May 16, 2018

By Kim Smet

Countries around the world are in transition, working to achieve less carbon-intensive and more resource-efficient economies through the creation of green jobs, the pursuit of clean innovation and the development of more sustainable practices.

It is well documented that this shift to a clean economy will have significant impacts on workers (for example, see Smart Prosperity Institute’s report on Decent Work in the Green Economy). However, while there is a lot of attention being paid in Canada to clean technologies and financing, there is a lack of emphasis being placed on equity and social justice implications of this transition. (The newly launched Task Force on the Just Transition for Canadian Coal-Power Workers and Communities will hopefully provide one forum in which relevant gender and other equity issues can be highlighted.)

Take for instance, the case of gender equity in the clean energy sector. Women are currently very poorly represented in the energy sector, constituting less than 6 percent of technical staff and less than 1 percent of top managers. Given that the workers in the “brown” or fossil-fuel based energy sector are expected to transition to jobs in the “green” energy sector, it is reasonable to predict that women will continue to be inadequately represented in the energy sector of the future. At present, only 35 percent of those employed in clean energy globally are women, and they are typically working in lower-paid administrative positions rather than skilled or managerial positions.

Why does this imbalance matter?  There is mounting evidence that empowering women means more optimal use of a nation’s human capital endowment and that reducing gender inequality enhances productivity and economic growth.

Past attempts to address this imbalance in the energy sector have typically followed the “just add women and stir” approach. This involves implementing programs to simply increase the number of women in a sector, but without addressing the more deep-seated, systemic work cultures and values that caused the imbalance in the first place.

Recent research on initiatives that train women for entry-level positions in the green economy reports low success in achieving long-term employment in the sector. Findings such as these confirm that if the transition to clean energy is to offer the opportunity to improve gender inequities in the sector, a number of deeper, more structural changes will be necessary.

Such changes include addressing society-at-large and women’s own misperceptions about their ability to conduct technical work. Studies have routinely identified perceptions of women’s reduced competence in technical occupations, and have demonstrated that women in technical fields need superior qualifications or more work experience to be treated as equally competent as their male counterparts. This is exacerbated by the absence of female role models at high levels in the sector.

A 2009 Engineers Canada survey of female high school students determined that many had negative perceptions of engineering and technology occupations, equating the work to dirty, outdoor, construction work, or work requiring more interaction with computers and machines than people. There is a need for engagement in targeted outreach and awareness activities to attract women to the energy field by highlighting the true nature of jobs, as well as recruiting young women to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Similar to jobs in the fossil fuel industry, work in the clean energy sector often requires substantial travel and time away from home. Often project sites are in isolated areas, with no provisions for the families of workers, which, while also challenging for men, puts women with caregiving responsibilities for young children at a particular disadvantage.

Apprenticeships also pose a barrier to women entering the trades in the energy sector: while often a requirement before a worker can secure full-time employment, women have difficulty accessing apprenticeships because the process for obtaining them is highly informal, with opportunities often communicated verbally via what women in the trades refer to as “FBI” (friends, brothers and in-laws) networks.

Finally, the lack of sex-disaggregated data on employment in the clean energy sector makes analysis and tracking of progress challenging. Without data, there is no visibility of this issue; and without visibility, this question of equity and social justice in the transition to a clean economy will remain an afterthought, rather than a policy priority.

More from SPI on gender equity & climate change:

Two new working papers from our Clean Economy Working Paper Series:

Guest blog: 

This blog draws heavily on the research of Bipasha Baruah, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues at Western University. Check out this collection of issue summary videos based on her research.