Working to address the lack of women in hydropower

IHA Climate Policy Manager Debbie Gray reflects on her experiences working in the hydropower sector on International Women's Day.

On this International Women’s Day, I am reflecting on how gratifying it is to be leading a study to examine how to enhance labour force participation rates by women in hydropower. This has given me the privilege of speaking with many women and men in the sector who have generously agreed to share their views on the subject. Listening to their stories, anecdotes and opinions has made me contemplate how little has changed since I started my own career, now spanning two decades in hydro, and given me the urge to share my own story.

When I was studying engineering, women made up about 20 per cent of my graduating class of 1991. Recent statistics from my home country of Canada show that only 20.6 per cent of newly licensed engineers are women. So, in the 30 years since I have graduated, the needle has not even budged! There is currently no complete data on the number of women working in the hydropower sector, but across the wider renewable energy sector, women make up only 32 per cent of the workforce.

This situation needs to change, and IHA is helping to do that with the study, which is funded by the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP). We are delivering it in partnership with the Global Women's Network for the Energy Transition (GWNET). The study seeks to determine where women work within companies and identify barriers to entry and advancement, as well as effective strategies to address those barriers.

The primary research phase of the project has now been completed, and a public report is due to be released later this year in the summer. While it is too soon to comment on the results, I am confident that the report will show that there is still a long way to go for women to have the same professional opportunities as men within the sector.  

Reflecting on my career, prior to even starting it, my years at university were shockingly interrupted when a man killed 14 women at École Polytechnique in my hometown of Montreal. He did this precisely because they were women studying engineering. The December 6, 1989, massacre shocked the nation and traumatised me and my female engineering student peers. Had we chosen to study at that school, it could have been one of us! Thirty-plus years later, that day is still etched in my memory and is commemorated with solemn services across the country.

So, with that backdrop, when I headed out into the professional world with my engineering degree in my back pocket, I was not sure what to expect. At the beginning of my career, I do recall a few snide remarks about ‘liberated women’, a term in vogue at the time, and a very uncomfortable conversation with my first boss about women in the workforce. I felt he was sceptical about the idea of female engineers (despite the fact he had hired me), but my twenty-two-year-old self had neither the confidence nor the experience to find the right words to engage in a discussion on the matter.

That being said, in the years since I entered the hydropower sector, I have been fortunate not to have experienced any obvious or significant discrimination based on my gender. I have worked alongside strong women with great technical skills leading complex projects and in fact, at a very recent point of my career, my entire hierarchical line – all six levels in the organisational chart above me, from my line manager to chair of the board – were women.

Perhaps I have been lucky, I sometimes think to myself, particularly when I hear stories from other women. Not only have women engineering pioneers who are now nearing retirement shared anecdotes of gender bias, but so have younger women who are early in their careers. As difficult as it might be for some people to believe, there are still men out there who blatantly think a woman cannot be as good an engineer as a man.  

While I do not in any way want to diminish the gender-related challenges experienced by many women in their own careers in the sector, I hope that my own experience will show that it is possible for women to have a rewarding career in hydropower. I would like to encourage other women contemplating working for a hydropower company to please come and join the sector! We need new talent, especially if hydropower – the forgotten giant of the renewables – is to grow and play its full role in combatting climate change. We need the best people out there, not only in the traditional engineering roles but also as scientists to examine biodiversity, specialists in social impacts and economists to model energy markets, to name but a few.  

Furthermore, even though hydropower is a male dominated industry, societal attitudes are slowly changing, and the hydropower sector is a place where women can grow and thrive. We hope the recommendations in our final report on the study will help to significantly increase the number of women who feel that hydropower is an attractive career option.  

I look forward to being able to update you on our progress on International Women’s Day in a year’s time.

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