Gender diversity is good business. There is ample research to show that companies with diverse leadership and staff perform better, are more profitable and have happier employees.
A recent study by EY, a global business consulting firm, shows the positive correlation between gender diversity and financial performance in the power and utility industry. But the solar industry has even more reason to actively pursue gender diversity: to sustain growth and to drive adoption.
According to the Solar Foundation’s 2013 National Solar Jobs Census, the industry added jobs at a rate of nearly 20 percent last year, and the industry overall grew 40 percent. Ask any solar company out there today, and they’ll tell you they are looking for good people to fill not just installation ranks, but also sales, finance, project management and leadership roles. Women make up more than half of all college graduates in the United States today, earning degrees at a rate of 1.4 to 1 over their male counterparts. If there was ever a time to tap into this talent pool, that time is now.
The continued growth of solar adoption, at least at the residential level, will also require the participation of women. Women are a primary driver of solar adoption, often initiating the research, making the decision and telling their friends and neighbors about it.
A recent national study by Identity3, a solar communications firm, found that 90 percent of women surveyed said they would make or participate in the family decision to go solar. Other research has shown that the majority of household financial decision-makers are women. Solar companies wanting to reach women will need to understand and cater to their interests and sensibilities.
So we’ve made the case. Now how do we get there? If we are really going to create significant diversity in the solar workforce, we as an industry need to address five key elements: training, hiring, visibility, mentorship/sponsorship and opportunity.
Training: Solar is a relatively new industry, drawing on talent from many fields. If we want to increase women’s participation, we need to train them for the jobs we need to fill.
GRID Alternatives has a goal of training 1,000 women in solar installation this year, and providing internships and leadership training to 50 more. The industry can also provide training internally, recruiting talented women from other industries and investing in the training they need to succeed in solar. SunEdison, for example, recently launched a “Business University” to expand internal training opportunities for all employees.
Hiring: Fill the pipeline. The industry as a whole needs to step up the recruitment and hiring of women. Setting aggressive targets for gender ratio of candidates interviewed encourages hiring managers to cast their nets widely.
Visibility: Women need to see other women in solar, and other women in leadership.
This means not only putting the spotlight on a handful of successful women, but also making sure that women are well represented on boards, at senior (and all) levels in the organizations, on events and conference panels, and in media interviews and photographs. SunEdison and GRID Alternatives are both hosting speaker series and panel discussions with women in the industry, and several conferences have begun including sessions featuring women. But the visibility needs to be fully integrated into every aspect of industry operations.
Mentorship/Sponsorship: Women-to-women mentorship is a great way to support up-and-coming women in the field, and there are a number of organizations like Women in Solar Energy, Women in Cleantech and Sustainability and GRID Alternatives that are creating spaces for women to network and build relationships among one another.
However, there is no substitute for sponsorship by senior leaders. After extensive research into successful diversity programs in other industries, SunEdison created a Pathways Program to provide structured career development and sponsorship opportunities for high-potential women with senior executives, effectively fast-tracking them into leadership positions in a way that often happens organically for men.
Opportunity: Providing opportunities for women in the industry is about more than just recruiting women and helping them advance in their careers. It is also about creating workplaces that are appealing for women, where they want to come to work and stay for their careers.
This can mean anything from better family leave programs to flex- and part-time options, zero-tolerance discrimination policies and cultures that value women’s skills, work styles and perspectives. Diversity training can also help male-dominated companies understand their unconscious biases that may affect the way they perceive female employees, and help these companies place higher value on approaches like collaboration that are more associated with women.
Cultural shifts like these are much harder to implement than improved benefit packages, and they require buy-in at all levels of the organization. But they are critical to creating a work environment where women have real opportunities to thrive, grow and lead.
Erica Mackie is CEO and co-founder of GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that makes solar technology and training accessible to underserved communities. Ahmad Chatila is CEO of SunEdison, a global leader transforming how energy is generated, distributed and owned.
This year, GRID Alternatives and SunEdison partnered in a National Women in Solar Initiative to bring more women into the solar industry and support them in their professional development. For more information, click here.