Women in Solar Installation: GRID Staff Monica Slabaugh

In honor of Women’s History Month and Women in Construction Week, GRID caught up with Monica Slabaugh, a GRID NV Solar Installation Supervisor and Solar Installation Training Supervisor. She started as a Solarcorps Construction Fellow three years ago after leaving an office job that had her feeling drained and unfulfilled. She decided that a more active position working in environmental sustainability would be a better fit for her. 

“GRID is kind of a dream place to work,” Monica said. “When I started at the Central Coast office, the construction team culture was one where everybody had their hands in everything. So I was a designer, a site visitor, an installer, and for the last six months, I was also the instructor for the Solar Futures program for high school students, which I loved and was my introduction to teaching the skill of solar installation.”

Monica’s solar journey continued here in the North Valley, where she was a Solar Installation Supervisor [SIS] for a year before also becoming a Solar Installation Training Supervisor with the IBT [Installation Basics Training] program. “According to my manager, I had the most SIS installs out of all the supervisors in our region last year, so they put me to work! I really nailed down my installing skills and speed. Now I'm 50% installer, 50% instructor. And since last summer, I've been pursuing my electrician license. My goal now is to become an electrician and pair it with solar.”

When asked about her proudest career moments, a few came to mind. “I’m proud of my personal growth, developing confidence and physical and mental strength. I can go out and lead a crew of solar installers, and it's empowering to see a job get done. Also, learning all the technical stuff. I always told myself growing up, ‘You suck at math. You suck at science stuff. You can't figure it out.’ Now I dig into technical texts, and I am actually good at them! So I found the context where I could apply all those things that I always thought I was bad at. I just needed to do them in this physical world.”

“But I'm most proud of when I'm teaching and get to see students thriving as they go through those first couple weeks in solar, where you get so excited because you can see all these different career pathways and see a financially stable future for yourself. There's something great about learning a trade because you always have it as a skill.”

Having shifted to a construction trade career trajectory, we asked Monica about her thoughts on the barriers women face when making a similar choice. “I think cultural perception is a big one. My family was supportive, but they were really shocked,” she told us. “Like, ‘Oh my God, do you even know what you're getting into? You could get electrocuted. You're going to be working with all men. Is there even a path for women in this industry?’ ”

Monica’s family was not unique in their skepticism. Women in construction make up just 10.9% of the workforce, while women in solar fare a little better at 27%. Their other concerns around injury were also not unfounded. Women in construction are at greater risk for injury due to ill-fitting personal protective gear and, according to Monica, the mistaken belief that some women might feel “to compete with men.” She thinks that solar is for “all different types of body shapes, sizes, and physical strength.” She explained that in construction now, “the biggest muscle you're going to have on-site is your brain, to work smart and prevent injury. We have a lot of advanced tools that you need to use your mind to use correctly.” She continued, “I also think a lot of people can get injured at construction jobs because they feel the need to be independent and do everything by themselves. You might look like the strongest guy out there, sure, but how long can you sustain that?” 

She explained, “When I've worked on crews of all women, we’re not going slower, but we're collaborating more and not being afraid to say, ‘Hey, let's lift this together and not strain our back by lifting the panel over the roof by ourselves.’ And rather than blaming men for that happening, I would rather see more men feel empowered to ask to do things as a team and to take on some of those attributes that are supposedly feminine.”

These challenges inform why GRID is committed to increasing diversity in the solar industry. In December, GRID North Valley completed an all-women IBT cohort in collaboration with local non-profit partner Women’s Empowerment. This was Monica’s first time leading a cohort, and she had some advice for the women based on her own experience. “I definitely felt some pressure as a woman to be able to prove myself,” she told us. “I don't want to speak for other people, but when you're from an underrepresented group, sometimes you're like, I have to be really inspirational. I have to prove myself to be here. I think my first year at GRID, part of the reason I did all those things was to say, ‘I have to earn my spot to be here in other ways,’ because maybe on day one I couldn't lift a panel by myself. 

“I told the women [in the IBT cohort] that you don't need to be better than everybody else. You're not going to be better than everybody else on your first day, and you're going to have to learn from men. You also don't have to be super inspirational. If you want to, that's fine, but you don't have to take on all those extra burdens. You can be competent at your job and then go home and get paid. I think a lot of women in construction feel pressure to be like ‘I am the shining star miraculous woman who can be as strong as the men.’ No, you won't always be as strong as the men, and you're going to ask for help and you shouldn’t feel like, ‘I failed all women’. There's plenty of basic, average, confident men. You can be average too. It's anti inspirational, I know, but, you actually do better if you just focus on improving yourself.” She gave an example, “Just last month, I lifted panels by myself for the first time working at GRID. I couldn't do that for almost three years, and all my male coworkers could do that. So too bad, I couldn't do it, and now I can! So go little by little.” 

Monica credits disability rights scholars for informing her views on different body types working in construction and rejecting the pressure to be “inspirational”. “I think it’s important to credit disability activism because when I learned about that, it clicked that it applies here too. I would also tell women going into the industry to try to find the right company. Not all company cultures are going to support what I'm saying, but that's why we need more women to shift to the culture. Women might bring a lot of different values. It could be physical strength, it could be creating better communication systems on a team. It could be great client relations. It could be training. So to start overcoming some of those barriers, we can start valuing a wider set of traits, and then we’ll see how different types of people can be valued in construction.”

We ended our conversation looking towards a bright future for women in solar. Monica recalled a conversation the Women’s Empowerment IBT cohort had where “we all were struck by the fact that so much in the solar industry is yet to be written because it's still an emerging industry. I think it's really exciting for women, for anyone who feels like they're not represented in construction. Who are the leaders of battery storage going to be? What does a storage installer look like? We can still determine that. So get in on it!”

For more information about our solar installation training program, please contact Gerardo at gramirez@gridalternatives.org or by calling 916-588-9278.