Tackling persistent gender inequality in the energy transition
Climate change is one of the defining issues of our generation. Social movements around the world, led by young activists, are demanding more climate action from policymakers. Given the firm focus on trying to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the need for an energy transition towards renewable sources is inevitable. However, the crosscutting nature of the transition is often left in limbo, with progress being plagued by chronic gender inequality.
Gender inequality is pervasive in the energy sector
The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) identified four areas where gender gaps can prove to be problematic during the energy transition: energy access, energy-related education, energy labour market, and decision-making on energy policy. These areas of concern need to be dealt with in order to achieve an energy transition that works for everyone, in accordance with Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Gender Equality) and Sustainable Development Goal 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy). The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 2015, build on years of work to address inequalities around the world through the prism of sustainability. The objective for countries and the UN is to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030.
The gendered nature of energy access fuels energy poverty. The lack of sex-disaggregated data makes it difficult to evaluate disparities and it remains crucial not to liken energy access with energy availability. Women are more vulnerable to poverty because of income inequalities and as they also head the majority of single-parent households. As a result, even when energy is available, women have fewer resources to dedicate to its consumption.
In addition, it is the intersection of gender deficits in education, labour, and decision-making that shapes structural gender inequalities in the energy sector. It starts at school when girls are not encouraged to pursue an education in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). In the earlier part of the decade, 22% of men graduating in the EU specialised in STEM subjects. It was limited to 11% for women. This educational gap overlaps with differences in the labour market. As an example, in the renewable energy industry, women represent only 32% of the workforce. This number is skewed by the proportion of women holding administrative positions (45%) as opposed to STEM-related jobs (28%). Yet, these figures still demonstrate an improvement on the general trends in the fossil fuel industry. Women account for only 22% of the workforce in oil and gas companies.
The grassroots inequalities eventually lead to gender gaps in the decision-making process. Indeed, women hold an average of 6% of ministerial positions focused on energy. This does not reflect well on the pursuit of gender equality and clean energy, given the dynamics of power. There is extensive research showing that the most proactive and ambitious countries on tackling climate change and engaging with the energy transition have higher than average female parliamentary representation.
Traditional gender roles still impact energy consumption
Energy consumption is also influenced by traditional gender roles in households. The gendered division of labour, usually stacked against women performing unpaid domestic duties and in favour of male dominance, is often left unchallenged in contemporary society. This division of labour limits women’s ability to engage with renewable energy sources. In a case study on solar photovoltaic (PV) in the UK and Norway, researchers found that women were more enthusiastic about the technology whereas decision-making clearly remained a male domain.
In both Norway and the UK, the dynamics of traditional gender roles meant that women and men selectively downplayed their technical expertise. Women minimalised their ability to deal with the solar PV technology while men understated their ability to understand household technologies. These gendered stereotypes generally lead to women being excluded from decision-making on renewable energy. In an industry that is likely to have more than 29 million jobs by 2050 as opposed to just over 10 million in 2017, the need for gender equality is critical.
However, the barriers to entry in the labour market and historical inequalities have not stopped the progress of women-led success stories in the energy sector. EarthSpark International, an organisation run by women in Haiti, is seeking to meet the challenges of the energy transition in the country’s rural area, while maintaining a gender perspective at the same time. The organisation has sold more than 18,000 clean energy products that have had an impact on over 80,000 people in Haiti. With its ‘feminist electrification’ project, EarthSpark International was rewarded in 2018 for the Momentum for Change awards.
Mainstreaming gender in energy policies
For the energy transition to work for everyone, gender mainstreaming in energy policies is an important consideration. In fact, mainstreaming gender outlines the need to “ensure that gender concerns, needs and interest, and differences are considered in all planning and policy-making”. In the case of the energy transition, this would include framing policies to deal with the four areas of concern mentioned earlier.
Policies to increase energy access need to focus on affordability and sustainability. However, they also have to take into account the gender disparities existing in energy poverty. In poorer rural areas, energy projects have to empower women who are responsible for managing fuel in their households or in their small-scale businesses. Women’s empowerment through energy projects can contribute to moving marginalised communities away from historical inequalities.
To bridge the gap in the labour market, the change needs to begin with education. Policymakers and educational institutions are keen to challenge social and cultural norms by encouraging young girls to take up STEM subjects. The University College of London, one of the most prominent universities in the world, recently set up an innovative educational platform to help tackle the gender deficit in professions related to STEM subjects. The platform outlines potential career pathways and provides curated content from female role models in STEM professions.
In the labour market, the onus is on energy organisations to acknowledge the gendered division of labour and implement policies in order to attract but also retain qualified female employees. Those measures can include parental leave and flexible working hours. In the EU, flexible working arrangements “are not yet based on the principle of equal opportunities, resulting in severe consequences for women’s participation in the labour market”. Similar changes can be expected at decision-making level. Women will have the inexorable benefit of increased access to decision-making positions on energy if they are provided the right platform and incentives. Fighting persistent gender inequalities and traditional gender roles can lead to more equal parliamentary representation and a fairer decision-making process as far as gender is concerned.
If policymakers manage to transcend those limitations during the energy transition, it would make a fairer energy sector possible. The differentiated impact of climate change is particularly visible on women and men. However, that does not cover the complete ambit of inequalities that need to be dealt with. Gender mainstreaming in energy policies is essential but the intersection of the energy transition with other historical inequalities such as race, ethnicity and class also need to be considered.
 UNIDO, Guide on gender mainstreaming: Energy and climate projects, 2014
 Karina Standal and Tanja Winther, “Empowerment through Energy? Impact of electricity on Care Work Practices and Gender Relations”, 2016, Forum for Development Studies, pages 27-45.
 University College London, “UCL education resource encourages girls’ uptake of STEM subjects at A-levels”, 2019, available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2019/feb/ucl-education-resource-encourages-girls-uptake-stem-subjects-levels
 EIGE, Gender Equality Index 2019: Work-life balance, 2019, page 106.
 Rebecca Pearl-Martinez, Women at the forefront of the clean energy: Initiative Gender Equality for Climate Change Opportunities, 2014, USAID/IUCN.
 Pierre Bourdieu, Contre-feux 2: pour un mouvement social européen, 2001, Les Éditions Raisons d’Agir.
Karina Standal, Marta Talevi, and Hege Westskog, “Engaging men and women in energy production in Norway and the United Kingdom: The significance of social practices and gender relations”, 2020, Energy Research and Social Science.
 IRENA, Renewable Energy: A Gender Perspective, 2019.
 EarthSpark International. Available at: http://www.earthsparkinternational.org/
 Jennifer Collins and Louise Osborne, “When access to electricity is a feminist issue”, 12 December 2018, Deutsche Welle, available at: https://www.dw.com/en/when-access-to-electricity-is-a-feminist-issue/a-46694753
 Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Gender Mainstreaming in Energy Projects in the Pacific, 2014, page 8.
 Emma Marris, “Why young climate activists have captured the world’s attention”, 2019, Nature, pages 471-472, available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02696-0?sf219660044=1
 EIGE, Gender and Energy, 2016.
 Joy Clancy, Viktoria Daskalova, Mariëlle Feenstra, Nicolò Francheschelli, and Margarita Sanz, Gender Perspective on Access to Energy in the EU, 2017
 Eurostat, Science and technology graduates by sex, European Union (1995-2016), 2012
 IRENA, Renewable Energy: A Gender Perspective, 2019.
 Rebecca Pearl-Martinez, Women at the forefront of the clean energy: Initiative Gender Equality for Climate Change Opportunities, 2014, USAID/IUCN
To quote this article : Shanda Moorghen, “Tackling persistent gender inequality in the energy transition”, 08.06.2020, Gender in Geopolitics Institute.