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Women make up about a third of U.S. wind and solar energy jobs, higher than other technology fields.
Sarah Fischer’s journey into the renewable energy field began with a high school French teacher whose husband had been a child slave in Haiti. The couple opened Fischer’s eyes to human rights and international development issues and sparked a desire to make a difference in such situations.
The more she learned about the role of deforestation and natural resource exploitation in creating poverty, the more she became interested in sustainability and renewable energy as ways to address injustice.
Fischer, who recently graduated summa cum laude from Ohio State University with a degree in sustainability economics and business, hopes to work in renewable energy policy, first in the U.S. and eventually related to international development.
She is among a cohort of young women whom an organization called WRISE (Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy) hopes will increase representation of women in the wind energy field. Fischer was among 11 women who received two different fellowships to attend last month’s annual WINDPOWER conference in Chicago.
Fischer was among the Rudd Mayer fellows (named for a Colorado sustainability campaigner who passed away suddenly in 2002) who are considering a range of policy and other jobs in renewable energy. WRISE’s Wind at Our Backs scholars, meanwhile, are entering wind technology specifically, and received $2,500 scholarships along with attending the conference.
The Wind at Our Backs fellows include Ashley Hobbs, who became interested in wind energy seeing wind turbines along the drive to her high school in Arnett, Oklahoma.
“I always wanted to know how they worked,” she said.
For seven years, Hobbs worked in another heavily male-dominated field: as a corrections officer and dispatcher in the corrections system.
Then Hobbs completed an advanced wind turbine technician certificate at the High Plains Technology Center in Oklahoma, and she recently accepted a job with GE that will see her not only knowing how wind turbines work, but helping them do so. She’s done all this while also raising two girls as a single mother.
“My goals in wind energy are to work my way up over the next several years, as in lead tech and even site lead,” Hobbs said. “Wind is crucial for our future when it comes to clean energy and power. Sustainability is the biggest factor to me in wind energy; wind will always be here.”
Numbers growing, slowly
Kristen Graf entered the renewable energy field herself about 16 years ago. In college, she was “stunned” to see how few women were in her engineering classes, and that trend only continued once she entered the renewable energy technology and policy world. So after a stint with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Graf took the opportunity to become executive director of WRISE, previously called Women in Wind Energy (WoWE), to try to change that disparity.
“There were tons of women in my high school calculus classes, but they didn’t appear in the college programs to the same extent,” said Graf. “There are lots of women in nonprofits, but not as many in the policy space making decisions on the energy side. And you look at public utility commissions, energy committees in Congress; I’d like to see more women there.”
A 2017 Department of Energy employment report found that women make up 32 percent of the wind industry workforce, which it found had a total 102,000 jobs. Women also made up 32 percent of the solar energy workforce. Those numbers are higher than some other tech industries; one recent report found women hold less than 20 percent of U.S. tech jobs overall.
The current numbers of women in wind could be seen as an improvement from five years ago when another study showed only about 20 to 25 percent of wind industry jobs were held by women.
Graf said that various studies or ways of looking at employment data have placed women at 20 to 30 percent of the wind workforce over the past decade, with small gains likely made in recent years.
“I’m optimistic this small increase we’ve seen will be something that continues,” she said. “For me it needs to be across the entire sector and every level of that sector, whether entry-level technicians, the manufacturing floor, C-suites, and boards. Some of those roles — admin, paralegal, marketing — are much further ahead in terms of having significant numbers of women in them. It’s the edges, the C-suite, the boardroom, the more technical roles, the highly financial roles that have struggled to get numbers of women.”
The DOE report found similar proportions of women in other energy fields including biofuels, coal and combined heat and power. Energy efficiency and petroleum fuels each had about a quarter of jobs filled by women. Racial and ethnic minority women are likely even more under-represented, though Graf said there is no comprehensive data that looks at renewable energy jobs by both gender and race. When race alone was considered, the DOE report found Latinos to make up about 20 percent of the workforce and African Americans to make up about 10 percent, in a number of renewable energy sectors.
Futures in Renewable Energy
During college, Fischer, 22, interned with nonprofits including the Ohio Environmental Council, Clean Fuels Ohio and the Electrification Coalition. She focused for a while on electric vehicles.
“Electric vehicles are great and more efficient, but Ohio runs mostly on coal power, so electric vehicles aren’t emissions free unless you can promote renewable energy and make sure electricity comes from those sources,” she noted.
She recently began a new job with the DC Sustainable Energy Utility, and she plans to later go to graduate school focused on energy policy. While small-scale solar arrays are increasingly being used to improve the lives of people in developing countries, Fischer imagines wind power could also have a bigger role.
“In the U.S. we developed through this incredible push for industrialization and fossil fuels, and it had all kinds of impacts on our environment,” she said. “We eventually cut back our impacts but something we need to focus on when looking at other countries developing is finding a way they can skip that [fossil fuel stage] and go straight to green renewable energy.”
While she is emphatic that the U.S. “should not be telling other countries what to do,” she’d like to be part of such efforts.
“We’ve seen oil pipelines and coal plants being developed on an industrial scale in developing countries, so I can’t see why we can’t develop wind there.”
Hobbs, meanwhile, plans to later get her associate’s degree, thanks in part to the Wind at Our Backs fellowship, and continue working in wind energy.
“There’s always a need for women in male-dominated fields such as wind energy,” she said. “All industries need equality for women. Every woman has to prove ourselves to the men in the industry. We have to show them that we can keep up with them and can do the same work that men can do.”
Even as employers — especially larger corporations that make up the bulk of the wind industry — make commitments to hire more women, “hiring managers appear baffled on how to meet this challenge, often citing a lack of qualified female candidates for positions,” Graf wrote on WRISE’s website.
WRISE has an initiative called “Find Her Keep Her: Recruiting and Retaining Women across Renewable Energy” that is aimed at showing corporations how to bring women into their workforce, also highlighting the stories of women in renewable energy.
WRISE notes that mentoring, developing leadership pipelines, transparency around salary, flexibility in schedule and other specific policies can help bring more women into the industry. WRISE also runs its own one-on-one and peer group mentoring programs, along with the fellowships.
“It’s exciting to me to be able to help open at least a few doors for them,” Graf said of the Fellows. “And it’s incumbent on the industry as a whole to make sure they have the opportunities they need to flourish and grow and become an integrated part of the sector.”
“The success of the sector is reliant on us doing a good job not just on gender but in all different aspects of race, ethnicity, ability, geography, background,” she continued. “We can’t just have all the same people talking around the same ideas all the time, or we’re not going to make the type of progress we want to make.”