Breaking Through the Bro Culture

For women in solar energy, progress and a ways to go.

Solar companies have been looking internally at their own policies and are working to increase women’s participation in the industry. Photo by Stefano Paltera/US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

IN THE SUMMER OF 2013, Kristen Nicole was fed up. As the founder of Women in Solar Energy (WISE), she had watched for years as the solar industry had become increasingly corporate and hyper-masculine. Irked particularly by the in-your-face “booth babe” culture that had taken hold at industry conferences, she penned a bold open letter to industry leaders, calling them out for allowing the proliferation of an atmosphere antithetical to women’s participation.

“This has occurred for years now, but increasingly, scantily-clad women are becoming more scantily-clad and are being featured at [Solar Power International] after-parties and cocktail hours, impacting the entire conference culture,” she wrote. “It has become impossible to ignore and is frankly a huge distraction.”

Money from the construction sector, Wall Street, utilities investors, and venture capitalists had been flowing into the solar industry for years by then. One company had women in leather cat outfits locked in a cage at its booth during a major conference. A number of fast-growing solar companies had embraced a marketing approach “that portrays women as sex objects,” Nicole wrote, such as one that had women in leather cat outfits locked in a cage at its booth during a major conference.

“There have been fantastic efforts over the years from various groups to promote the role of women in the industry, but it is time for the industry to make this effort formal, both to stop the booth babe culture and to work hard to create compelling careers for women in solar energy,” Nicole’s letter continued. “We are asking our solar industry leaders to help get us back on track.”

Nicole’s perspective was affirmed by the positive response the letter received, both from individuals and institutions. “In many ways the letter sparked a revolution within the solar industry,” Nicole says, speaking with me this summer. “All of the larger solar companies started looking internally at their own policies, some started women-specific initiatives.”

Indeed, there’s been noticeable change in the intervening years, particularly as women have taken on greater leadership roles within the industry. While women CEOs in solar are still rare, it is notable that women now lead two of the major solar industry groups, Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) and Solar Energies Industry Association (SEIA) — both of which were named addressees of Nicole’s 2013 letter.

“In my view [the letter] is right on the mark, even five years later,” says Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of SEIA since January 2017. “I was not at SEIA at this time, but this letter was long overdue. The solar conference culture it references was unacceptable and abhorrent, and that has changed. Since taking the reins at SEIA, I’ve put diversity and inclusion at the forefront of my priorities for our organization and the industry, including equity for women.”

Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE)has started the #FindHerKeepHer campaign, which aims to identify ways to address gender diversity and highlight stories of women in the renewable energy field. Illustration by Lilli Keinanen.
Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE)has started the #FindHerKeepHer campaign, which aims to identify ways to address gender diversity and highlight stories of women in the renewable energy field. Illustration by Lilli Keinanen.

While instances of objectification linger at conferences, SEIA and other industry groups have established and/or grown programs aimed at encouraging women’s participation in the field. SEIA’s Women’s Empowerment Initiative, launched in 2016, includes a Community Engagement Working Group designed to improve diversity. The organization has collaborated with Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) to organize a women’s peer mentoring program and an industry speaker database of women experts.

WRISE started the #FindHerKeepHer campaign, which aims to identify ways to address gender diversity and highlight stories of women in the renewable energy field. To help ensure that girls and young women are encouraged to participate in the field, the organization also does K-12 programming and runs a fellowship program for students and recent graduates to provide access to networks across the industry.

“I’ve seen a real shift as companies take the makeup of their workforce a lot more seriously and are recognizing the importance and the value of having a diverse workforce,” says WRISE Executive Director Kristen Graf. “That’s the shift that has been most significant in the last few years, in my mind. It’s not necessarily a massive tide change in the numbers yet, but it’s a significant mental process shift that’s happening.”

The numbers, however, are indeed shifting. According to The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census, female workers made up 19 percent of the solar industry total in 2013, while they make up 27 percent today. The US Department of Energy says the numbers are even higher, with women making up 32 percent of the solar workforce last year (and 32 percent of the wind energy workforce as well). A 2017 study by The Solar Foundation — a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing solar energy and conducting research on solar markets and workplaces — found while women’s participation in the sector is about half that of their representation in the larger US workforce, it now rivals the percentage of women in manufacturing, is significantly higher than women in construction and in oil and gas extraction, and is somewhat higher than women in utilities.

Along with reduced use of sexually based marketing techniques, conferences have also changed to better embrace women’s perspectives. Nicole’s letter mentioned that in 2012 just 9 percent of speakers at Solar Power International were women. In 2016, according to Ross Hopper, that figure was up to 19 percent, and by last year had risen to 29 percent.

While progress is apparent, female leaders in the industry acknowledge there’s still much to do. The numbers can certainly shift further. Additionally, there’s progress to be made when it comes to pay equity and upward mobility. According to The Solar Foundation, women at solar firms are less likely than men to earn wages that fall in the highest bracket, and are also less likely to be satisfied with their wage and position in the industry. Women are three times more likely than men to feel they are having difficulty moving up the career ladder.

Women of color, in particular, are poorly represented and generally dissatisfied within the industry. Research conducted by The Solar Foundation indicates that they are “grossly excluded” from making the highest wages, and are the least likely of any group to be “very satisfied” with their wages and position.

“We have to be talking about race,” says Erica Mackie, co-founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income communities and communities of color access solar energy systems and jobs in the solar industry. “We have to be listening to and taking the leadership of women of color. There are open letters not yet written that could be open letters to the solar industry about race or the intersection of race and gender.”

About five years ago GRID launched its Women in Solar Program, which includes the Rising Women Fellows program (in coordination with WRISE) that sponsors several women from diverse backgrounds to attend a major solar industry conference every year. GRID also organizes the annual She Shines retreat in Colorado — part-conference, part-team building, part-installation training for women in the industry.

Mackie sees the solar industry as uniquely positioned to boost workplace diversity and improve our communities and society.

“[Solar energy] can be about people, it can be about the world, it can be about justice,” she says. “So we need to make sure the leadership of our companies reflects the diversity of the way our technology can be used. We’re never going to create the most innovative solutions if we don’t have the most diverse people and ideas around the table.”

The chorus of those who see that potential is growing stronger, particularly as the #MeToo moment empowers many to speak out about inequities across a range of industries.

“There is a growing group of women leaders and leaders of color who are pushing for a different industry,” says Mackie. “I certainly myself feel more connected to those folks, and I think there are a lot of male allies that are starting to listen. That being said, we still have some ways to go.”

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