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Women in renewables: we need a systemic shift

The clean energy transition only makes sense if we’re all involved in the journey

At the Clean Energy Council, we’re united in our belief that by empowering women, the renewable energy industry will flourish. We’re dedicated to facilitating change in the renewables sector by supporting women in their current roles and empowering them to step us as leaders in their organisations.

Since 2015, we’ve been running our Women in Renewables program, which enables and champions women working in the renewable energy industry. We had a proud moment in March on International Women's Day when our own Dr Anita Talberg, Director of Workforce Development, spoke at the Women in Energy and Climate Symposium in Parliament.

You can read her speech below.

Parliament speech visual
Dr Anita Talberg addresses Parliament at the Women in Energy and Climate Symposium

When I started my engineering degree 25 years ago, there were five women in my cohort of 60 aspiring first-year engineering students.

In first year, we had a compulsory unit called Engineering and Society; and in week one of that unit, the lecturer said to look at the students on either side of you – by the end of first year, one of those two people will be gone. And by the end of second year, either you'll be gone or the other person next to you will be gone.

The lecturer was almost right – we started with around 60 and by the end of the degree I think we were just under 40.

Of the five women that started their degrees with me all five were still there at the end. We all graduated.

We weren't friends. We didn't hang out on the weekends or seek each other out socially. But we supported each other and helped each other through those four years. If ever one of us missed a lecture or a tutorial there was always one of the other girls that had the notes. Late at night in the computer labs when we were trying to debug some code, one of the other girls was always willing to have a look.

By silent agreement we all knew that if one of us didn't make it, then we'd all failed each other.

What’s astounding is that 25 years later, the percentage of women completing engineering degrees in Australia hasn't changed – it is still 16 per cent according to Engineers Australia.

Which is still better than the less than three per cent of women that make up the electrical trade. Another statistic that has not budged in 30 years.

So, what does this tell me?

Three things.

One, just because we’re women doesn’t make us all friends. We’re not one homogeneous entity, we are all different, come with different experiences and face different experiences. The intersection of our identities is important to recognize as just that.

Two, networks and support from other women is really important to the retention of women in male-dominated industries such as ours.

And three, if we rely only on networks and women supporting women, we’re not going to see change in those statistics. We need deliberate and calculated actions to drive change.

Which is why the Clean Energy Council launched its Women in Renewables program in 2015.

As part of that program, in 2021, in collaboration with the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Australian Power Institute, we surveyed our workforce to explore the social and professional identities of our workforce. We found that with women accounting for 39 per cent of our sector, we’re doing better than the thermal energy sectors and better than renewables internationally. We should of course be aiming for 50%, but we’re not doing too badly. However, when we looked more closely, we saw three areas where we fall down: (1) women in the trades, (2) women in STEM, and (3) women in leadership. So that told us where to focus our work.

But the harder question is how to drive change.

In December last year, we conducted a second survey, this time of our employers to find out what they were doing to improve equity and inclusion policies, what programs or projects they had in place, and how these were or were not having an impact.

We also convened a roundtable inviting the ETU, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Australian Workers Union, the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union and the Maritime Union of Australia to find out what they were doing, what challenges or successes they had had, and what they saw as the Clean Energy Council’s role in this space.

Now, I expect you’re all sitting there with bated breath waiting to hear where we landed on all this and where the answer lies.

Well, I’m going to disappoint you. Because the answer is that there’s no silver bullet. It requires a lot of pushing and pulling in small and big ways to change something like this.

There’s no point rolling out targets for the percentage of women on site or on projects without supporting that with incentives for women to enter the sector, because you’re setting yourself up to fail. There aren’t enough women with the skills and experience to meet targets.

And there’s no point providing financial or other support for women to join the sector if that isn’t accompanied by communications campaigns to tell women what jobs exist and how they can get them.

And there’s no point running that sort of comms campaign if the culture in the workplace isn’t addressed. We still hear stories of site offices plastered with photos of naked women, or board meetings where women do not feel comfortable to challenge the framing of the discussion.

We need a systemic shift. It needs to come from the top and the bottom at the same time. It needs to come from government, industry, unions, education and training systems and from every boss in every team, every director on every board and every worker in every project. It needs to be embedded in every decision we make and not relegated to the ‘too hard’ basket when we already have a mammoth decarbonisation challenge in front of us.

Because the energy transition really only makes sense if we’re all involved in the journey.

So, here is the challenge that we all have before us. We’ll all be back here next year for International Women’s Day in 2024. What will each of us be able to say that we did or did differently to help shift the dial over 12 months? What was your part in an equitable and inclusive transition?