Our recent energy report highlighted that 56% of respondents (decision-makers in the industry) are deepening their focus on their transition strategy for moving to net zero. With ambitious targets to reach, evidence shows us that the diversity of a team contributes towards its ability to innovate and succeed. So, how can we capture and hold onto a diverse workforce to make the energy transition possible?

Given the size of the challenge ahead, innovation is a key part of making the energy transition happen. Multiple research projects have shown that for businesses and industries to innovate, they need diversity. This Forbes insight report states in its key findings that "diversity is a key driver of innovation and is a critical component of being successful on a global scale”.

Do we have enough diversity in the energy industry to overcome the challenges ahead? And if not, are we doing enough to attract and retain the talent we need?

How many women are working in energy?

International Energy Agency research shows that energy is one of the least gender diverse sectors of the global economy today, with only 16% of the energy sector’s employees being women, despite making up nearly 40% of global employment. Given those figures, it isn't a big surprise that wages for women in the energy sector are also almost 15% lower than for men at the same skill levels, and less than 15% of senior managers in the energy sector are women (and perhaps reflecting that level of management experience only about 11% of energy start-up founders are women).

It's clear there is a lot of room for improvement, but this only tells part of the story. The ‘energy’ industry is a catch all term for a lot of different jobs. Whether you’re installing a wind turbine or sitting at a desk writing energy contracts, both are important, but the challenges are different, there is no one silver bullet which solves the energy and gender challenge.

Previously women working on site faced practical issues such as a lack of appropriately sized PPE, there are stories of women wearing four pairs of socks to try and get their boots to stay on, but this is a problem that has now being recognised and is (I hope) being resolved. From a personal example, lawyers and desk-based professionals working in the energy industry might have previously struggled to fit in caring responsibilities around work, but with flexible working no longer a dirty word, and remote working a trusted option, the juggle care givers face has become slightly easier.

Although the statistics around women in energy can seem shocking, there is a cultural history that makes up part of this story too, a history which is reflected in other industries. As a woman who has worked within the energy industry for over ten years, I have witnessed a lot of change over that time, and there are individuals and businesses doing a lot to change the status quo so that, there are now opportunities available to everyone.

What are the opportunities in the energy industry?

There are many complex challenges we need to overcome to establish a decarbonised energy system (outside of fostering a diverse workforce) in legislation, technology, business, and society, but with challenge comes opportunity. For me, events are one of the best places to find out about what the exciting opportunities in the energy transition are.

Energy UK run an annual Equity, diversity and inclusion conference which I’ve been to three times, gathering and sharing ideas around how we can enable our teams to reach their full potential. Clichés are there for a reason, and I believe that it’s certainly harder to ‘be what you can’t see’, which is why it’s great for ambitious women, and people from other less represented groups, to hear from those who have navigated a system that has hurdles that are specific to them. At the first conference I remember hearing a memorable speech from Bobbi Pickard, CEO of Trans in the City, who talked about how much more productive the workplace would be if employees could bring ‘their whole selves’ to work. She brought to life the truth that if you have 100% of your brain focussed on your work, rather than hiding who you are, employers are going to get way more engagement from their people.

At this and other events over the years I have heard from some hugely inspiring speakers including Cordy O’Hara, National Grid Electricity Distribution President, Rebecca Willis, Professor in Energy & Climate Governance at Lancaster University and Helen K Thomas from RWE.

How to attract and retain women in the energy industry

It would be unrealistic for us to think that a few inspiring individuals can change the whole industry, but they are part of the puzzle. What we can all do is recognise where we have power and influence and try to effect change in those areas.

From my perspective there are some easy wins:

  • I think that our choice of language is powerful and something we all have control over. As an example, I wonder that if we can turn the dial to go, for example from saying ‘just part-time’ to 'works flexibly' and so lose the suggestion that it means less than ‘full-time’?
  • We all need to challenge ourselves as to whether we are making lazy assumptions about what our people want. It might be easy to think that someone won’t want to put themselves forward for a promotion because they have busy home life – but have we asked them what their aims are?
  • Are our expectations reasonable and have they been shared with our people? For both the employer and employee to succeed the business needs to be clear about expectations but also be prepared to be creative about how work is delivered – does the employee need to be at the office desk from 9 till 5? Or can the work be delivered at home remotely with the right IT? What are the benefits of working in office and when/how is this best delivered. Transparent communication and good listening skills on both sides can deliver huge strides in progress.

I think that ultimately collaboration is the route to success. As leaders, if we share our vision for the future, our people know where we are (all) trying to get to and they're likely to have great insights about how we deliver together. What we need is for both sides to be open to being creative about how we deliver progress in a way that works for both them (and being prepared to adapt as circumstances change).

At Womble Bond Dickinson, I co-chair our women’s network Thrive alongside Jenny Elgie. We started this network in October 2022 after reviewing all the previous informal activities that had taken place and looking at what support women need to achieve their potential at the firm. Our activities include internal focussed activities, we have a policy group which reviews company policies and makes recommendations for improvement, and we host events that act as opportunities for women in the firm to network, collaborate and problem solve together alongside external facing activities attending and learning from others and collaborating with clients about what works for them. We recently invited international footballer Anita Assanti to speak at our International Women’s Day event which had over 250 people in attendance.

How to progress in the energy industry

For any women looking to enter the industry, or climb up to the next step, I would say, hunt out events where you can build an industry network and try to find a mentor. I was nervous about asking for help and taking up people’s time when I was more junior, but I hope those who have reached a senior level will want to ‘pay it forward’ and mentor others. Invite people for coffees, pick their brains, don't be afraid to put yourself out of your comfort zone.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that we have all taken different directions in our careers and there is no right path. When seeking out support or networks don't assume what people have done is the only way and be curious – people have great tips and suggestions. It has taken me 25 years to become a Partner at Womble Bond Dickinson, this could be viewed by some as a long wait to reach this level, but outside of this paid work, I have hugely enjoyed raising my two children – everyone’s set-up is different.

Why all this matters

It is easy to become defeatist when you see the statistics that illustrate gender disparities in the energy industry, but as there becomes more female leaders we will get the groundswell needed to trigger positivity which leads to more women putting themselves forward.

I am passionate about this subject, not just because the current situation doesn't reflect the number of amazing women in our industry, but because if we want to meet the net zero target, we need more skill sets and a bigger workforce. Our recent energy report highlights that now more than ever we need to pull in all types of people, from all backgrounds, so we see the energy transition through multiple eyes, rather than one single viewpoint.