Women Thriving in Solar Industry—In Spite of Major Gender Gap
Eden Full became interested in solar at a young age, while tinkering with projects for childhood science fairs. By the time she went to college, she had begun to understand the problems in the solar industry and wanted to go out into the world to help solve them.
When Full was just 19 years old, she took a break from her studies at Princeton University to develop a solar tracker. That product eventually led her to launch a startup, SunSaluter.
“It was a compelling project that I wanted to devote all of my time to, and I couldn’t do that while in school,” Full said.
She applied for the 20 Under 20 Peter Thiel Fellowship in 2011, which offers funds to promising students who drop out of college and pursue entrepreneurial projects. With Thiel’s support, SunSaluter was born, and Full has been able to work on the startup full time ever since.
Yet, Full is one of few women in her field, in spite of the fact that the industry is adding workers at a rate nearly 20 times faster than the overall economy. According to the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census of 2014, solar jobs account for 1.3 percent of all jobs created in America over the past year—one out of every 78 new jobs since 2013.
Overall, employment in the solar industry has grown by about 86 percent in the past five years, but women still are getting left behind: They only make up about 20 percent of the industry.
“Women can be very successful in this industry, and their voices are needed here,” says Anna Bautista, vice president of construction and workforce development at GRID Alternatives. “But there is a lack of role models. Women don’t see other women in the solar industry in their social media feeds or coming to speak to their classrooms—they’re not getting exposed to the possibilities of the solar industry.”
Women Strive to Thrive in Solar
According to Bautista, the gender gap in solar is similar to the general construction industry. Recruiting is partially the issue—women just don’t know about the solar industry and how rewarding it can be, she said.
“Renewable energy and solar as an industry is attractive to women because it’s really rewarding,” Bautista said. “I think it appeals to the compassionate side of women who care about the environment, the community and public health.”
Unlike Full, Bautista did not take an interest in solar until she was in college. With a background in electrical engineering, she took a service-learning trip to Haiti her final year in college. There, she saw how the state of the environment affects all aspects of public health—from water quality to agriculture. Renewable energy was the middle ground she found between electrical engineering and public health.
Bautista now has been with her current company, GRID Alternatives, for seven years. Over that time, she has been a trainer, installation supervisor, site supervisor, project manager and construction director. But when she started out in the field just 10 years ago, Bautista said she called up companies and offered to do any small job just to get her foot in the door.
“I appreciate the solar industry still being a relatively new industry, where you can start from the bottom and work your way up quickly,” she said. “In just a few years you can be considered an expert in the industry.”
Similarly, Full says women may think they’ll have a have a hard time becoming established in a male-dominated field such as solar—but that hasn’t been an issue she’s faced.
“The space I work in is more social enterprise, so there’s a tendency for more women to be there,” she said. “I know plenty of other women who aren’t letting the gender gap hold them back.”
Now, the founder’s work consists of engaging with partners, making sure that manufacturing operations are going well, collaborating with other nonprofits and social enterprises and scoping out new areas that could use her product.
Along the way, though, one obstacle that Full has had to overcome is building enough of a track record as an entrepreneur for others to take her seriously.
“Without adequate experience, you can’t get a project deployed, but without having projects deployed, you can’t get experience,” she said. “You have to find organizations that are willing to take a chance on you. It takes knocking on doors and getting turned down a lot.”
Bridging the Gender Gap
For women interested in getting into the solar industry, Bautista recommends developing both confidence and competence. When women focus on the things they can control—refining their knowledge of the craft and then selling themselves well—the gender gap should not hinder them.
“I think this is such an exciting field, and it’s not going anywhere,” Bautista said. “We need the talents and voices of women to make sure that the industry succeeds.”
To help bridge the gender gap, GRID Alternatives has programs that specifically reach out to and recruit women. Solar Spring Break, for example, gets the word out on college campuses to expose students to internships and other opportunities. GRID Alternatives also sponsors women and supports their professional development through the National Women in Solar Initiative. As a result, the numbers are gradually changing.
Still, as the industry grows, its subsequent job opportunities should be viewed as open to all, said Dr. Lidija Sekaric, technology to market program manager for the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative. It’s more than a diversity imperative, she says; it’s also a business and a moral imperative.
“Women and minorities make up 70 percent of college students, but only 45 percent of undergraduate STEM degree holders,” Sekaric said. “But rather than inherit the previously low numbers, we should look to the fields and organizations that have successfully increased women’s participation.”
The SunShot Initiative runs several nationally recognized workforce training and fellowship programs. Because DOE’s work is based in science and technology, having a STEM-educated workforce is essential in their mission to serve the nation, Sekaric said.
On top of that, when providing engineering problems to young girls, it is important to contextualize them with bigger challenges that involve helping others improve the quality of life, says Michael Arquin, director of the KidWind Project. Arquin says renewable energy provides positive conditions for young girls to engage with engineering and other kinds of problems.
“It would be a real shame if the renewables industry flourishes over the next 10 years and we do not have young women at the center of that developing workforce,” Arquin said. “To make sure that does not happen, we have to work now with young girls to show them these opportunities exist and they can succeed.”
That’s true internationally as well, where women and girls are disproportionately affected by energy poverty, says Caroline Mailloux, director of engagement at Solar Sister.
“(Women and girls) comprise 70 percent of the 1.6 billion people in the world without access to electricity,” she said. “(As a result) they are uniquely situated to understand how to market the solutions to other women in charge of household purchasing.”
That’s why Solar Sister empowers women in developing to become entrepreneurs and replaces unhealthy forms of power with solar. Solar Sister taps into the power of women to deliver energy access directly to homes in the developing world. The Avon-style distribution system opens doors to greater health, safety, education and economic prosperity.
Mailloux first found her interest in solar when she visited health clinics in rural Ghana and Vietnam. Villagers still used kerosene to power their homes, which is expensive and often causes health concerns such as burns and respiratory disease.
“Power is everything in global health,” Mailloux said. “The light to deliver a newborn at night, the refrigeration for vaccines and the Internet to look up information in the absence of books and adequate staffing.”
In her experience, Mailloux has observed men as being more likely to market household solar products based on wattage and special features. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to market solar through the stories of how it helps their chickens lay more eggs, keep their businesses open later and enable their children to study at night.
Mailloux believes that if women had equal representation in the field, the market would expand exponentially. The greatest asset Solar Sister has is the female entrepreneurs and their women-centric networks, she said.
“Women are key to ending energy poverty, whether in the U.S. or abroad,” Mailloux said. “Creating opportunities for women to be informed, involved and in charge are critical.”
And those initiatives not only improve the workplace for women, but for men as well, Bautista says.
“I think by having a diverse workforce, you’re going to have a better place to work and a more successful industry,” Bautista said. “You’re able to appeal to a larger society when you have a workforce that reflects the larger society and be more creative in your business strategy.”