Over the past seven years, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) has been actively working to promote gender diversity and mainstream environment, social and governance (ESG) sustainability policies in the hydropower sector in Asia Pacific. Through the Powered by Women (PbW) initiatives in Myanmar and Nepal, significant progress has been achieved across four key commitment areas – increasing women in leadership and in non-traditional jobs, enabling respectful workplaces and making environmental and social impact assessments and stakeholder engagement more gender friendly. Additionally, PbW has emphasized the importance of mainstreaming ESG and climate and gender practices.

The benefits of having women in the workplace are well-documented and supported by research. Gender-diverse firms have been found to earn higher returns on equity and experience improved reputation, productivity, and sustainability (IFC, 2019). Additionally, gender-diverse leadership has a positive correlation with a company’s ESG sustainability outcomes, which in turn enhances the company’s financial performance (IFC, 2018). The presence of women on boards has also been associated with various positive outcomes for firms, including increased firm value, profitability, ethical and social compliance, climate resilience, and community engagement. By adopting a gender lens and promoting diversity, companies can enhance their performance by promoting environmental, social and governance, and climate standards and practices, leading to sustainability in the market.

Equal opportunity and non-discrimination are crucial components of good practices and are central to the IFC’s Environmental and Social Performance Standards. This highlights the clear link between gender diversity, ESG and climate performance, and overall sustainability.

Opportunities in Nepal

Nepal possesses significant potential for hydropower and other renewable energy sources, and as the sector continues to expand rapidly, there is great opportunity for both women and men to be employed in the sector’s supply chain. However, the labor-intensive nature of the sector has faced challenges due to the continuous outflow of migrant workers over the past two decades and a lack of female talent to fill the resulting gap (IFC, 2020).

Given that women make up more than half of Nepal’s population (54.5%), it is in their own interest to seize the opportunity to play a central role in the hydro sector, thereby supporting the country’s economic development. Focus group discussions conducted to develop the business case for gender diversity and equality in Nepal’s hydropower sector highlighted the critical need for more women as role models to help break gender stereotypes. This sentiment was shared by both male and female executives (IFC, 2020).

It is evident that women in Nepal aspire to own and have decision-making power within the renewable energy industry. By actively involving women in leadership positions and decision-making roles, the sector can benefit from their unique perspectives and contributions. This not only promotes gender equality but also enhances the overall performance and ability to tackle climate risks and opportunities of hydropower companies in Nepal.

PbW in Nepal involved 19 member companies, including the Independent Power Producers Association of Nepal (IPPAN). These companies collectively employ 1,332 individuals and have 17 focal persons dedicated to promoting gender diversity and equality for the initiative. The member companies are responsible for the development of 46 hydropower projects with a total capacity of 1,603 MW. It is worth noting that the IPPAN itself comprises 350 companies, indicating the widespread participation and ripple effect across the hydropower sector in Nepal.

Significant positive changes

The PbW in Nepal has resulted in significant positive changes. Among member companies, 106 policies were formalized or improved to include gender-friendly and family friendly provisions, including gender-based violence and harassment risk management and prevention. There was a 7% increase in women recruited in non-traditional roles; an 88% reduction in absenteeism; and nine companies established women-led committees to amplify the voices of women. Additionally, 88% of the companies are investing in staff development and capacity building training.

The significance of these programs lies in several key factors. Firstly, they were timebound initiatives, providing a clear focus and timeline for achieving results. Secondly, a Community of Practice was created, fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing among participants. This community has continued to thrive even after the initiatives concluded.

The programs also emphasized the importance of gender diverse focal points, creating male champions, and enabling management engagement at specific touchpoints. By empowering individuals and promoting deeper human values, PbW members delved into communications and business leadership trainings and monthly webinars offering insights to bring greater empathy and compassion into the workplace to hone on soft as well as technical skills further enhancing capabilities of participants.

Building confidence

The initiatives highlighted the importance of making one’s voice heard and building confidence and courage to speak up. Networking and joining forces with others were encouraged, recognizing the power of collective impact. The International Centre for Hydropower (ICH) in Norway played a key partnership role in co-developing adult learning courses to elevate gender into the sustainability and climate space. Mentorship was also emphasized, and Girls in Tech provided insights into the challenges university student face in connecting to power companies and how these linkages can be strengthened, to facilitate learning and growth.

Building negotiation skills and adopting a can-do attitude were also key aspects of emphasis. By embracing a ‘we’ approach and learning from mistakes, participants were encouraged to strengthen their operating positions.

The recent Himalayan Hydro Expo organized by IPPAN in April 2024 did just that by organizing an all-female Nepali technical session on integrating ESG and GESI in the energy sector with PbW members sharing their work. The PbW initiatives have demonstrated the potential for replicating and contextualizing these approaches in other markets in Asia Pacific, particularly in the renewable energy sector to contribute to sustainable development.

Overall, the Powered by Women initiatives have made significant strides in promoting gender diversity and ESG sustainability in the hydropower sector, providing valuable lessons and strategies for future endeavors. The programs are supported by the governments of Norway, Australia, and Japan.

IFC and ICH hosted a Gender Summit on Powering a Gender Diverse Energy Future in Nepal in May 2024 to continue to the dialogue.