Women’s Role in the Clean Energy Economy

Women Will Be Critical Workers and Innovators of the Future

The United States will need women to be active participants in the clean energy economy as workers and innovators, writes Jorge Madrid.

A scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory displays materials and batteries that the reserachers have been developing for stationary energy storage applications. (Flickr/PNNL)
A scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory displays materials and batteries that the reserachers have been developing for stationary energy storage applications. (Flickr/PNNL)

See also: Women’s Role in a Warming World

Women across the nation are preparing to play an integral role in the green economy, and the United States will need their help if we’re going to pull ourselves out of the recession and compete in the new economy on a global scale.

It’s true that men have been hit the hardest in the recession as far an unemployment numbers go, but we will need to seize the opportunity to diversify the future workforce in a way that will incorporate all workers in all areas of the clean energy economy—including those where women have been traditionally underrepresented.

Women in Burlington, Vermont are training for careers in the fields of green construction, renewable energy, and energy efficiency as part of the Vermont Works for Women project. Women Going Green in Atlanta, Georgia is educating women in management and entrepreneurial opportunities in the clean energy economy. And young women in Los Angeles, California are receiving science, technology, engineering, and math education through the Infrastructure Academy, which will prepare them for high-paying, high-demand careers developing the next generation of clean energy technology.

The numbers don’t lie—women compose nearly half of the total workforce in the United States and are projected to account for half of the total labor force growth between 2006 and 2016. Women have higher levels of college enrollment, attain college degrees at an equal rate that men, and surpass men in total graduate and undergraduate degrees by roughly 1.2 million.

The United States needs women to engage and succeed in the clean energy economy—and women must be able to connect with education and training programs to access robust career paths and equal economic opportunities. Highlighted are three diverse sectors in particular where women can play a significant role: green collar jobs, engineering, and entrepreneurship.

Green collar jobs

Opportunities to obtain green collar jobs—family-supporting, career track jobs in green industries—abound in the clean energy economy. Yet women face significant barriers to accessing necessary education and training programs.

Traditional jobs in the construction, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors are being revamped and reinvigorated to include elements of clean energy production, alternative fuels, sustainable agriculture and bio-energy, clean technology manufacturing, and much more. Demand will increase for skilled workers in these industries as federal mandate and consumer demand increase for more energy efficient homes, renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, and fuel efficient vehicle.

One significant challenge for women in these industries is that they are still largely considered “nontraditional” for women workers, with women comprising less than 3 percent of total workers in some sectors. The Vermont Works for Women Project is but one example of successful community partnerships that are training more women in these skilled trades. Federal policy can also help ensure that all potential green collar workers, including low-income women, have an equitable opportunity to attain skills training and employment in the clean energy economy.

Science and engineering

The clean energy economy is a high-tech economy, relying on the expansion of cutting edge technology and continued scientific advancement. We will need a ready corps of highly trained, highly skilled scientists and engineers that can perform the research and development needed for innovation if we are to sustain the new high-tech economy in a globally competitive market. Women can and should be included in this facet of the clean energy economy as well as the more labor-intensive, green-collar jobs.

Yet women make up a relatively small share of the relevant science, technology, engineering, and math programs, or STEM programs, in colleges and are an even smaller share of the professional workforce. The National Science Foundation reports that in 2006 women earned 41 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences and roughly 20 percent of the degrees in physics and engineering. The numbers start small and shrink as women’s careers develop. Women earned only 35 percent of the Ph.D.s in the earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences, and only 17 percent of those in physics. Engineering has a much different narrative. Women earned 20 percent of the engineering Ph.D.s in 2006—the same percentage as those receiving bachelor’s degrees—but the numbers drop significantly in the workforce. Women made up only 10 percent of the engineering workforce in 2008 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The imperative to train future women engineers and scientists is also a crucial matter of global competiveness. Technology and innovation will drive the new high-tech clean energy economy, and competition will be on a global scale. Rising nations such as China and India are making substantial investment in research and capacity building related to the clean energy economy, and they will challenge the United States’ economic and technological advantage in this sector.

Clean energy entrepreneurship

Women‐owned businesses grew at twice the national average for all other business types between 1997 and 2008. An estimated 10.1 million companies, or 40 percent of all privately owned firms, were owned by women as of 2008. Women-owned businesses also have an annual economic impact of $3 trillion in terms of sales revenue, income generation, and job creation, and create or maintain more than 23 million jobs, or 16 percent of all U.S. employment.

This surge in women-owned businesses is developing parallel to the emergence of new market sectors experiencing high demand within the clean energy economy. Increased demand for eco-friendly products and services, along with unprecedented federal investment in clean energy infrastructure, has stimulated a robust market for new business and entrepreneurial activities in areas ranging from renewable energy and energy efficiency services, eco-friendly clothing and household products, waste management and recycling, to carbon offsets and trading and sustainable agriculture, produce, and forestry.

There is potential for robust demand within the clean energy economy, but starting a business can still be a challenging task for any would-be entrepreneurs in the current economic climate, and has shown to be an even greater challenge for women. Access to startup capital and financing is one of the biggest challenges facing women entrepreneurs, along with access to business networks, supply chains, and technical expertise. Women Going Green is one example of a successful community-based organization helping link women to these resources—others include small and minority business associations, women’s chambers of commerce, and numerous local, national, and international women’s organizations.

Women-owned businesses and firms also need access to federal contracting opportunities. A 2006 survey found that, only 3.4 percent of federal contracts are held by women-owned firms. But women-owned firms must have an opportunity to bid competitively with a robust market of clean energy and energy efficiency contract opportunities becoming available from federal investments such as the $36.7 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Addressing these barriers will be a key feature in fully realizing the positive potential of women-owned businesses.


If the United States hopes to pull itself out of the recession and compete in the global clean technology market, it must activate scores of women green-collar workers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and engineers. These careers will experience a high volume of demand in the clean energy economy, and it should be a national priority to ensure equitable access to jobs and career training and education.

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Jorge Madrid

Research Associate & Policy Analyst