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Joanna Osawe
President & CEO - WiRE

Breaking Gender Equality Barriers in Renewable Energy

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Takeaways

  1. Existing cultural norms, lack of skills and lack of gender-specific training are barriers preventing women from entering the job market in the renewable energy sector.
  2. Lack of infrastructure, workforce shortages and a lack of awareness about the value and importance of renewable energy for our future economy are holding the sector’s growth back.
  3. The energy sector needs to be educating the public and the government about the importance of accepting renewable energy solutions.

Action

I would like to call upon all CEOs and leaders across the public and private sector to make diversity, inclusion and belonging a core part of their organisational strategy and to invest time and resources to root out inequity and create an inclusive culture.


What does the future of the energy sector look like now that we are faced with the COVID-19 economic crisis? What do you predict for the future of the industry? 

WiRE has been working on a report addressing the future of the energy sector in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have interviewed numerous leaders across the sector and will be publishing our insights and notable trends. 

“I think the energy sector has a huge role to play in Canada’s economic recovery, and many leaders and I are hopeful that Canada leverages this crisis as an opportunity to accelerate a transition to a low-carbon economy over the next few years.”

Based on those interviews, I think that this crisis has made it clear to the energy sector that we will have to maintain energy security through future geopolitical, financial, and health risks. There are plenty of scenarios in which supply-chain damage could be worse, and this puts our energy, which we tend to take for granted, at risk.  

I think the energy sector has a huge role to play in Canada’s economic recovery, and many leaders and I are hopeful that Canada leverages this crisis as an opportunity to accelerate a transition to a low-carbon economy over the next few years.  

Like many workplaces, there are going to be a lot more safety measures in place in the energy sector going forward, and many workplaces may allow more remote-working opportunities. 

My biggest hope is that there is more collaboration over the next few years. Collaboration could result in sharing resources, reducing costs, and improving reliability. Throughout the interviews, many leaders expressed hope for greater grid connectivity via East and West ties, rather than North and South. 


What gender biases do women face in the renewable energy sector? 

That is an interesting question. Having launched WiRE in different parts of the world, it’s clear that all women face obstacles that are generally the same, but they are sometimes different. One woman told me that 27 years ago, while working as an electrical engineer, she informed her boss that she was pregnant and he asked her to have an abortion. These are real life things that women faced and are still facing in different parts of the world. When I first started WiRE, I was mocked and demeaned. I was asked by people whether they needed to put on a wig and skirt to join! Of course this was before the #MeToo movement. We are more progressive in Canada than in other parts of the world. Still, I am getting similar comments.  

WiRE has been taking part in different research projects with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Its most recent report on Gender Perspective in renewable energy really identifies the barriers that prevent women from entering the job market in the renewable energy sector, including existing cultural and social norms, lack of skills, and lack of gender-specific training. 

“When I hear folks tell me that they are applying for 8 to 10 jobs a day, I think that’s a low number. I’d encourage them to apply to 200 jobs a day, minimum.”

I talk on panels about how women often create their own barriers when applying for jobs. We feel we need to make sure we meet each of the job requirements and can tick off each box on the application. I would not be where I am today if I checked every single box. When I first started in the industry, I applied for jobs that I had no business applying for, including for CEO or VP positions. I was a young, recent university graduate. Looking for a job became my full time job. When I hear folks tell me that they are applying for 8 to 10 jobs a day, I think that’s a low number. I’d encourage them to apply to 200 jobs a day, minimum. I think that by putting ourselves into these boxes we take a step backward instead of taking a step forward.


Is “Equal by 30” – a public commitment for equality for women in the renewable energy sector by 2030 – ambitious enough? Are you satisfied with the prospect that we will reach some form of gender equality 10 years from now? 

I am still frustrated with the fact that it is almost 2021 and we are still here today fighting for equality. It’s unfortunate that we are aiming for 2030 and have to be having this discussion at all. However, it needs to be talked about. 

Having two strong parents who taught me about human rights, I thought that my roadmap was already shaped when I was graduating from university. But then the truth hit. Being the only woman in the boardroom is just the way it is. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau really advanced equality and women’s empowerment by establishing the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council. It is something that we need to continue to promote to have gender-based analysis and to achieve transformative gender equality. This analysis is mainstream across all activities in order to drive outcomes. 

Canada is a leader in gender diversity and inclusion, and we talk about the Equal by 30 campaign as well as our Prime Minister really devoting a lot of time and focus to gender diversity and inclusion. So our country is able to demonstrate to the world that gender equality is important and other countries should be following in our footsteps to have a bigger impact and better results worldwide.  

However, the Prime Minister should work specifically on advancing the role and recognition of women in the energy sector. We have such a plethora of incredibly powerful women at WiRE. If our government became more involved with our organization and others like us, it would be key to shaping the future of the energy sector and would ensure it is inclusive, not only of gender but of different emerging technologies.  

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The energy sector is going to experience workforce shortages as the current workforce retires. Is that not a good incentive to attract more women to the field? 

Yes. To mitigate this challenge, we need to attract foreign workers but also focus on our local talent pool. I speak to many women trying to get into the STEM fields who need to return to school to get recertified. So we definitely have talent here but we need to raise awareness through programs like KickAss or Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC). There are many organizations out there willing to help and talk about these obstacles. 

“We can attract more women by structuring the job descriptions to be more appealing for all, rather than one specific gender.”

We also need to do a better job of retaining the talent that we have. I’ve spoken to a lot of professors about how engineering students enter the market and then switch disciplines. We can also attract more women by structuring the job descriptions to be more appealing for all, rather than one specific gender. 


What is your perspective on the future of Canada’s energy sector? What do you see on the horizon in terms of electrification, decarbonization and decentralization? 

Aisha Bukhari, our board member, took part in the Generation Energy Report as a council member, and we spoke about the report and what the next 10 years mean. It is a great roadmap, and I encourage everyone to look at it. It is a very ambitious vision. 

There are many pathways to the energy transition whether it is through switching to cleaner power or using renewable fuels. The challenges will be changing people’s mindsets, attitudes, behaviours and habits. 

One technology outcome I foresee is wind power and energy storage being married. This will play a big role in the mindset of people that are against wind energy projects. We will also see emerging technologies. We are in a very explosive and dynamic time in the energy sector so I’m excited to see what the next 10 years will bring to Canada. 


What challenges does the Canadian renewable energy sector face in terms of growth?  Are there solutions you would champion? 

Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge for the renewable energy sector is the establishment of infrastructure – without infrastructure there will be no projects. We need transmission and power lines in order to interconnect projects to the grid. Another practical hurdle is in educating the public and the government about the importance of accepting renewable energy solutions.  Many people see only the propaganda surrounding renewable energy projects.   

“Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge for the renewable energy sector is the establishment of infrastructure – without infrastructure there will be no projects.”

However, while education is a huge challenge, it’s also a solution. Geographically, Canada is a massive country with many remote communities that are heavily reliant on diesel fuel – and have been for decades. From a health, societal and clean energy perspective, we need to become more viable and sustainable. By educating the public and government, we can develop a collaborative approach to energy solutions.  

Joanna Osawe
President & CEO - WiRE

Bio: Joanna Osawe is the President and CEO of WiRE and the Global Business Development Manager – Major Projects at DMC Power. She has over 15 years of experience as a manager leading renewable and energy sector companies in Canada and the United States. She has seen firsthand the vital role renewable energy and emerging technologies play in moving our energy sectors forward. 

 

Organization Profile: Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE) was launched in 2013 with the mission of advancing the role of women working in the energy sector through capacity-building field trips, networking meet-ups, an awards recognition program, student bursaries and moreIt has alliances with government agencies, renewable energy industry associations, networking groups for women in the energy sector, and academic providers.