Closing the green gender gap

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June 17, 2013

If you've ever been on or visited the women's build at a GRID Alternatives Solarthon, you probably know that that's where all the fun is. Every time, when the pictures come back they are full of big smiles, GRID tattoos, flexed muscles and goofy group shots in front of our Rosie the Riveter banner. But for all the fun, we actually take our women's builds really seriously. They create a comfortable space for women who are new to solar, rooftops, power tools, etc., to learn alongside other women, and a space for more seasoned female installers and job trainees to network with each other in what is a predominately male field. They inspire female homeowners to get up on the roof and try it out, and they help get women excited about working in the industry.

A recent study on women in the "green" economy found that although green jobs pay better, the gender gap in the green economy is much higher than in the economy at large, with women holding only about a third of those jobs compared to nearly half of jobs overall.

In solar, as in many other green industries, this is true at both ends of the employment ladder, from entry-level installation jobs to top leadership posts. "Let's just put it this way," said Christine Bennett, Global Corporate Communication Manager at Enphase Energy, one of GRID's manufacturer partners, "there's never a line for the ladies room at solar events."

This disparity inspired us to invite some of the top women in renewables to join us for an installation in San Francisco's Visitation Valley neighborhood in May, our first ever "Executive Women's Build." Homeowner Elaine Mak couldn't believe it when she heard a group of women would be installing her system. "Ladies?" she asked in disbelief. "Are you sure they can do it?" But by the end of the day, she was on the roof and in the garage installing her system alongside industry and government leaders like Julie Blunden, a founder of Green Mountain Energy and long-time VP at SunPower, and CPUC Commissioner Carla Peterman and her chief of staff Julie Fitch, who helped design the California Solar Initiative.

Also on the build were partners and investors at venture capital and investment firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, DBL Investors and Eagle Cliff Partners that have a focus on renewable technologies and sustainability; as well as women executives from many of GRID Alternatives' corporate partners and other industry giants, including Wells Fargo, Yingli Solar, Enphase Energy, PG&E, Clean Power Finance and SunRun. For many, it was their first time installing a system, but none of these women had any doubt in their ability to do it.

We spent an hour in the morning doing introductions and talking about how we got involved with renewables, and for so many of the women, their career choice came down to values.

"Most of my career has been in high tech sales where it's hard to know in a tangible way what kind of difference you've made," said Carol Neslund, Vice President of North American Sales for Enphase Energy. "Now at the end of my busy day I know that I've made a difference for my own children and for our grandchildren."

That thread came up over and over throughout the day, as participants chatted about the industry and their roles in it, the interface between family and career, and the commitment each of them have both personally and professionally to making communities more sustainable.

The marriage of technology and environmental stewardship makes renewables an ideal field for female builders, engineers and scientists who want to align their work with their values. So why are so few women in it?

"When I was in engineering school," said GRID Alternatives co-founder and CEO Erica Mackie, "I remember I'd walk into a classroom at the beginning of the term and literally count the number of women in the class. There could be two or there could be none. Coming into the green economy wasn't much different, and I found myself constantly seeking out female mentors."

At GRID we are always looking for ways to recruit women into solar and inspire them to stay. We aim to make the roof a place where women feel comfortable, valuable and confident, whether surrounded by other women or not. We encourage our female volunteers to continue on as team leaders, experience many have taken to open their own companies, get installation jobs, or move on to other parts of the industry.

But there's only so much we can do in the entry-level space we occupy. The rest is going to be up to women like Carol Neslund, Helen Burt, Senior VP at PG&E, and Elaine Zhou, Vice President of Engineering at Clean Power Finance, to serve as ambassadors, role models, mentors and barrier breakers.

"I think we can have very big influence," said Ms. Zhou. "We talk a lot about empowering women in this field, so I hope that we can take the spirit of what we are doing today out into our communities and really encourage more women to get involved."

Interested in participating in a women's build? Contact your local volunteer fellow.