of leadership positions tend to see higher growth in sales and earnings per share and a higher return on assets.
One high profile exception to this imbalance is Dr. Gabi Bunea, a 20-year veteran of the solar industry and the new head of research and development at solar roofing startup GAF Energy. Dr. Bunea has many insights into the future of innovation and inclusivity in the solar industry. We at CleanTechnica were delighted when she agreed to an exclusive interview.
CT: Dr. Bunea, what experiences might you share as a trailblazing woman in STEM as well as in the solar industry?
Working in a male-dominated industry, I have frequently found myself the only woman in the room. It happened in my Ph.D. program at Boston University, and it happened at my first job. I’ve kept showing up and performing at a high level. I know that the more my voice is heard, the greater the chance that the next generation of women will be heard.
Although I’ve still never had a female boss, I have become the boss over time for dozens of employees, most of them men. Inspired by my many mentors, I strive to be the kind of manager who helps people build confidence and thrive.
As a leader and team member, I have found that my willingness to show emotion and connect with people is a strength, and not a liability. Of course, a strong baseline of technical talent is necessary, but I have found that building collaborative and diverse teams often catalyzes the greatest innovation.
CT: Bloomberg says that ‘A move by the construction industry into the solar-roof space challenges a business that Tesla has struggled to get off the ground since a high-profile launch in 2016 — and threatens economics across the rooftop industry as solar customers come cheaper for builders already contracted to install roofs.’ Is this scenario playing out for GAF Energy? How is GAF Energy maneuvering this new dynamic of solar + construction?
Absolutely. GAF Energy is transforming the rooftop solar industry, with the goal of making every roof a solar roof. What sets us apart is that through our parent company, Standard Industries, GAF Energy has direct access to a roofing market ripe with potential new solar customers. Our partner company, GAF, manufactures 1 in 4 residential roofs in North America – so we are tapping into not only its roofing expertise, but also existing sales opportunities. Our integrated solar solutions can be installed as part of the millions of roof replacements happening every year.
On top of that, GAF Energy offers a full suite of services to simplify and streamline solar installation for both homeowners and contractors: we handle everything from permitting paperwork to finding an electrician, so the contractors can focus on what they know best: installing high quality roofs.
Our value proposition is working: so far, we have received 200 orders, and we expect to ship 2,000 this year.
CT: The GAF website says that “more homes and businesses in the U.S. are protected by a GAF roof than by any other product.” How is GAF Energy alleviating fears of homeowners who profess doubt that their roofs can sustain solar panels?
GAF created the first lifetime warranty in roofing and the first shingle to withstand winds up to 150 miles per hour. With GAF Energy, we have created a streamlined, elegant solar rooftop product, with one of the lowest profiles on the market. Our roof-integrated solar saves homeowners money and grants long-term peace of mind: homeowners can be confident knowing that GAF Energy’s solar products carry high-quality, industry-leading workmanship and all our products are backed by GAF’s best-in-class Golden Pledge warranty.
Furthermore, because our product is roof-integrated, there are no additional holes in the roof during the solar installation. It simply flashes to the roof deck like a skylight, meaning that any of the 6,000+ GAF-certified roofers in the United States could confidently install GAF Energy solar.
CT: What advice do you have for young women who are still in school and planning their future careers? What STEM applications should young women specifically seek out in preparation for careers in renewable energy?
When you are the only woman in the room, remember that you have earned the right to be there and are a valuable member of the team. Rather than seeking to downplay the ways in which you are different, recognize that your unique perspective is one of your greatest assets. Your personality and values are as important as your technical prowess and can be a strong asset – do not be afraid to be yourself and to show emotion, to be competitive, or to speak your mind at work.
From a pragmatic standpoint, I would encourage young women interested in renewable energy to pursue careers in physics, materials science, electrical, mechanical or chemical engineering, and to seek out hands-on research and work experience. Also vital: Finding strong mentors who can help you overcome obstacles and cheer you on along the way.
About Dr. Bunea
A longtime veteran of the solar energy industry, Dr. Bunea brings extensive technical experience and leadership in the solar and microelectronics industries, most recently as vice president of research, development, and deployment at SunPower Corporation. Prior to that, she held multiple roles managing module research, development, deployment and product design at SunPower, and she previously worked as a member of the technical staff in the microelectronics division at Lucent Technology. She is an active member in IEEE Women in Engineering.
About GAF Energy
GAF Energy is innovating within the rooftop solar industry with the Energy From Every Roof TM. As a Standard Industries company, GAF Energy works in partnership with North America’s largest roofing and waterproofing manufacturer, GAF, offering affordable, integrated, and aesthetic rooftop solar options to residential and commercial customers.
Background courtesy of GAF Energy and copyright free images via Pixabay