Article

Uplifting Women in the Clean Energy Economy

Increasing women’s participation in the clean energy economy will further America’s progress on climate action and improve women's economic security.

A 300-foot crane lifts a rotor onto a tower on the Lone Star Wind Farm north of Abilene, Texas, on June 8, 2017. (Getty/Robert Nickelsberg)

Since taking office, the Biden administration has outlined clear and ambitious climate goals: reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and 50 percent emissions reductions by 2030; decarbonize buildings; prioritize environmental justice; and recommit the United States to global climate diplomacy. Real momentum exists for job growth in the transition to a clean energy economy, from the administration’s climate investment agenda and the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure law (BIL), to ambitious state climate action. But this transition will only succeed with a concerted effort to ensure women’s equal representation in these jobs.

The clean energy economy needs women’s engagement across all sectors to sustain itself and grow amid the compounding factors of a good jobs shortage and an aging workforce.

Climate change exacerbates the social, economic, and cultural factors that place a disproportionate physical and economic burden on women, especially women of color, as well as people of color more broadly and low-income communities. To fully address these impacts, diverse representation in climate leadership is essential. In this transition, all sectors must upend old ways of thinking about the workforce and seek new ways to diversify their employees and leaders. At this moment of historic federal investments, the clean energy economy needs women’s engagement across all sectors to sustain itself and grow amid the compounding factors of a good jobs shortage and an aging workforce.

The underrepresentation of women in the clean energy sector

Female participation in the energy sector is significantly lower than that of the broader economy. From founders and C-suite positions to entrepreneurs and skilled labor, women comprise only 25 percent of workers in the energy sector and 32 percent of the renewable energy workforce, despite representing 46.8 percent of the U.S. workforce overall. Women also hold only 25 seats on the boards of the world’s 200 largest utilities, representing 16 percent of board members. Similarly, in the technology sector, a 2020 report from the Global Accelerator Learning Initiative found that 63 percent of energy sector startups surveyed were led by all-male teams. While women’s leadership representation in clean energy has grown, gender parity remains elusive. Intersectional* discrimination further inhibits women of color from participating at even the same marginal rates as white women.

Women’s participation in the energy sector is less than that of the broader economy

25%

Share of workers in the energy sector who are women

32%

Share of workers in the renewable energy sector who are women

46.8%

Share of workers in the overall U.S. workforce who are women

Why women’s equal participation in the energy sector matters

These statistics run counter to research that shows that female representation in companies and on boards of directors is associated with improved company performance. Countries with strong women’s political participation are also more likely to take ambitious climate action. Research from the European Journal of Political Economy analyzed data from a large sample of countries and found that female representation in legislative bodies led to stronger policies to address climate change. Furthermore, countries where women have greater social and political status tend to generate less greenhouse gas emissions and have smaller climate footprints. A more diverse workforce and leadership can also foster more innovation and creative solutions to meet the moment on climate.

Full participation of women in the clean energy sector is critical. The BIL’s $550 billion in new federal funding is one of the biggest opportunities to date for creating ­clean energy jobs for the generation entering the workforce. This funding includes $62 billion for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which recently announced the Clean Energy Corps to help deploy the funds and will create 1,000 jobs. Women’s equal participation will be necessary and is a top priority for U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.

How boosting women’s participation in the energy sector can support women’s economic security

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, women’s economic security was hobbled by the pervasive wage gap and the lack of a comprehensive care infrastructure, including national paid family and medical leave as well as affordable, high-quality child and elder care. The pandemic has only worsened this state of affairs, with women of color and those without postsecondary education most affected. Indeed, nearly half of American women feel that the pandemic has negatively altered their career path, and millions of parents have made career sacrifices to provide child care. Furthermore, a majority of women reentering the workforce are interested in jobs in STEM but feel unsupported in pursuing these opportunities.

Providing increased opportunity for career growth for women already in the energy field, as well as creating new pathways into clean energy jobs for those interested, is an essential part of growing not only the clean energy sector but also women’s economic security. However, career growth for women cannot occur without publicly supported child and elder care: An expanded child tax credit and national paid family and medical leave can offer parents of all genders the flexibility to determine their role in the workforce.

Avenues to grow female leaders in clean energy and climate jobs

If the United States is to lead the clean energy transition, the energy sector must ensure greater female representation in decent jobs that pay prevailing wages. This section outlines several recommendations across sectors and government to increase female participation in the green economy and diversify the clean energy workforce.

Recruit more women for training programs

Government funding for workforce development, such as the funding for training and apprenticeship programs in the BIL, can grow training programs nationally for utilities, renewable energy developers, and electric vehicle (EV) charging installers, among others, with a focus on increasing female representation. Apprenticeship programs help develop a skilled workforce, but women only make up 12.5 percent of active apprenticeship programs in the United States. To be effective, employers and organized labor must increase recruitment of women for the apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship, and training programs supported by new BIL funding and other BIL-related programs, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ EV charging infrastructure installation training. The federal government can also increase participation from historically underrepresented groups—including women, women of color, and LGBTQ+ women—when implementing the BIL by encouraging labor-management partnerships for apprenticeship programs and evaluating applicants for discretionary grants based on their ability to increase equity and improve job quality on publicly funded jobs. Building upon examples from the construction industry, the clean energy sector can use BIL funds to increase apprenticeship programs, facilitate training programs, and utilize prevailing wage protections that ensure female workers can earn decent wages and benefits. As discussed in the text box below, these efforts should be part of a comprehensive strategy to both increase the pipeline of women entering the clean energy sector and ensure industry employers are recruiting and retaining women and workers from other historically marginalized communities.

Government and industry should foster more mentorship, internship, and professional development opportunities for women

Such programs can support women at all stages of their career and uplift their participation in the clean energy sector. The DOE co-sponsors the U.S. Clean Energy and Empowerment Initiative (C3E), which is a national program aimed at closing the gender wage gap. Boosting the DOE’s financial support so that it can grow C3E’s existing mentorship programs in addition to the leadership awards the program sponsors can meaningfully help to foster women energy leaders and champions. Male and female champions who “lift as they rise” are critical to developing a new generation of women leaders in the clean energy sector.

Fellowship and internship opportunities for women at both the early- and midcareer stages are also critical to fostering community, building networks, and uplifting talent. Programs such as the Clean Energy Leadership Institute specifically encourage women to apply to their fellowship for early-career professionals with policy, business, and technical backgrounds who seek to begin and maintain a career in clean energy. With a more specific gender focus, the Atlantic Council offers a Women Leaders in Energy and Climate Fellowship targeted at midcareer women in climate and clean energy. Adding scholarships and fellowships to the C3E program, in partnership with DOE, could help grow the talent pool.

The White House Gender Policy Council should commission a report on women in the energy sector

The council should support tracking ongoing data on women and girls in clean energy and make recommendations for increasing participation. It would also be valuable for the council to study the impact of climate change on women in the United States. In the lead up to these studies, the Biden administration could further demonstrate its commitment to uplifting women in the clean energy sector by directly engaging with climate leaders, entrepreneurs, renewable energy workers, and communities most affected by climate change.

Climate policy leaders must facilitate a paradigm shift in the definition of a green job

Green jobs can and should support the well-being of both people and the planet. They must also pay family supporting wages, and policymakers and climate leaders­ should consider those jobs that support green economy workers such as caregivers in the definition of green jobs. The impacts of climate change and the solutions to the climate crisis permeate all aspects of the economy, cutting across geographies, industries, and sectors. Climate impacts have a disproportionately negative effect on the health and well-being of vulnerable populations, including children and the elderly. And climate-related health consequences and housing instability from climate disasters increase the daily demands on women, who are more likely than their male counterparts to provide caregiving to older and younger generations. Therefore, the country must expand its thinking about the green economy to include the care economy.

An integrated supply and demand strategy 

While this article focuses on important efforts to increase the number of women pursuing jobs in the green economy, policymakers must also work to increase employer demand for women to work in these sectors. The Biden administration has signaled support for ensuring equitable access to infrastructure jobs and the green economy, including through the launch of the Good Jobs Initiative at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the DOL to advance equity in BIL spending, and releases of notices of funding opportunity for multimodal project discretionary grants and surface transportation grants from the DOT that prioritize state and local applicants with equitable approaches to hiring and retention. Additional levers to ensure taxpayer dollars are leveraged to create increased demand for underrepresented workers include:

  • Enforce participation goals for women and racial minorities in federally funded construction projects through the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs at the DOL.
  • On the state and local level, implement local and economic hire ordinances, apprenticeship utilization goals, and community workforce agreements to ensure a greater number of workers reflect the demographic makeup of the local population—and that a greater number of apprentices, who aremore diverse than the overall workforce, have access to infrastructure jobs.
  • Monitor progress through regular data submission and convene recruitment, education, business, labor, and government partners to problem-solve when employers are not meeting goals.
  • Implement and enforce anti-harassment training and policies, and partner with trusted worker and community organizations to ensure that workers know their rights and feel comfortable coming forward to report violations.
  • Incentivize hiring from workforce development programs, apprenticeship programs, and thepublic workforce development system to ensure that individuals graduating from publicly funded training and recruitment programs are directly connected to the green economy’s job market.
Also from CAP on supply- and demand-side measures in building trades:

Conclusion

The transition to a zero-emission economy is arguably the most important social, economic, and political transformation of this generation. The underrepresentation of women, who will play a substantial role and bear the consequences if this effort fails, in the clean energy sector is unjust and deprives the transition of the diverse talent, abilities, and wisdom of the women it excludes—especially women of color.

The scope and scale of the climate crisis demands that women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, from electricians to CEOs, are equally represented in the clean energy economy. If policymakers and climate advocates are serious about equitably addressing the climate crisis, they must make gender equity a top priority for the energy transition.

The authors would like to give special thanks to Karla Walter.

* The term “intersectionality” comes from the 1989 work, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” by Kimberlé Crenshaw. It originally referred specifically to the exclusion of Black women from feminist theory and anti-racist policy discourse, as well as the failure of each to accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender. Crenshaw wrote, “Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular matter in which Black women are subordinated.” Over time, the term has been used to more broadly refer to people who are subject to multiple forms of oppression in society and/or to describe a broad variety of fields and their interrelatedness—from politics to economics, from education to employment.

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Authors

Aimee Barnes

Meredith Alexander

Maggie Jo Buchanan

Senior Director, Women's Initiative

Osub Ahmed

Associate Director, Women's Health and Rights

Marina Zhavoronkova

Senior Fellow

Elisia Hoffman

Chris Chyung

Campaign Manager, State House to White House Initiative

Hannah Argento-McCurdy

Diana Madson

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