Gender Equality for Green Jobs Worldwide

A Promising New Sector Must Ensure Pay Equality

Rebecca Lefton and Jorge Madrid, along with Lejla Sadiku, examine the opportunities to ensure that a booming new jobs sector institutes equal pay from the get go.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis speaks at a news conference. Solis recently spoke about green jobs and how they benefit women in America.<br /> (AP/Al Behrman)
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis speaks at a news conference. Solis recently spoke about green jobs and how they benefit women in America.
(AP/Al Behrman)

A clean energy economy will generate new industries and jobs in manufacturing, construction, science and engineering, and much more. And if we do it right, it will also enhance gender pay equality. Let’s not transfer the gender pay gap of the traditional economy to the new green economy.

Green jobs today are ripe for pay equity

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics now boasts a new jobs category, Green Goods and Services, which details that our nation currently has 3.1 million green jobs across a wide variety of sectors, including construction, manufacturing, professional services, and science- and research-related fields. According to the bureau, the green jobs category comprises numerous new and traditional job sectors that “provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources” or “in which workers’ duties involve making their establishment’s production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources.”

Indeed, says the Brookings Institution, green jobs in the clean energy sector grew at twice the rate of jobs in the general economy during the peak of the recession from 2008–2010. While these new statistics tell a promising story for the growth of the green economy and nation’s job recovery as a whole, the potential for women to participate in this economic growth—both domestically and internationally—still remains unclear.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 pumped $90 billion of direct spending and tax incentives into clean energy technologies. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Labor, of the $500 million in Recovery Act funding, only $5 million was set aside to fund programs that train women for nontraditional jobs. A big opportunity was subsequently lost with the Senate’s failure in 2010 to advance a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill that could have included provisions to provide opportunities for low-income workers and fund additional green jobs training for women in nontraditional sectors such as construction and manufacturing.

While the Recovery Act jump-started the process of building a clean energy economy, high unemployment continues to be a challenge as the overall economy recovers, particularly for women. As CAP Senior Economist Heather Boushey explained, in 2010 job growth for men outpaced job growth for women for 10 out of 12 months. Jobs in manufacturing and construction, which account for a large portion of green jobs and that are disproportionately held by men, are on the rise—for men. Women lost 18,000 manufacturing jobs from November 2009 to November 2010, while men gained 126,000 jobs.

Potential benefits of green jobs for women

Despite the current employment disparities and a gender-unbalanced economic recovery, green jobs still hold potential for increasing accessibility and equity for women’s employment. A new publication by the U.S. Department of Labor, “A Woman’s Guide to a Sustainable Career,” emphasizes the diverse range of opportunities for women to participate in the green economy. The guide discusses seven reasons why green jobs are good for women, including the opportunity for women to earn more money, build skills, and gain entry into a growing, global industry with opportunities for innovation entrepreneurship. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis adds that:

Good green jobs help workers and their families. They increase incomes, narrow the wage gap, allow flexibility, and are safe, secure, sustainable, and innovative. They enable people with different backgrounds and skills the opportunity to build career paths and achieve economic self-sufficiency.

As an aggregated industry—or cluster of industries—the green economy is making good on the potential to pay higher wages and offer career paths to workers with diverse skills and education levels. A recent report by the Brookings Institution, “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment,” finds that green jobs pay $7,000 more than the national wage average. Further, the Brookings study finds that roughly half of these jobs are held by workers with a high school diploma or less, and 41 percent of the nation’s green jobs offer medium- to long-term career building and training opportunities.

The socioeconomic characteristics of green jobs—well-paid, upwardly mobile, and available to diverse communities with varying levels of skills and education—have long been the core values of advocates of the green economy. Organizations such as Green for All, the Apollo Alliance, Wider Opportunities for Women, and the Center for American Progress have led the national discussion that job creation is not just a numbers game. Economic development and job creation should also reflect equality and accessibility in order to address longstanding economic disparity and to help build a strong middle class, particularly for working mothers who represent nearly two-thirds of breadwinners or co-breadwinners for all U.S. households.

Will women capture the benefits of green jobs?

Nonetheless, the question still remains whether women workers will equally partake in the benefits of the green economy. We know that nationwide women workers still earn 77 cents for every dollar that male workers earn, and this discrepancy is even more pronounced for African American women and Latina workers, who earn 69 cents and 60 cents, respectively, for every dollar a white male earns, according to analysis by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.

Sadly, the gender pay gap is a global phenomenon. In the European Union women earn 17 percent less than men on average, ranging from 15 percent to 25 percent across member states, and women earned an average of 16 percent less than men throughout the 34 developed member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Internationally, only 59 percent of the economic outcomes gap—disparities in salaries, labor-force participation, and career advancement—has been closed between women and men.

Data accounting for the number of women participating in the green economy and the wages/earnings output of these women workers have yet to be released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and there are not concrete numbers available internationally. We do know, however, that traditional sectors encompassed within the green economy—including construction and manufacturing, which account for more than a third of the overall green economy—are still dominated by male workers.

Women are also underrepresented in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education programs, and even more so in the STEM professional workforce. In the European Union in 2009, the proportion of female Ph.D.s in engineering, manufacturing, and construction [this is the official category] was 25 percent, as opposed to 52 percent in humanities and arts and 64 percent in education. This trend is consistent across countries and at different level jobs. In the United States women only hold 25 percent of these high-skilled jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. These women earned 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs, but they still only earn 86 cents to a man’s dollar on average.

Women also face barriers in the agricultural sector even though they are critical for the transition to sustainable agricultural practices that can manage the world’s greenhouse gas contributions. This is particularly important in the developing world where women are the large majority of small farmers, but only between 10 percent and 20 percent of women in developing countries have land rights, and women hold fewer assets and face more difficulty attaining credit.

The green jobs fair pay challenge

Policymakers in the United States and internationally have an opportunity to steer the clean energy sector toward a more inclusive and prosperous economy for all workers. While this pursuit is critical on its own merit, there is also a strong economic case to make for equal pay and opportunity for women.

A recent study by Goldman Sachs finds that closing the gap between male and female employment would have huge economic implications for the global economy, boosting U.S. gross domestic product—the largest measure of economic growth—by as much as 9 percent, Eurozone GDP by 13 percent, and Japanese GDP by 16 percent. These findings are reinforced by the United States’ own experience, in which the McKinsey Institute found that a modest increase in women’s overall share of labor in the United States—women went from holding 37 percent of all jobs to nearly 48 percent over the past 40 years—accounted for nearly one-quarter of the United States’ current GDP.

Further, a recent World Bank study finds that managers could significantly increase productivity per worker by 25 percent to 40 percent by eliminating discrimination against female workers and managers. Research also shows that companies with more women board directors outperform companies with the smallest number by 66 percent in return on invested capital, 53 percent in return on equity, and 42 percent in return on sales. Here’s a telling summation from that report, “The Global Gender Gap Report 2011”:

A country’s competitiveness depends on its human talent—the skills, education and productivity of its workforce. Because women account for one-half of a country’s potential talent base, a nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its women … in order to maximize competitiveness and development potential, each country should strive for gender equality—that is, should give women the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men.

But as the Center for American Progress pointed out in 2010, we are missing out on nearly half of the productive potential of the female population that remains unutilized, compared to around 22 percent for men.


We must begin by assessing the gender gaps in labor and develop programs and policies, both here at home and abroad. Persistent gender gaps are a consequence of culture, gender stereotypes, policy and legal frameworks, and economic factors. As countries advance national, subnational, and local green policies, and finance flows from donor countries to help developing countries advance low-carbon growth, there is an opportunity to ensure that women are part of the solution and gain equal access to green jobs. National governments, donors, and major development banks can take measures to ensure fair labor practices and other policies to narrow gender discrepancies. Specifically:

  • Work-life policies should implement paid family leave, child care assistance, paid sick days, and health care.
  • Legislative policies should enact gender quotas and contract compliance for training, apprenticeships, and jobs.
  • Legal reform should ensure equal land and inheritance rights for women, which then must be practiced.
  • Other policy measures should include gender-responsive budgeting and better education and skills training for girls and women.

Policymakers are already working to eliminate gender gaps, and more can be done, as evidenced by several programs already enacted around the world.

Case in point: It is encouraging that the United States—along with Australia, Denmark, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom—is leading a Clean Energy Education and Empowerment initiative to encourage women to join clean energy disciplines as one of 11 initiatives of the Clean Energy Ministerial. The initiative connects women with role models and mentors, provides scholarships, internships, and other opportunities for women in clean energy studies, and academic and industry research opportunities. The goal is “to take cooperative steps toward a world where women across societies are in a position to actively contribute to the clean energy revolution to an equal degree as men.”

There is evidence from different countries that shows legislative and policy reforms have led to positive changes in women’s representation. To illustrate, Norway adopted a 40 percent quota on women in publicly listed company boards in 2003. The law came into force only in 2008, after an assessment in 2005 found that the number women did not reach more than 12 percent, and strict penalties ensued. Other countries have since adopted similar legislation, including Spain, Iceland, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy. It is still too early to assess the impact that these changes have had on the composition of top management. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study in 2009, however, found that only 1 in 10 board members of large companies in the member states was a woman. New laws are a positive step in remedying this gap.

Introducing a gender perspective and stimulating women’s participation can be directly integrated in development assistance. Gender is a cornerstone of foreign policy, in the United States and elsewhere. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced the first-ever secretarial policy guidance on promoting gender equality to achieve our national security and foreign policy objectives that brings a gendered lens to all of the State Department’s work from budgeting and policy development and programming to monitoring and evaluation. The U.S. Agency for International Development and similar agencies in other countries are streamlining gender equality within their programs, either as a priority in itself or as a cross-cutting theme.


The domestic and international movement that embodies the transition to a clean “green” economy is also a social movement. The green economy is not just growth for growth’s sake. It is growth in a smart, sustainable way—and smart and sustainable growth in a green economy means including everyone.

Getting a green job shouldn’t depend on one’s gender, race, or sexual orientation. A clean energy economy does not exclude women who cannot afford day care—it provides it. Without the social dimension, endeavors to grow a smart, environmentally sustainable economy will be incomplete. A new clean economy will remove the barriers of discrimination and will ensure equal access and quality education and training for girls, boys, women, and men. But we’re not quite there yet.

Rebecca Lefton is a Policy Analyst and Jorge Madrid is a Research Associate, both with the Energy team at the Center for American Progress. Lejla Sadiku is project manager and political adviser for the Norwegian Embassy in Kosovo and a spring 2012 USAID Hope Fellow.

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Rebecca Lefton

Senior Policy Analyst

Jorge Madrid

Research Associate & Policy Analyst