As the solar industry grows, women still make up just 18.7% of the workforce. How do we change that, and why is it important that we do? A panel at Intersolar and a number of recent articles shed light on these questions.

There’s nothing like coming to the solar industry from publishing and high tech to highlight the issue of women in the workplace. I didn’t think about this much when most of my colleagues were women, and only now and then when about half of them were. But somehow, being part of the mere 18.7% of U.S. solar workers who are women makes you think about it a bit more.

I’m not alone. The subject has been on a lot of people’s minds lately, not least at Intersolar North America last week. A few sessions there were devoted to the issue, and a number of recent articles have tackled it. And it’s not all talk: more people and organizations are trying to take concrete actions to get more women into solar.

The issue

Why is it important to bring more women into the solar industry? It’s not complicated:

  • Companies with greater diversity, and with women in leadership roles, have been shown to outperform those that lack diversity. With the solar industry growing at a fast clip, we need to cast a wide net to include not only more women but the best employees for all the new positions that need to be filled.

  • Women are major solar consumers. A recent survey conducted by Identity3 found that 90% of women make or participate in the decision to go solar in their home, and they tend to be the ones to initiate the discussion about solar and do the research. To further increase residential solar adoption, solar companies need to understand that segment of their customer base.

A recent article by CEOs Erica Mackie of GRID Alternatives and Ahmad Chatila of SunEdison goes into greater detail to make the case for why we need more women in solar.

Barriers

So what’s stopping more women from going into solar? With its roots in construction, solar has come out of a male-dominated profession -- one with even fewer women, at only 12%. Now that the industry is expanding and can support all kinds of positions, more women are coming into it.

But it can still be hard to overcome the initial hurdles:

  • Booth babes at trade shows don’t exactly make women feel welcome, and those who want to go into installation or other technical areas may find they have to constantly prove themselves to their male colleagues. That’s true for Koralie Hill, PV General Superintendent at Sun Light and Power and a panelist at a Women in Solar discussion at Intersolar. She said she feels she must re-prove herself every time she goes into a new room.

  • Women face structural biases beyond the cultural ones. Having children, said panelist Rohini Raghunathan, Head of Corporate Development at SunEdison, can set a woman back years in her career progression. And although women are graduating from universities at a higher rate than men, they are still underrepresented in the more technical fields.

  • A recurring theme in both this discussion and elsewhere is the internal barriers that women face. As Helen Burt, Senior VP and Chief Customer Officer at PG&E, pointed out, “The most limiting thing about women is what we think. Most of us don’t think we can do it or that we’re ready.” A telling statistic is that women tend to apply for jobs only if they meet 100% of the criteria, whereas men are inclined to lobby for positions that they’re only 50 – 60% qualified for. Men, noted Hill, are more likely to learn to fake it.

Solutions

What to do? There’s no quick or easy solution, but already a number of initiatives are in the works to help women in solar. Plus, women can do a lot to help ourselves and one another -- which will help the industry as a whole. 

  • Women tend to be networkers, and that’s a powerful tool. It’s okay to reach out and ask questions over LinkedIn, suggested Hill. And there’s no lack of organizations like Women in Cleantech and Sustainability, Women in Solar Energy (which SEIA just joined as a founding member), and Women4Solar to facilitate networking and mutual support.

  • Hill urged the women at the Intersolar discussion, “Get in touch with your inner faker.” The secret, according to Burt, is to be open to opportunities. “Never been shy at the table,” she said -- and ensure that whoever invited you there, for whatever reason, ends up being glad they invited you.

  • The Women in Solar Initiative started by GRID Alternatives and SunEdison is putting teeth into the effort by providing hands-on training, fellowships, and real-world experience in solar installation to over 1000 women across the country. GRID has also been hosting solar installation events and other networking opportunities for women, including a webinar series and the Intersolar panel -- and the organization even holds women-only trainings and installations so that women can feel free to ask questions and learn without judgment.

  • Solar companies can create work environments that are appealing to women, which may mean flexible work hours, diversity training, and mentorship programs.

The good news is that progress is being made. We may have a ways to go, but with the momentum of all these efforts, it will be easier to get to where we need to be.

And is it just me, or were there far fewer booth babes at this year’s Intersolar?

Originally published on PV Solar Report