Every spring, the Duke University Energy Initiative and EDGE, the Center for Energy, Development and the Global Environment at Fuqua School of Business, hosts an energy related panel discussion with Duke alums, along with networking and a group mentoring session.
But it is not every spring that the world is faced with a viral pandemic.
However, COVID-19 did not halt a much-needed virtual conversation on gender equity within the energy industry. Given that pandemics are accelerating due to climate change, now more than ever is the appropriate time to have conversations about a sustainable and just energy transition. This goal is unattainable if we do not bring everyone’s perspectives to the table.
For the opening of the Women in Energy discussion that happened on March 31st, attendees were hit with the alarming fact that on average, across the energy sector, fewer than 30 percent of the industry’s workforce are female identified. This can vary by company, but the average holds true across the entire industry.
I was appalled hearing this statistic. I could not help but ask why is there such a small percentage of women in the energy workforce?
Panelist Lauren Shum, Vice President of Engineering at Sunforge, revealed how this unacceptable gap is systemically enforced due to a lack of representation, policy and exposure.
The overrepresentation of men in the industry is self-perpetuating. Men are the ones doing the recruiting and, by default, will choose to hire people that resemble themselves.
Patriarchy tends to defer to itself for expertise. As a result, the more we see men in the field, the more our own unconscious biases are reinforced to believe the field is exclusively for men. This removes the possibility of envisioning women in these spaces.
Women are also barred from entry and advancement through policy as well. Women disproportionately shoulder domestic duties and reproductive labor, which policy does not take into consideration.
The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, yet it lacks guaranteed paid family leave. The country’s workaholic culture completely disregards domestic labor. As a result, this puts additional strain on women and hinders them from realizing their professional aspirations.
Lastly, Shum emphasized a simple point with complex ramifications: you don’t know what you don't know.
If a degree or career in STEM is not within most women’s band of possibilities, how will more women exist in the field? If women are not exposed early on to the range of possibilities out there, this will reinforce the lack of representation and abundance of inadequate policies as women will not even be present as stakeholders.
Now that I have highlighted multiple gaps, our esteemed panelists had plenty to say in regards to potential solutions and advice to all of the aspirational women out there.
My favorite question during the Q&A section was: What men can do to be better allies in the workplace?
Olivia Eskew, Policy and Strategy Analyst at Cypress Creek Renewables, emphasized the importance of humility and listening. Shum also chimed that in addition, men should also own up to their unconscious biases versus becoming defensive.
Eskew said that men should be receptive to female colleagues’ experiences versus listening just to respond. Women also need to stop being asked to do menial tasks and that men should volunteer more often to assume these duties.
It is also important to realize how we speak can reflect how we think, she said. Using gendered language can sometimes be a reflection of an internal and external world shaped by patriarchy as the default. Eskew believes in adopting gender neutral language, which is beneficial to creating an inclusive space for the entire gender spectrum.
When men disregard this advice, panelist Arsheen Allam CEO at GoLeafe has a simple strategy she employs.
When she is called “cute” by investors or when they use pet names instead of using her real name, Allam recommends tossing them aside and moving on to the next investor.
“Finding the right investor is like a marriage and I want it to be mutually respectful. I don’t make allowances for that anymore.”
These micro-aggressions do certainly take a toll, but Allam emphasized for investors that are not outright sexist, you can build credibility with expertise to surpass first impressions.
As I was reflecting on all of these wise insights, I could not help but to also consider the challenges faced by women of color and trans women. When we say women, we must really mean all women. To accomplish this, this requires addressing intersectionality and the various barriers of entry different women face.
COVID-19 has already exacerbated persistent inequities and will pose additional challenges on both the energy industry and graduates looking to enter the workforce.
As the panelists described their career paths, they offered some key advice:
Trajectory is not set upon graduation as experiences are experiments in finding what we like.
It is also important to evaluate what we are doing in our career compared to our career goals to ensure they are aligned.
Lastly, confidence and networking are critical qualities regardless of the economy. The energy industry is close knit and establishing relationships is critical to breaking in.
I would like to contribute my own parting advice, from my lived experiences as someone assigned as female at birth but who now identifies as non-binary, is the importance of creating a world where differences are respected.
Women should not have to assimilate to masculinity to be recognized.
Assimilation is not liberation. It is conformity.
We cannot realize our full potential if we have to be dishonest to ourselves by having to embody an ideal that creates our own oppression.
As Covid-19 continues to hurt the energy sector, now is the time for bold policy measures. We cannot realize our capacity if some voices do not get to speak their truth. The world right now needs full employment of all of its potential.
Narissa Jimenez-Petchumrus received their BA in Political Science with a Minor in Global Studies from UCLA. They were a community organizer prior coming to Duke University and some of their work includes creating and chairing their city’s first LGBTQ+ Pride Festival and advocating for environmental justice through engaging in a civil disobedience. They are currently pursuing a dual-degree with the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Nicholas School of the Environment, specializing in Energy and Environment. They are also a Stanback Fellow with the North Carolina Sierra Club and part of a Bass Connections Student Research Awards team doing research on the distribution of urban greenspace and impacts on health outcomes. Their interests include analyzing how social impact enterprises and cooperatives can be used to build relationships with natural assets, bring about an equitable energy transition, generate community wealth, and build resilience.