Powering on with full force19 January 2024
A new groundbreaking report is taking a pivotal step towards driving change in the hydropower sector, where women remain significantly underrepresented and there is an urgent need for addressing gender equality
Greater access to a wider pool of talent will enable the hydropower industry to fulfil its crucial role in the clean energy transition. And, as a recent report highlights, expanding education and training will help to build an inclusive and balanced workforce with high-quality employment opportunities to benefit both men and women.
Described as a groundbreaking report, Power With Full Force: Getting to Gender Equality in the Hydropower Sector, has been released by the Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme (ESMAP) of the World Bank. It is viewed as being a pivotal step towards driving change in the hydropower sector where women remain significantly underrepresented, and where there is an urgent need for addressing gender equality.
Commenting upon the report’s release, Debbie Gray, the Interim Head of Policy at the International Hydropower Association (IHA), said: “ One of the most important things we can do to close the gender gap in the hydropower sector is to talk about it. We need to take stock and evaluate what the gender gaps are and find solutions to close them. Publishing this report continues the conversation in the industry while providing practical, concrete and specific recommendations that different stakeholders can put into place.”
By 2050 the hydropower industry is expected to employ 3.7 million people but currently only a quarter of positions are taken up by women. Although previous studies have shown that an inclusive workforce with equal opportunities for both men and women is economically and socially beneficial, the hydropower sector still does not take advantage of the talents and skills of diverse individuals.
As research has shown, having more women in business leadership results in better and more efficient decision-making, less risk taking, greater innovation, greater corporate responsibility, improved use of available talent, and higher profits. Furthermore, female-led businesses with female leaders have been shown to have higher rates of survival overall and were able to weather the financial crisis of 2008 better than the average, while during the COVID-19 crisis, women-led S&P 500 companies performed better and were considered less of a credit risk than those led by men.
So why is there such gender disparity within the hydropower industry?
Although the energy industry is predominantly male dominated, the hydro sector is considered as being particularly worthy of study due to its unique characteristics that may in fact create more barriers for women. For example as the new ESMAP report states:
- Hydropower is an old, well-established technology with an ageing workforce which can lead to the perception that it is also not very dynamic. As hydro companies tend to be older and larger than newer solar or wind energy companies, the former may display more conservative and less inclusive corporate cultures.
- In comparison with other renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar that have relatively straightforward construction and operational frameworks, hydropower tends to be a much more labour-intensive, technical, and engineering-focused industry.
- Technical roles during construction and operation in the hydropower sector can require frequent travel to or long periods at very remote sites (several months, often several years). Due to prevailing gender norms, combining such roles with family life remains more difficult for women than for men.
- Hydropower’s image has been tarnished by projects that have not respected the basic principles of sustainable development and make hydropower less attractive than other renewables to people who wish to make a positive impact on society. Research has suggested that women are more motivated by “having a job focused on helping others”; therefore such a negative image of the hydropower sector may be a greater deterrent to women than men.
The ESMAP study is based on research and analysis performed by the International Hydropower Association in collaboration with the Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition. It draws upon extensive information gathering and analysis efforts, including 65 corporate and 900 individual survey responses, literature reviews, online surveys, interviews with stakeholders and case studies. Its results showed that at 25%, the share of women in hydropower is lower than in the renewable energy sector overall, where 32% of jobs are held by women. And of the women in hydropower companies, 21% are in technical positions such as engineers, environmental scientists, and field-based roles, with the remainder in nontechnical positions such administrative, commercial, sales, marketing, human resources, and finance. In a nutshell, there are almost four times as many women in nontechnical roles than there are in technical roles.
“Nontechnical positions are key to the functioning of any company and are not intrinsically less important than technical positions,” the report is keen to state. “However, women have already almost reached parity in these types of positions, so this report will focus on that large gender gap – 21% versus 79% – between technical and nontechnical positions. Furthermore, technical career paths are most likely to lead to senior management positions: this may be one explanation for the underrepresentation of women in mid-level and senior management positions.”
The report goes on to discuss the sector’s “timid efforts to advance gender equality” and women’s underrepresentation, especially in senior management and executive positions. Its research shows how men are more likely to identify barriers that fall at least partly under women’s own control, such as the fact that few women study STEM subjects, or women’s relative lack of awareness of or interest in the sector, while women were more likely to focus on barriers outside their control, such as bias and cultural norms holding them back.
“This ‘bootstrap mentality’ of some men toward gender equality was visible throughout the survey and also in some comments received when the study was announced,” the report states. Some of these barriers result in fewer women entering the hydropower sector, whereas others lead to fewer women staying or progressing. Most notably, similar experiences were shared by women of all ages and from countries around the world through the survey and interviews.
As Power With Full Force report reveals, there are five main barriers to gender equality in the hydropower sector:
1. Low proportion of women with relevant STEM skills.
In most countries women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degree programmes – on average only 20 to 30% of STEM students are female, with widespread traditional views persisting of the hydropower as an industry reserved for men.
Girls are described as facing a twofold challenge. They not only need to convince their family that their support will bring benefits but also have to navigate through an educational system that provides very little equity, and few adequately gender-responsive facilities or teaching methods.
As the report states: “Such a discouraging context results in very limited numbers of women in STEM programmes and allows the persistence of forbidding or intimidating aspects of the field, and barriers faced by women who would otherwise be promoted to higher and leadership positions. The final result observed is a shortage of qualified women available for employment in the hydropower sector, creating at the same time a pipeline challenge: fewer women than men enter the sector at a junior level, leading to fewer women being considered for more senior positions as they progress.”
2. Lack of female role models
A lack of role models makes it difficult for women to envision a career in the hydropower sector or to find mentors and sponsors within their places of work or organisations. Both women (51%) and men (39%) ranked this as one of the top barriers to gender equality in the sector.
3. Bias by senior management in the hydropower sector in favour of employing men
Prevailing perceptions of gender roles prevent many women from entering and/or staying in the hydropower sector. Such perceptions vary but include the view that women are not as strong or analytical as men. This contributes to gender inequality by preventing women from seeing hydropower as a viable career option and by generating negative assumptions about their ability to perform once they are in the sector. As hydropower is a labour-intensive, technical, and engineering-focused industry, it can be viewed as being less suitable for women.
4. Lack of awareness among women of opportunities in the hydropower sector
Women are not always aware of the extent to which they can benefit from the formal and informal systems, behaviours and values a company encourages its employees to represent and embody, including dissemination and gender-neutral advertising practices. When a company understands and implements gender equality policies that result in closing the gender gaps, such as promotions, spaces for leadership, and decision-making, among others, it makes for a better atmosphere and work environment and can help to improve performance, health, and satisfaction.
5. Workplace environments that are unwelcoming to women
Opportunities for women to work at hydropower facilities are often constrained by practical difficulties that are interwoven with social and cultural expectations. These remote locations may be considered unsafe for women (and sometimes actually are if women are only present in small numbers), while appropriate facilities and safety equipment for women are still lacking. The fact that these locations are at times unsafe for women (but safe or safer for men) gives a signal that this is a sector that has little interest in adapting for working women; on the contrary, the sector evidently expects women to adapt to it, and indeed only enter it if and when they are ready to accept any consequent challenge to their safety, family life, parenthood or wellbeing.
The first step in addressing gender inequality in the hydropower sector is for stakeholders (governments, academia, utilities, companies, and civil society) to acknowledge that it exists. The second step is to investigate it and the third is to undertake gender mainstreaming – a mechanism for gender to be systematically assessed and integrated into corporate decisions and processes.
As the study illustrates, equality in the hydropower sector will depend upon equity in skill building (ie gender-responsive teaching and facilities) and in the implementation of hydropower projects. This could be achieved by considering family unity, ensuring that remote field work maintains safety standards for women, ensuring continuous education and awareness among staff of a respectful working environment, along with the presence of female role models in industry and academia.
The report goes on to propose key recommendations to address the gender gaps and barriers that persist. Among these include removing barriers to education that constrain the number of women who pursue STEM degrees. The fact that women are still a minority in such programmes remains a major barrier to equality in the sector, while also making it difficult for hydropower companies to recruit more women if too few are graduating with the required degrees.
Creating welcoming and gender-inclusive teaching environments, while normalising women studying STEM subjects, are vital factors if the number of qualified women entering the hydropower sector is to increase. Women and girls must also have access to information and have a heightened awareness of their own potential in the sector, while female teachers need to be hired with greater awareness and promotion of hydropower as an appealing career for women. In addition, engaging with young people is also described as being critical.
The report also discusses that decision-makers within the hydro industry should ensure that women in the sector are the leaders of change. Mentoring is an effective and increasingly popular mechanism through which to promote women’s professional development, by helping them build important soft and hard skills, expand their networks, interact with role models, find acceptance and affirmation, and ultimately achieve career success as leaders in the sector.
It is also important to keep in mind that female colleagues in hydropower are in the best position to lead progress toward gender equality and diversity. Existing female professionals in the sector are able to identify the gaps, design solutions and educate the sector about the importance of equity and equality: in particular, the short-term and long-term benefits for the company, employees and the community.
As the report states: “Each hydropower company (but also related STEM programmes at the universities) can benefit from the potential currently latent within their workforce, create opportunities for them to guide the change, and at the same time inspire more women to join the workforce in hydropower.”
More men also need to be included in gender inequality discussions, and encouraged to be proactive in reducing the gap.
“The results have shown once again that it is imperative for men to act as allies and to form part of the solution to achieve gender equality in hydropower,” the report says. “Since men continue disproportionately to influence workplace environments, their recognition of gender biases and their leadership in promoting gender equality can have a powerful impact. It is important for the industry and stakeholders to acknowledge that gender gaps exist, gather necessary data, implement concrete measures, evaluate their effectiveness, and share evidence regarding what works.”
An important step
Ultimately the ESMAP report is described as being a baseline study and “and an important step on the long road to gender parity”. It does not aim to be “exhaustively comprehensive” but reflects perceptions and observations, and further work could establish objective realities of the sector based on comprehensive data collection from human resources departments of hydropower industry players. Follow-up studies are recommended in order to track progress and dig deeper into some of the key themes that have been identified.
Many women interviewed during the study expressed great enthusiasm for their work and this study highlights the opportunity for the hydropower sector to reassert its position in the global energy transition and become a gender equality frontrunner.
As the report states: “The 2020s present a massive opportunity for the hydropower sector not only to assert its position as a driver of the energy transition but also to shake off its image as an old, traditional, male-dominated sector and spark the imaginations of environmentally conscious current and future generations. It has the opportunity to become a frontrunner in gender equality by telling the stories of the women working within it, encouraging them to share with the wider world their adventures, their enthusiasm, and their pride as hydropower ambassadors. Many actors can participate in the promotion of hydropower as an attractive sector for women to pursue careers in; first and foremost, among these actors is the hydropower industry itself.”