Women are key drivers of innovation and change, which is why closing the gender gap in every sphere of life is critical. As we strive towards accelerating India’s clean energy transition, participation from a diverse group of leaders and innovative thinkers, both men and women, becomes crucial.
This interview presents insights from women, who decode the energy sector from a gender lens to instill better understanding and clarity of not only the energy space but also of the field of human rights, and social, environmental, and economic development.
This interview was conducted between AEEE and Rasika Athawale (Power Sector Professional), Mohua Mukherjee (Economist and Finance Professional in Green Energy), and Disha Agarwal (Programme Lead- Renewables, Council on Energy, Environment and Water [CEEW]).
Q1. Women’s unequal participation in decision-making processes and labour markets compound inequalities and often prevent women from fully contributing to climate-related planning, policy-making and implementation. This is even more prevalent in India. How, according to you, can we address this?
Rasika: According to me, education is the key to increasing women participation in jobs at the entry-level. Beyond that, mentorship and open safe environments at the work place are critical factors for working women to progress and take on higher responsibilities. While I agree that globally women are underrepresented in decision-making, I do not think that it is more prevalent in India in the context of energy sector. In fact, significant number of women workforces can be found in state-discoms and transmission firms’ corporate and zonal offices.
Mohua: In the absence of gender-disaggregated data, the default thinking is to assume that climate impacts and energy challenges are faced equally by everyone in a community, i.e. we treat them as gender-neutral. This is totally incorrect. Furthermore, energy and climate planners are frequently unaware of women’s energy, water and transport demands, because women “operate under the radar” as unpaid labour for the household. Rural poor women and girls have to collect and carry household fuel for cooking and they separately have to collect and carry water for daily use of all household members. This is in addition to cooking in difficult conditions while facing hazardous indoor air pollution, and taking responsibility for childcare, eldercare as well as house cleaning and possibly farm work or caring for livestock—all unpaid.
As the climate heats up and droughts or floods or landslides become prevalent, vegetation dies off and the landscape changes, both fuel and water collection become more difficult and security risks increase for women and girls as they have to walk ever further from home to fulfil their tasks.
How to address this? First, a major dedicated effort is required in funding research and collecting data on women’s experiences at all stages of energy and climate related planning, policy making and implementation. This data and research findings must then be actively disseminated and publicized to raise widespread awareness of women’s different energy and climate experiences. Successful awareness raising can be claimed when the major findings regarding women’s climate vulnerability experience penetrate the consciousness of even the average voter in an urban area. Politicians must be held accountable for delivering results that protect women better from climate impacts, and must respond to their stated needs, when using taxpayer resources.
Second, no money should be allocated for any training and capacity building UNLESS women are at the forefront in terms of receiving these services, and training providers can submit credible evidence that women were trained (beyond just verifying their attendance).
Third, women must be recognized and prepared as important “energy and resilience assets” in the case of climate disaster management planning. Women will take care of the needs of all family members if and when a climate disaster strikes. It is therefore essential to train women on what to expect, to conduct drills and to explain what emergency services will kick in, prepare them for how to manage the family’s survival in a shelter, etc.
Fourth and most importantly, climate planners must design and rely on culturally sensitive all-female focus groups that treat women as important information providers in terms of the community’s needs, and PAY THEM FINANCIALLY FOR THEIR PARTICIPATION, TIME AND INSIGHTS (payment is also important so that men agree to give “permission” for women’s participation in such groups. This is in the context of the patriarchy which is the unfortunate reality in most developing countries—men decide what women can and cannot attend, etc).
Disha: Even as women, globally and in India, progress towards seeding the ideals of sustainability in various forms, they continue to face gender-based challenges. To address this situation, various public and private sectors, as well as research organisations, can commit to ensuring gender balance in policy-related discussion forums, consultative processes, and events. For example, at CEEW, we do not organise and participate in panels which do not include women. Our experience proves that this is absolutely possible. It is equally important for organisations to measure and track gender-based performance indicators to make efforts that can induce gender diversity at all levels, across core business activities. Employers must institute women-friendly policies and mentorship programmes to increase and retain women talent, particularly in leadership roles.
Q2. Women play a critical role in accelerating India’s transition to clean energy, in response to climate change, due to their local knowledge of and leadership in e.g. sustainable resource management and/or leading sustainable practices at the household and community level. How well do you think we leverage this capability in the Indian context?
Rasika: At the household level, women do show leadership in sustainable resources management. Although they lack the agency to guide and drive investment decisions, especially with regards to purchase, such as efficient appliances, rooftop solar, etc. This lack of agency stems from the fact that they are not financially independent. I am not aware of any significant actions taken by women regarding sustainable practices at the community level.
Mohua: We do not leverage this capability well at all in the Indian context. This is mainly due to the exclusion of voice and inputs from the poor in general, and specifically from large categories of socially deprived and marginalised people. These are of course the same people who are most severely affected by climate change and violent natural disasters.
Droughts and crop failure resulting from climate change pushes men to cities to seek work, leaving behind women, children and the elderly to survive on very little in increasingly inhospitable rural areas. Women and girls are prominent among the marginalised communities, particularly in rural areas with very strong social codes and societal punishment for being outspoken, particularly in conservative areas of rural North India. It is daunting for a woman to go from being socially sheltered, with no training and limited exposure, possibly non-literate, to stepping overnight into the role of female head of household, simply because the men have migrated in search of livelihood due to climate change pressures. People will exploit the woman’s lack of knowledge and experience (e.g on how to access money from a bank), and the resultant suffering (from such possible theft of her resources by unscrupulous persons) will be felt by all the household members that she is suddenly responsible for e.g when there is not enough money for food or school fees etc.
Climate related rural-urban migration, and the coping strategies and needs of those left behind in increasingly inhospitable rural areas, is an important yet little-studied topic in India. Female-headed rural households should be a separate research focus area.
On the positive side, women farmers have a great deal of local knowledge in terms of which crops nourish the soil and which are good to be planted together to increase yields, etc. Yet in India, we are missing the opportunity to leverage and disseminate this local knowledge through female communication networks via e.g “voicemails” in local languages that may be accessed by someone with even a feature phone and limited ability to read and write.
More creativity, attention and funding are required, to build resilience networks of women who are having to take on more responsibility in rural areas due to climate pressures. Women should be able to post sustainability tips and any other knowledge they wish to share on their phones, and access each other’s posts, as easily as we can post a restaurant or movie review. Local knowledge and a farming tip for example, may not be addressed to anyone in particular, but it can be out there and accessible to all, in voicemail form in the local language and dialect. That is what a women’s resilience network should resemble. The technology to do so already exists. It just requires coordination to put it together.
Disha: Bringing sustainability from the margins to the mainstream can only happen when women, along with men, engage and drive change. Some flagship programmes of the Government of India such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) targets at increasing the penetration of clean cooking fuels across the country to empower women and avoid health hazards due to indoor air pollution. However, to provide sustained access to modern, clean affordable, and reliable energy services, targeted subsidies will be the key. I would like to focus on the ecosystem for women entrepreneurs and women-led enterprises in India’s farm and non-farm sectors. 20% of micro-enterprises in the country are women-owned (MoMSME 2020). If these enterprises have increased access to clean energy, they can improve productivity and reduce drudgery. India has aggressive targets to increase the share of decentralised renewable energy (DRE) in the energy mix. However, linking these targets with livelihoods must be made a priority through government schemes, financing innovations and capacity building efforts. DRE-based innovations such as sewing machines, milk-chillers, milking machines, motorised pottery wheels, charkha and weaving machines, and solar pesticide sprayers have already demonstrated the potential to improve livelihoods, particularly for women. Case studies of women-led enterprises show that if key enablers like collective action, infrastructure, access to credit, and market linkages are available, returns can be higher. We must adopt alternate ways to assess credit worthiness of women business owners, and increase investments in women-led enterprises. There is much scope to conduct gender-sensitive surveys and census exercises at national and sub-national level for informed policy- and decision-making.
Q3. Women’s inclusion at the leadership level has led to improved outcomes of energy and climate related projects and policies. Yet, they are underrepresented in the sector. What do you think are the reasons for this and how can this be resolved?
Rasika: First and foremost majority of women drop out of the working force by the time they reach seniority level in terms of knowledge and experience. This is for several reasons, primarily they being the caretaker of household. Apart from that, those who stay, are often not given enough space to grow, take decisions and assigned larger responsibilities. For instance, women at the utility offices are excellent managers but are usually given operational responsibilities rather than project ideation and conceptualisation roles. Because of which they are not able to learn and nurture leadership skills, and may become disinterested with any professional growth at the workplace.
Mohua: Today, there is very little accountability in climate projects, (even those funded by external donors), to go beyond a box-ticking exercise and actually include the “appropriately researched” perspectives of women in the targeted areas where a given project will be funding climate resilience activities.
The renowned Swedish development expert Gerd Johnsson-Latham has said “those who have the privilege of defining the agenda, also have the privilege of deciding what to exclude”. There are two principal reasons for the underrepresentation of women in leadership ranks of the climate, energy and transport sectors. First, the policymaking community is overwhelmingly male in these sectors, and secondly, they are largely only attuned to the challenges faced by people similar to themselves: male, middle aged, employed and market-oriented.
Market orientation raises visibility of fee-paying activities, such as “energy as a service” and “transport as a service”. Services provided and services demanded at the household level do not readily register with a cohort of male policymakers and budget allocators. This problem-definition stage is where female needs go unnoticed.
Worse still, women may register on male policymakers’ radar only as “victims” at times of natural disasters, etc., and then they are even less likely to be consulted for their ability to provide valuable inputs for non-victim situations—this perspective, in fact, reinforces the lack of women’s voices at the project design and decision-making tables.
How can this be resolved? The lack of accountability and scrutiny that (mostly male) policymakers currently enjoy must become a thing of the past.
Our tools and metrics for impact assessment and our pronouncements on the “effectiveness of climate policies” must radically change. We need to design scorecards with quantitative and qualitative indicators that will deliberately measure the impact of project expenditures on women and girls.
The financial compensation of (mostly male) professional project designers and managers must be tied to their professional performance as measured by the scorecards. Of course, the scorecards must be prepared and completed unannounced, and by independent third parties, so that they are completely objective and trustworthy.
Market-based climate solutions such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) or cap and trade, or carbon credits, or Perform, Achieve, Trade (PAT) are inherently predisposed towards large, formal sector projects with good support structures. They are not well-suited to the livelihood initiatives in the MSME and informal sector, where most rural poor women and girls are concentrated.
Market solutions rarely focus on social justice, improved access to opportunity, targeted efforts for training and capacity building of marginalized groups, etc. Market based solutions have a useful role to play, but they must be complemented by activities which seek out the creation of climate benefits and improving access to energy/water/transport for women and girls based on their articulated needs (not the needs as presumed by mostly male and urban-based policymakers).
Disha: In the Indian context, there can be several reasons such as cultural biases and competing priorities that typically need to be shouldered by women, that contribute to low representation or retention of women in the workforces. Even in organisations that are equal opportunity employers, we find that most women staff belong to the entry and mid-level positions. To change the status quo, all energy related institutions and employers can start by recognising the differential needs of women and men in taking up the leadership roles, and budget resources to provide appropriately designed training and skilling opportunities. Creating safe working environments, internal support groups and networking opportunities can go a long way in making women comfortable and equipped to deal with biases faced in day-to-day interactions with stakeholders. Most importantly, governments, public and private sector oganisations, NGOs, and think tanks must collect and publish gender-disaggregated data, publish successful case studies, highlight journeys of women leaders, increase the visibility of women colleagues, and provide due recognition for their contributions.
Q4. What according to you makes it challenging for women to carve a clear career path in the energy sector in India? Do you think lack of understanding or clarity about what the clean energy sector looks like contribute to this?
Rasika: I think it is not lack of understanding in terms of knowledge of the clean energy sector, but lack of understanding about how to grow professionally in an organisation. This is in fact irrespective of any sector/industry. With limited number of women mentors, workplaces that seldom encourage open thinking and fast decision-making, and few opportunities to showcase their work, women may feel left behind their male peers.
Mohua: The ratio of women enrolled in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in India is far smaller than men. A recent UNIDO report quotes the following global statistics (compiled by UN Women and the ILO in 2007):
“Globally, women occupy around 19 per cent of all ministerial posts, but only 7 per cent of these are in environment, natural resources and energy, and a mere 3 per cent are in science and technology. In developed countries, the share of female employees in the energy industry is estimated at only 20 percent, most working in non-technical fields such as administration and public relations, and worldwide, women account for only 9 per cent of the construction workforce and make up only 12 per cent of engineers.
Careers in the formal, white collar clean energy sector, require upstream professional training and degrees, where women are underrepresented for a variety of reasons. This failure to invest in personal choices regarding the formal qualifications at the right career stage probably explains some of the reason for the near-absence of women in the energy R&D sector, as well as the (private sector, for profit) clean energy generation and transmission sector.
Timely mentoring and coaching during primary and secondary school can alleviate this information gap and widen the range of career choices in the energy sector for women (beyond administrative and PR roles which they predominantly occupy at present in the energy sector).
Additionally, it will also be important to introduce renewable energy and climate change impacts into the school curriculum for children aged 10-18, as part of the clean energy transition. Growing up with better awareness of the clean energy sector will also demystify the prospects of seeking an energy career for young girls and women.
Disha: I believe that there is much more awareness of adverse impacts of climate change among the youth of today. Our country is among the few that are exceeding their commitment to fight the climate crises. And, in order to be part of the solution, women and men are increasingly pursuing careers in science, technology, public policy, data science and analytics, governance, law, politics, and communications. India is home to more than 600 think tanks, some of the world’s leading renewable energy companies and unicorn start-ups. The growth and the impact-making contributions of such think tanks and private sector companies have expanded the prospects for those who want to inform the national and global economic and energy transition. Graduates across diverse streams can look for short-term courses and internships to gain clarity and direction. There are women-centric networks and mentorship platforms that one can take advantage of while interning in sustainability-focused organisations or pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Q5. Mention some ways in which we can introduce and enhance employment equity policies to address the gender gap in clean energy employment.
Rasika: First and foremost, I believe that employment policies should be ‘quota-free’. An organisation will not benefit from having a certain arbitrary percentage of women on pay roll, but rather a competent and driven workforce (irrespective of gender) working spiritedly. To attract and retain good talent (and again irrespective of gender), an organisation should provide growth and learning opportunities, open and honest dialogue between team members, and safe work places.
Mohua: similar thoughts as expressed in Question 4.
Disha: Employers in the clean energy space can strive to ensure cultural, age and gender diversity in their workforces with strict policies that prevent discrimination of any kind. This can inculcate healthy practices of respecting each other’s differences, skills and qualities. Providing equal opportunities to women and men to showcase their talent, take up important research, implementation and outreach activities, gender-responsive internal budgeting and consciously monitoring progress and barriers towards achieving gender-based targets are some ways to introduce employment equity programmes.
Q6. Increasing diversity in workforce, including women’s participation in the energy sector, can yield better business results and increase business productivity and innovation. Do you agree?
Rasika: No. As I said earlier, it is talent that matters rather than gender/age/caste/religion/nationality!! Organisations that value talent are the ones that drive innovation, increase productivity, and deliver results.
Mohua: Yes, women bring different perspectives to the currently male-dominated energy (and transport) sector. Empirical research has shown that men prefer a technology-led approach to both energy and climate change initiatives, whereas women tend to approach it from a risk-reduction and lifestyle change approach.
Any climate resilience plan is enriched by having multiple dimensions and perspectives, compared to a plan which just considers a limited number of risks and is signed off by a group of people (mostly men) who all tend to think along similar lines. In the latter case, there are bound to be a number of risks that the group may simply have overlooked, since they would have all echoed each other’s’ thoughts due to their similar backgrounds, life experiences, professional training and social circles.
Therefore, emphasizing the perspectives of women of different income groups and backgrounds, and actively soliciting their inputs and advice on a particular business venture, will strengthen a planning exercise.
Women’s inputs can contribute to an improved understanding about a particular target market, hidden business opportunities which solve problems people did not know they had, or conceptualizing time-saving technologies to reduce women’s day to day drudgery and repetitive tasks. All of these inputs will help to improve business results.
Disha: Yes, I completely agree. Previous research has shown that women-owned enterprises have a broader vision and focus on gender inclusion. They are also more likely to create a ripple effect by working with women through the value chain. According to CEEW research, most women entrepreneurs in the clean energy sector are first-timers, and find it difficult to access government policies and raise finance. This research also finds that for enterprises engaged in clean energy product design and sales, employing women in technical roles could help improve the understanding of the end users’ needs and ensure gender-inclusive designs. Incubation and training programmes for women can create awareness around their rights and enable them to overcome constraints within their families, communities and the business value chains. Such initiatives and partnerships could also help women identify enabling laws, policies, and supporting institutions to sustain and scale their businesses.
This interview is compiled by Radhika Israni.
Radhika Israni is a Communications Officer in the Communications and Marketing vertical at AEEE. Her expertise lies in digital campaigns, social media, and weaving content into meaningful and interesting narratives.
This interview was facilitated and compiled by Radhika Israni from Alliance for an Energy Efficiency.