Solar 2014 Conference: Bringing Down Barriers for Women in Solar

women in solarIt’s for good reason that the solar industry flaunts its eco-consciousness. But it seems the industry’s consciousness has slipped some when it comes to gender diversity in its workforce.

Women comprise 18.7 percent of the U.S. solar workers according to the latest research by solar job tracker The Solar Foundation. The industry employed 142,698 people in total as of November 2013.

So why aren’t there more women in the solar industry? It’s a straightforward question that comes with layered and complex answers.

On Wednesday, a group of female solar experts took on that question and offered up solutions, during a panel session at the American Solar Energy Society conference in San Francisco, conducted in partnership with the Intersolar conference and expo.

A theme that appeared to echo throughout much of the panel was the issue of confidence. Women tend to underestimate their abilities while men tend to overestimate them, according to Jan Hamrin, a principal partner at the energy policy and program consulting firm HMW International.

Hamrin and other panel members were quick to note that studies have shown that despite women’s and men’s view of their own competence, the genders are on par with one another in terms of performance.

Unfortunately, it’s not good enough just to be competent. In April, the authors of The Confidence Code wrote in The Atlantic that confidence correlates just about the same as confidence when it comes to success.

But women have the power to change this dynamic. Women need to put themselves forward and share their accomplishments, Hamrin said. Also: “Ask for decent pay,” she said.

Asking for lower pay to get a job is a mistake, Hamrin said. “It makes you appear as though you are worth less than the guy next to you who is asking for more,” she said.

Companies also need to do more to bring women into the solar work force, said panel moderator Marlene Brown, a senior member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories. “Companies need to recognize that that there is a need for diversity, and understand the advantages that brings to the table,” she said.

A series of studies over the years, including a recent study on women in the power and utility space by business consulting firm EY, has helped confirm that a diverse workforce financially outperforms its peers.

For companies looking to hire more women, it might mean putting forth additional efforts to get female applicants.

Even solar outfits that have a clear mission to increase the number of women in solar have to target their outreach.

“They just don’t come,” said Anna Bautista, director of construction for nonprofit solar installer Grid Alternatives.

In March, publicly traded solar company SunEdison’s grantmaking foundation gave $1.2 million to Grid Alternatives to provide women hands-on training, mentorships, fellowships, leadership-building events and networking opportunities.

As part of that initiative, Bautista said Grid Alternatives is doubling the number of women it trains in solar installation to 1,000. To get women for the trainings, “you have to go out to engineering groups and construction groups and let women know that solar is an exciting field,” she said.

Another point of concern for some of the panel members is the dynamics of technical training courses and job sites that often consist of all men.

“Some women won’t cross that barrier because they don’t want to be the only woman in the room,” Brown said.

And if they do cross that barrier, women can feel as though they are representing all women, Bautista said. As a result, Bautista said women restrain from asking questions and making the necessary mistakes that come with learning to avoid giving the impression that women can’t do solar.

In response, Grid Alternatives operates women-only trainings and installations so that women can feel at free to ask questions and learn without judgment.

Supporting the idea of women-only trainings is Justine Sanchez, a certified solar installer and instructor with Solar Energy International.

Sanchez took to the microphone from the audience to state, “I think it’s time to take a direct position to get more women in the industry.”

In response to her call to action, she said Solar Energy International is offering an online course in August where female instructors will teach solar design and installation to women participants.

Despite the low numbers of female representation in the solar industry, The Solar Foundation is expecting those numbers to go up. Driving those numbers is a spate of programs, organizations and businesses that have taken root this past year to increase gender representation across all levels of the industry.

Adding to the latest news of women’s advancement in the industry is solar asset management and advisory firm Radian Generation.

The company announced Tuesday that it hired Rhonda Bailey as the company’s solar portfolio manager. Bailey has more than 10 years of experience in the solar industry and holds multiple patents for her work in organic photovoltaic devices.

As well, Claudia Wentworth, CEO of Quick Mount PV, announced at the panel that she is launching a new software company in October aimed at minimizing the steps needed to provide solar to customers and service their systems. Quick Mount PV will simultaneously launch a product meant to decrease installation and design time, she said.

To continue the progress of bringing more women into solar and up in its ranks, Brown said women need to work to get over their fears and believe in themselves.

And the industry also needs to change its culture that can feel exclusionary to women, Sandia’s Marlene Brown said. “And we change that culture by creating opportunity and leadership positions for women,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Grid Alternatives.

Author: Rachel Barron

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