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How to make women a driving force in SIDS’s clean energy development


By Ieva Indriunaite, Policy and Partnerships Manager, Camco Clean Energy

Women are imperative to Small Island Developing States’ (SIDS) clean energy future and for building islands’ resilience to climate change. But there is limited understanding of the key barriers women in SIDS face in becoming active participants within the sector, and of how women can be best served by the sector as end-users.

Drawing on valuable insights from prominent voices in SIDS’s clean energy and gender spaces, this article aims to lift the lid on why more women are not taking a leading role in the development of the sector – and what needs to be done to address the imbalance. 

Get women to the table!

His Excellency Chad Blackman, Permanent Representative of Barbados to the United Nations at Geneva, Vienna and Rome, makes the case for why gender equality is critical to a just, reliable and sustainable energy future not just in SIDS, but around the world. According to the UN, he notes, women account for 80 percent of people displaced by climate change. And as the primary caregivers and providers of food and fuel in SIDS and other developing and emerging markets, women – and the people who depend on them for household energy security - are also most vulnerable to the increasing effects of climate change in these regions.

Women hold the key to many of the solutions needed to address the climate and energy crises, but right now their voices are too often unheard and their involvement in SIDS’ energy sectors is limited.

Ambassador Blackman, who is Chair of the UNCTAD Geneva SIDS Group and President of the G77 and China (Geneva Chapter), believes that creating the necessary sea-change involves in large part ensuring women have a “seat at the table" as decision makers and key actors within the sector at all levels. This requires establishing the right conditions and equipping women with the necessary tools to enter and become active participants in the clean energy sector, from the executive management level all the way down to customers at the community level. Ambassador Blackman stresses that anything short of the full participation of all stakeholders – from governments and policy makers to financiers and the renewable energy businesses themselves – in making this happen would make the pursuit a "lofty ideal".

Policy makers must realize that they are instrumental for setting the agenda for change, just as financiers and asset owners are. They can challenge the status quo by setting targets and policy priorities and incentivizing the private sector to follow.

Women face the greatest barriers accessing finance

Finance is critical to the renewable energy sector’s development in SIDS, most of whom are heavily reliant on imported diesel for energy generation and face high electricity costs and supply interruptions. Yet raising finance is one of the main challenges facing female entrepreneurs. Although diversity and gender equality are of growing importance to funders, the amount of funding committed to support these interests remains far too small to bridge the enormous financing gap that exists between men and women and thereby properly address the climate challenge in SIDS.

Is it a supply or a demand problem? Are female entrepreneurs experiencing investors’ bias towards them? Or are there simply too few women trying to raise finance for renewable energy projects?

Listening to the experts, the answer is a mix of both. Attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are certainly holding back opportunities to access finance for their projects; but at the same time, cultural norms, the lack of women role models in the sector and poor education are also limiting women’s prospects of entering the market in the first place.

Education, education, education

Ambassador Blackman believes education is the biggest enabler of female empowerment – a view echoed by Belinda Strid, owner/manager at sustainable energy solutions company PCS Limited and President of Sustainable Energy Industry Association of the Pacific Islands (SEIAPI).

In the context of small islands like her home island of Vanuatu, Belinda says communications technology such as smartphones have come to play a significant part in educating local people. As a result, women are now more likely to be involved in decision-making and starting businesses, where before their role had been “to be quiet and do the gardening”. As an educated woman, Belinda says she had not faced discrimination in her work, but appreciates that she was already starting from an advanced standpoint – and that not everyone is as fortunate.

When it comes to finding women for formal employment roles, Inka Schomer, Senior Gender and Infrastructure Consultant and Director Distill Inclusion, believes that there is not enough being done to build awareness among students of the exciting and diverse opportunities that are quickly emerging in the renewable energy sector. This presents a huge opportunity for stakeholders to engage with universities and technical training institutes, such as University of the South Pacific, which covers a dozen countries in the Oceania, to close the gender gap in STEM.

Confidence is crucial

Many women in SIDS are not accessing the opportunities already available. Some, for example, are overlooking roles traditionally seen as male because they don’t think they stand a chance of getting them (e.g., electricians and engineers) while others are holding back on fundraising for fear of a funder’s rejection.  

Angella Rainford, CEO and Founder of Caribbean-based Soleco Energy, points out that men are more desensitized and resilient to rejection, having been encouraged to “try and fail until you succeed" from boyhood. Girls are not traditionally raised in the same way in SIDS, which calls for a change in the way women are made to think of themselves from childhood. As she puts it, “The advice I give is that you have to believe in yourself.”

Funders also have a role in enabling change. Angella’s own company has secured funding from several funders who are gender equity-aligned in their operations and investments. For example, in securing IDB’s investment, Soleco had to conduct a baseline audit and was then encouraged to integrate gender equity considerations more strongly into its operations – incentivized through a progressive interest rate reduction. Actions included an internship for women STEM students, increasing female participation in the workforce of project construction, etc. Soleco has passed on some of these requirements to their EPC and O&M contractors – hence amplifying the effect.

Laura Lahti, Impact Manager at Camco Clean Energy, speaks of how the Camco-managed Renewable Energy Performance Platform incentivizes its investees to include gender equality considerations in their operations by analysing the gender equality situation within the company, country of operation and target sector, and establishing a gender action plan by identifying gender performance indicators and sex-disaggregated targets against an established baseline.

Data is important

Ambassador Blackman makes the point that to fully understand where and how to go forward, the sector needs to establish a comprehensive baseline of where it is today, whether at a utility level or in off-grid communities.

Baseline data is also required to design approaches that close gender gaps. Without knowing the baseline, unrealistic requirements might be introduced that will prohibit companies from taking part. Embedding gender requirements needs to be specific to the local context.

But while data is very important, it is also hard to collect. And there is often the additional challenge of there not being a single agreed definition or system for monitoring. Despite this, progress is being achieved, with Inka pointing out that efforts have been made on strengthening sex-disaggregated data systems around employment in the Pacific focused on the energy sector through, for example, Pacific Power Association’s gender portal. These resources can be a great starting point for data collection, as are national surveys, and in some instances proxy data from other sectors or even regions can be helpful.

A way forward

There is an urgent need to strengthen action to make women a driving force in the development of SIDS’s clean energy sector. Specifically, more attention is needed to:

  • Create the right conditions - and provide the necessary support - to enable women to become key actors at all levels. Change will only be achieved if policy makers set the right targets and priorities, and will require the full participation of all stakeholders.
  • Bridge the enormous financing gap that exists between men and women, with investors proactively seeking to challenge their internal bias.
  • Encourage more women to enter the market by challenging cultural norms, improving education for women and girls, and raising the status and visibility of female role models operating in the sector. This requires the long-term commitment and support of all major stakeholders, including from both the public and private sectors and communities themselves.
  • Realize the opportunities that exist to policy makers, development partners and the private sector in partnering more closely with higher education providers to promote female students’ awareness of the diverse and exciting range of jobs in the sector and close the gender gap in STEM.
  • Help women and girls to understand the critical role that they have in the clean energy transition, instilling in them the confidence to apply for traditionally male roles or seek funding as entrepreneurs. Funders also have a role here to ensure they are gender equity-aligned in their operations and investments.
  • Establish (by governments and development partners) a comprehensive baseline of where the sector is today to properly understand where and how to move forward, and use this data to design approaches that close gender gaps.

The insights shared in this article were taken from an online forum, Putting Women in the Spotlight: How to Ensure Women Play a Key Role in Developing SIDS’ Renewable Energy Sector and Building Islands’ Resilience to Climate Change. The event was co-hosted by Camco Clean Energy and 2X Collaborative, with 2X Collaborative’s Nicole Pitter Patterson acting as moderator. It is available to watch in full here.