One of the enduring legacies of women’s traditional exclusion from the energy sector is the continued disadvantage women and girls face in comparison to their male counterparts in accessing information about employment and industry trends. In a volatile industry, such information and access to networks and training can make a significant difference in recruitment or advancement. A lack of information also means that the barriers faced by women in conventional sectors, such as oil and gas, can persist in their emerging counterparts, such as clean energy.
Employment in the energy sector can be volatile. Fluctuations in world energy prices; growth of the sector in emerging economies and developing countries; the politics of climate change and energy transitions; conflicts over land and water resources with Indigenous populations; new resource discoveries; and technological change all have the potential to shake up the industry. Being aware of the implications of these changes is key to building a successful career.
Men working in the fossil-fuel industry tend to be relatively well informed about such changes. Based on this knowledge, some are seeking out opportunities in the clean energy sector in higher numbers, and earlier than people employed in other sectors. For example, 25 percent of students studying to be wind turbine technicians at the Lethbridge College Wind Turbine Technician program in Alberta, Canada were once oil and gas workers. Recent media reports in Canada also note that oil and gas workers in Alberta are increasingly seeking and finding employment in the clean energy sector.
Another aspect of the information imbalance is a lack of awareness about the range of occupations, specializations and fields within the energy sector. The energy sector is more than just engineers, research scientists or equipment installers – the sector draws upon expertise and skills from diverse backgrounds in environmental science, ecology, conservation, engineering, business management, law, public policy and finance, to name just a few.
There are ways to account for these various imbalances, such as direct access to industry insiders or building connections through mentoring, outreach presentations and visits, site tours, student networks, temporary work placements and so on. The industry can play a role here, supported by gender equality advocacy organizations in the energy sector such as Women in Oil and Gas (WIOG), Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE), Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) and Women in Clean Energy (WICE).
Making training and education in the energy sector more versatile to enable intra-sectoral and inter-sectoral transferability is also a promising strategy and there is already some movement in this direction. For example, post-secondary institutions in US and Canada are looking for ways to deliver graduates with skills that are transferable across broader energy industry sectors rather than delivering petroleum-specific or renewable energy specific programs.
Such changes may enable the energy sector to employ and retain more women and young workers. A survey conducted by Ernst & Young in 2017 of 1200 Americans below the age of 20 revealed a significant gender gap: a much greater percentage of young men found oil and gas appealing compared to young women – 54% versus 24% respectively. In the same survey, 62% of respondents said a career in oil and gas was unappealing or very unappealing. In contrast, two-thirds of those polled, with no significant gender difference, said that a job working in renewable energy was appealing.
Reports from around the world warn of a looming skills gap as both industrialized and emerging economies retool their existing industries and seek out new opportunities for creating employment. In virtually all areas of the energy sector, there are skills shortages and calls for additional training. These shortages cover a wide range of different occupations, from engineers and architects to skilled trades, equipment operators, technicians and construction labourers. Skills shortages also vary by country, by region, and by technologies.
Although these skill shortages present challenges for labour supply, they also represent an opportunity to train and recruit women, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples, new immigrants and other groups that have historically been marginalized in the energy sector.