Girl Power! Leveling the Playing Field for Women in Energy

March 8, 2018 | Focus Areas: Economic Empowerment Educating Girls & Women

Originally posted on RTI | Int’l Dev’s Medium.

Excluding women from energy careers hurts developing countries’ power sectors and limits opportunities for growth. Here are three things USAID is doing to help.

“Every time I walk into the room, I’m one of the only women,” says Fardowsa Hajiabdi, who leads a Women in Energy group implemented under USAID’s Somalia Growth, Employment, Enterprise and Livelihoods (GEEL) project. “But that’s got to change.”

According to the World Economic Forum, despite its rapid growth in many countries, energy is one of the sectors in which women are least present, along with software and IT services, manufacturing, and mining. Women represent just 16 percent of board members in the top 200 power utilities, and few women have access to the sort of education and support systems that would allow them to pursue careers in energy.

But there is hope for women and girls around the world who are interested in pursuing a career in energy: Organizations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and RTI International are working to ensure that women can participate in this growing workforce. Gender integration within the energy sector not only creates opportunities for women, but also strengthens an industry that supports better health care, education, and entrepreneurial opportunities for women at large, further advancing development goals.

Here are three main ways that USAID’s gender equity programming is lifting up women in the power sector, and helping to sustainably connect them to this critical part of their workforce.

Identifying Disparities and Exploring Solutions

USAID’s Engendering Utilities program, implemented by RTI, works to increase gender parity in Georgia, Jordan, Kenya, Macedonia, and Nigeria. To better understand which interventions effectively increase the role of women in male-dominated sectors, the project undertook a first-of-its-kind study to examine the role of women and gender disparities within electric power distribution companies. The study found that:

1. There were significant inequalities in employment outcomes. Based on employment practices in 14 utilities studied, women made up only 13 percent of the workforce.

2. There are numerous barriers in societies and deep-seated social attitudes that require change before gender equity can be fully realized in the energy sector.

3. Management teams’ stated desire to increase the number of women employees was often not linked to a corporate or organizational strategy to achieve such a goal. Relatedly, training or internship opportunities for women were not used to correct unequal employment outcomes.

Interestingly, the study also found that, when present, women work in diverse jobs at all management levels within utility companies, alongside their male counterparts. This indicates that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be effective to reach greater levels of gender equity.

To address these findings, the project worked with participating utilities to collaboratively design tailored interventions that would improve gender outcomes within their respective organizations. In its current phase, the program is helping utility HR practitioners systematically address core equity challenges through better documentation, leadership building, and ongoing coaching.

To date, Engendering Utilities has seen promising results: All seven partner utilities have increased their number of female employees, including in the engineering and technical divisions, while most also saw an increase in the number of women participating in employee training, internships, and mentoring programs, among other interventions.

Fostering and Supporting Power Sector Change Agents

“To build a stronger cohort of women in the energy industry, we need higher levels of education and technical training for girls, especially in science and engineering,” says Mohamed Abdinoor, Chief of Party for USAID/Somalia GEEL, implemented by RTI.

In Somaliland (an autonomous region of northwestern Somalia) GEEL has formed the Women in Energy group, a space for young women to learn, engage in discussions on critical issues facing the energy sector, interact with industry professionals, and share resources for professional growth.

In addition to serving as a productive platform for prospective engineers to interact, the group strives to open doors that create tangible opportunities for aspiring engineers to contribute to the industry. GEEL works with young women to identify their areas of interest and skills, execute their professional development plans, and seek out employment opportunities.

“I chose to be an engineer to take part in the development of our country,” says Asma Ibrahim Aadam, a University of Hargeisa engineering student taking part in the internship program facilitated by GEEL. “There are too few women in the engineering field in Somaliland; it’s important for women to be involved in our country’s growth.”

Supporting “change agents” like Asma is also a critical component of Engendering Utilities’ approach. In Nigeria, the program supported a Bring Your Daughter to Work Day at EkoElectricity Distribution Co. The event, which has been replicated with other partner utility companies in six countries, was designed to encourage girls to continue to study, think about their futures without gender limitations, and expose them to the many job options in the energy sector.

Removing Barriers to Women’s Employment

Women in lower- to middle-income countries have the ability and the desire to contribute to the energy sector just as much as men do. RTI’s work in the sector has found that overall, there is considerable need for more acceptance of women in technical roles. Gender-sensitivity training for engineers, educators, scientists, government officials, and development agencies can increase understanding of some of the constraints affecting women and promote greater attention to institutional prejudices and discriminatory practices.

This applies to the private sector as well as to governments and other entities that affect the work of the sector.

“It is important to teach young girls to be outspoken and ambitious,” says Roda Rageh, the human resource representative from the Somaliland Ministry of Energy and Minerals. “There is comfort in knowing they are not alone.”

In Somaliland, the GEEL project found that there was a major cultural barrier to women’s participation in the power sector: clothing. Around the world, engineers are often expected to be men, so it was not surprising that energy service providers in Somaliland had not considered that men’s uniforms could be an entry barrier for aspiring women engineers that wear long, traditional clothing, such as a jilbab. To help resolve this issue, GEEL staff worked with local firms to design and produce appropriate workwear for women. In doing so, the project removed this simple but very important constraint to energy sector employment.

Likewise, in the Engendering Utilities program, participants are improving gender equity beyond their own utilities — many are now advocating to remove cultural and structural barriers at the national level by working with relevant ministries and associations and becoming spokespeople for their causes. Some of them are even self-funding forums to continue the conversation at the regional level.

There is still important work that remains to level the playing field for women who wish to be part of the energy workforce in developing countries. Through efforts like Engendering Utilities and GEEL, RTI is supporting USAID to help ensure that women are not excluded from this growing workforce opportunity.