What’s it like to be a woman working in the energy industry?

Working in a male-dominated sector is still a challenge, but industry ambassadors are steadily attracting more women

Anyone who has studied engineering at university will know that the vast majority of students are male. This early experience can be helpful in preparing women for a career in a male-dominated industry, and there’s no doubt that, even today, working in the energy sector is still largely a man’s job.

Despite perceptions, however, women have played an important role in science and engineering for generations and are now beginning to lead the sector today. In 1876, Elizabeth Bragg became the first woman to graduate with a civil engineering degree in the US, graduating from the University of California, Berkeley.

More than a century later, we have seen Lady Barbara Judge as chair of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Joan MacNaughton as the current chair of the World Energy Trilemma for the World Energy Council, and Estelle Brachlianoff appointed as executive vice-president of Veolia in the UK and Ireland.

Nevertheless, gender is an ongoing issue for women working in energy. Even after five years in the onshore wind industry, I am often greeted with some surprise when I arrive on site if the (usually entirely male) installation team I am working with haven’t met me before.

As the site and installation team lead for Senvion, an international manufacturer of onshore and offshore wind turbines, I am responsible for managing the team which oversees all phases of a wind farm’s installation. My team ensures that all the tools and equipment are in place to install and commission the turbines on schedule and within budget. I joined the company in 2009 after completing an MSc in Energy, but I haven’t always worked in this sector.

After studying product design engineering at undergraduate level, I started my career as a quality manager for a medical device manufacturer and working in and around the health sector, an industry which has a much more sustainable gender balance. But I wanted to combine my engineering skills with a personal ambition to work in an industry that contributes positively towards a more sustainable environment.

There are signs of progress in attracting and retaining women in the energy industry. A recent survey by Scottish Renewables found that more than a quarter of employees in the Scottish renewable energy sector are women – a much larger proportion than work in the oil and gas or nuclear sectors. I believe the fact that renewables is a relatively young industry has an influence on these findings. It is a dynamic and exciting area to work in, and I am sure that’s what makes it attractive to women.

Of course, there is still much room for improvement, and progress in renewables is not enough by itself. There is still a lack of awareness of the types of opportunities and roles available in the energy sector, so many women don’t consider it as a potential career path.

It is also vital that we encourage women to stay in the sector and move up into more senior positions. After all, it’s hard for young women and girls interested in engineering to imagine their own professional future without role models who ook and sound more like them. Networks such as Women in Renewable Energy Scotland (WiRES) and the Scottish Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology at Napier University help to promote the industry as a rewarding place for women to work.

Highlighting case studies and “ambassadors” for the industry could also help to provide role models for women. Challenging the reinforcement of traditional gender stereotypes within science, technology, engineering and maths subjects at school and university level would also be beneficial.

At Senvion, we have several female engineers, including our head of projects for northern Europe, and the company recognises the value of a healthy work-life balance for all employees – a policy which proved particularly important to me when I returned from maternity leave last year.

If I had to list three key skills required to be successful in my role, I would say that you need to work well under pressure, be resilient and have a pragmatic and logical approach to overcoming challenges. These are all qualities which can be used to help overcome the barriers that a male-dominated industry might place along a woman’s career path.

A career in energy can not just open many doors but the sense of satisfaction I get from knowing I have helped to contribute towards a greener environment is unbeatable. I just hope that my efforts help to break down those barriers for other women in the future.

Julie Rankin-Perez is site and installation team lead for Senvion. Source article: The Guardian, 23 December 2014.