Some consider it the match that lit a movement to bring more women into the solar industry. It was an open letter to industry leaders condemning the use of “booth babes,” the scantily clad women hired to lure conference goers into trade show booths.
At one of the industry’s largest gatherings, solar manufacturer Recom had women in skintight cat suits standing behind bars to insinuate being locked in a cage. For Kristen Nicole, a consultant on grid and solar integration, the company had taken it too far.
“It was like one of these companies doubled down and said, ‘Hey. We are going to do something absolutely ridiculous and demeaning to women and throw it out there,’” Nicole said.
As founder of the then-informal group Women in Solar Energy, Nicole knew she had to do something. By writing the letter, Nicole wanted more than to have an honest conversation about the booth babe culture’s impact on both men and women’s ability to do business at solar conferences. She wanted the industry to step up efforts to increase the number of women in solar careers and leadership positions.
Since Nicole wrote that letter a year ago, the solar industry has been responding. New programs, organizations and businesses are emerging to increase gender representation. And a deeper understanding about women’s impact on solar sales has also taken root.
SunEdison announced in March that the company’s grantmaking foundation gave $1.2 million to Grid Alternatives to provide women hands-on training, mentorships, fellowships, leadership-building events and networking opportunities (see Grid Alternatives, SunEdison Team Up to Get Women Working in Solar).
Grid Alternatives installs solar in low-income communities using a professionally guided workforce consisting of volunteers and those receiving job training.
Since the partnership announcement, “employers are calling us to talk about how they can hire more women,” said Erica Mackie, CEO of Grid Alternatives. Previously, Mackie said she never received such calls. Mackie is now in discussions with solar companies about funneling Grid Alternative trainees into jobs.
“In 80 percent of households, it’s the woman who is paying the bills and influencing home improvement,” said Glenna Wiseman, a partner at Indentity3 and co-author of the report.
According to the firm’s research, more than 60 percent of the time it is the woman of the household who initiates discussions about going solar and does the bulk of the research.
The report goes on to highlight where the solar industry could improve its communication with women.
For example, women surveyed said companies could do better addressing all their questions during in-person meetings. Even if the questions appear irrelevant to the solar purchase, they aren’t, Wiseman warns. “All those questions relate to her research,” she said.
To help address the marketing needs of women, Wiseman, along with her business partner and #SolarChat moderator Raina Russo, are working to create a web-based company called Women4Solar. Through the business’ site, women will be able to learn and ask questions about solar, share their solar purchasing experiences, and refer and sell solar.
Wiseman and Russo have already generated a social media presence for the Women4Solar concept through sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn. The two are aiming to launch the Women4Solar website this fall.
Wiseman said it only makes sense that the solar industry would want to boost the number of women in its ranks, and not just in the marketing and sales departments. Seeing women working in all aspects of the solar business, including rooftop installations, can give female customers and potential customers the sense that going solar helps empower other women, Wiseman said. That sense of empowerment can prompt referrals to other potential customers, which Wiseman’s research suggests, is key in most women’s solar selection process.
In addition to its public support of women in solar, SunEdison is also among the solar companies working to boost the number of women inside its own business.
The company began rolling out a series of programs in the fall of 2012 to improve gender diversity across its ranks, according to Susan Rosenthal, senior director of SunEdison’s corporate program management office. Programs include teaming high-potential women in the company with senior executives, an in-house speaker series, peer support meetings, and training to address unconscious biases.
Rosenthal said SunEdison is currently creating internal profiles that showcase the work being done by its female employees. The profiles can be read by anyone in the company, which helps ensure women’s contributions are noticed.
According to Rosenthal, it’s a good business decision to make sure more women participate at all levels of the solar industry. “Research shows that the benefit of having a diverse workforce, whether it’s gender or other types of diversity, drives business results,” she said.
An array of studies over the years has helped make the case that a diverse workforce financially outperforms its peers.
SunEdison’s efforts have helped the company rise above the solar industry average when it comes to hiring women. About 25 percent of the company’s 2,000-plus employees are female. In October, the publicly traded company brought on its first female board member. SunEdison has nine people sitting on its board of directors in total.
Having one female board member might not be much to brag about, but it’s a step in the right direction — and one that may just be an important step in a long journey toward greater gender equality.
The solar industry is on track to see about a 15 percent job growth in 2014, said Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of The Solar Foundation. Luecke isn’t projecting numbers when it comes to how much of that growth will be fueled by women. “But we are going up in terms of female representation,” she explained.
Last year, the solar manufacturing sector led the industry in terms of gender diversity with a workforce comprised of 22.4 percent women, Luecke said. Project development followed with 19.6 percent women, then sales and distribution at 18.6 percent, and installation at 14.8 percent.
When compared to other industries, such as construction — which is comprised of 12 percent women — the solar industry is doing better in terms of gender representation, Luecke said. However, solar falls short when compared to industries such as manufacturing, she said, which is made up of 28 percent women.
The Solar Foundation plans to share how well the solar industry diversified the gender of its workforce when the organization publishes its next job census in January.
Since publishing her open letter, Nicole has been working to make Women in Solar Energy an essential organization for helping to get more women in the industry. Her organization obtained its nonprofit status in January. In May, the trade organization Solar Energy Industries Association signed on as a founding member and gave Women in Solar its first formal donation in the amount of $10,000.
Funding will support Women in Solar Energy’s work, such as submitting member bios to industry conferences to increase representation of women on technical panels, matchmaking women mentors with mentees, and networking events across the country.
Although progress is afoot, the industry is still far from what Luecke sees as the end goal: A workforce made up of 50 percent women and 50 percent men.
When that happens, Luecke believes the industry will look very different.
“Equal pay will be the norm. It won’t be a discussion. We will see a lot more female leaders and women in board positions,” she said. “And there is no doubt that the booth babe culture will be largely eradicated.”
[Editor’s note: This name of the organization in this article has been updated to “Women in Solar Energy.”]