In the race to net zero, green jobs struggle with the gender gap
The energy transition has become a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ in the UK, which is making huge investments to achieve a low-carbon economy. One of the many benefits of this transition will be the creation of thousands of jobs in sectors ranging from forestry to finance. PwC has estimated that the energy sector alone will require 250,000 more employees.
New roles are popping up almost overnight: soon it might be common to know a wind turbine technician, heat pump installer, electric vehicle mechanic or solar power engineer. While that promises an almost unprecedented boost for employment, there is a danger that these new jobs will not be equally distributed.
Much of the growth is expected in STEM jobs and the manual trades, areas in which women and other disadvantaged groups have historically been underrepresented. Just 16.5% of British engineers are women, a lower ratio than in any EU country. Women make up 2% of the construction workforce, 27% in manufacturing and 26% in energy, according to the ONS.
Those trends look set to continue even in the green jobs of the future. Today, men hold 82% of jobs in the UK’s offshore wind industry and 83% of those in climate finance. Viessmann reports that only 3.8% of the people the company has trained on heat pumps in 2022 are female, while LinkedIn data shows two-thirds of people transitioning into green jobs are men.
As a result, Boston Consulting Group projects that women will hold just a quarter of global green jobs by 2030, potentially delaying progress towards gender equality by 10 to 15 years.
Why the green gender gap matters
That matters when STEM and technical roles pay more. Nesta found the pay gap for women in green jobs (20.9%) is more than double that for women in ‘brown’ ones (9.9%) because they are more often in supporting or administrative roles.
“Women are over-represented in jobs and sectors that traditionally have paid less and don’t have those opportunities for pay progression,” says Emily Jones, deputy director of the Learning and Work Institute (L&WI). “This is absolutely an opportunity to address the gender pay gap.”
That lack of female talent could even hold back our progress to net zero. It has long been recognised that diversity of perspective is essential for innovation, which the energy transition will certainly need.
Dr Jenny Lieu is an assistant professor with research interests in climate and gender at TU Delft. “Women have a different approach – it’s not better or worse than men,” she says. “The way that women are socialised, we are taught to accommodate, to facilitate in a more equal way, to have a lot more dialogue… therefore, we have different solutions.”
This need for new perspectives is not limited to gender, she adds: race, class and disability all play a role too. “When including the whole community as part of a system, you get a very different output than when only one part of society is included.”
Male-dominated working cultures
Why are we seeing fewer women enter these jobs and rise through the ranks? One factor is the male-dominated cultures of sectors such as energy and construction.
There were rarely other women in the room when engineer Aoife Duignan first started working in the energy sector. “Going offshore can be a very intimidating prospect for women,” she says, noting that workers often live on-site for weeks or months at a time.
On the oil and gas vessels where she started her career, she often found herself in the “nerve-racking” position of sharing cabins and bathrooms with her male co-workers. “I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I was different to everyone else, or to be seen to be causing a fuss… It’s very hard to compete in a room full of men.”
Now managing offshore cable installations for Danish wind power giant Ørsted, Duignan thinks the renewables sector is making big strides in improving representation and working conditions. Ørsted says 31% of places on its UK wind turbine apprenticeship programme have gone to women since 2017, while 24% of its leadership are female, according to the Equal by 30 campaign, a push to close the gender gap in the clean energy sector.
However, a recent study by POWERful Women found that women in the energy sector are generally unlikely to recommend their company as a workplace to female friends and become less likely the more senior they are. The research also pointed to a “diversity and inclusion delivery gap”. While the majority of companies have inclusive policies such as flexible working and enhanced parental leave, uptake is low, with respondents describing them as “tick-box exercises”.
This can impact retention. Rhian Sherrington, the founder of networking group Women in Sustainability, has seen many women across the sector “get to a certain point and leave” – moving sideways between roles rather than up after they hit a glass ceiling. “We’ve got to stop seeing the problem of a lack of gender parity in climate leadership as being about fixing women,” she argues. “It’s not just about who’s sitting at the table, it’s about who’s being listened to.”
Creating a green talent pipeline
Many companies now have gender-based targets in place, but may struggle to attract qualified applicants. That has roots that begin long before the workplace. Women are underrepresented in many university courses related to engineering and science, while trade apprentices are overwhelmingly male.
“It starts with societal expectation,” says Zoë Arden, a fellow at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. “There’s a lack of information and expectation for women considering technology careers. They aren’t given enough information for what work in the sector involves in the first place.”
Research backs this up. L&WI recently co-authored a report on how young people perceive and acquire green skills. “We found that young women were more likely than young men to say they were really interested in a green career but were more likely to say they didn’t know what green skills were,” says Jones, perhaps because they are less likely to take technical subjects at GCSE and A-Level. L&WI recommends businesses work with educators to build knowledge of the green skills and jobs they need into curriculums.
Alan Goundry, head of engineering and The Energy Academy at Newcastle College, adds that employers should find ways to expose young people to sustainable career paths and role models as early as possible. This could include arranging for female engineers to give talks in schools or setting up dedicated internship or apprenticeship programs. “If we get young women into the workplace and see what actually goes on, it would be an easier sell,” he says.
Businesses should also promote how they are supporting the energy transition. The vital role of technology and engineering skills in green sectors and jobs could itself be a way to encourage more women to enter STEM. “Women often have a real sense of purpose about transforming their communities and where they live. If we bring that energy to bear on green jobs and the engineering sector, it really is a fantastic opportunity,” says Arden.