Why energy tech
needs women

Missing Out

Nicola McCheyne was made redundant on the first day of her maternity leave. She also writes about losing projects to male colleagues when she announced she was pregnant and being told to “go home and put make-up on” before a work event.

Having moved on from these painful experiences with her former employers, Nicola now works at Centrica Innovations heading up the Ideas Lab. And she is at the forefront of efforts to change the way we use and harness energy. New ideas and new approaches are crucial to achieving a low-carbon, sustainable future. But too many ideas are being lost, according to a number of different reports, because the women who come up with them aren’t being given the chance.

The history of women in science is filled with stories of talented individuals forced to fight prejudice just to be heard.

But as society changes, both the energy and technology sectors are in danger of lagging behind. And as Maria McKavanagh, COO of award-winning energy tech start-up Verv, says, it is the responsibility of everyone who works in energy tech to change that.

The problem starts at an early age, with girls less likely to be encouraged to pursue an interest in science and technology. Just a quarter of graduates in core STEM subjects are women.

But the gender disparity gets worse the higher up one goes. Only one in seven managers at engineering and tech companies is female. On the boards of the UK’s leading energy companies, there is only one female executive for every 17 men.

The irony is that the cleantech sector – the technology and businesses which facilitate environmental, sustainable or green products and services – is crying out for the skills and experiences that women can bring. Nicola McCheyne says an increase in female workers can give companies a competitive edge.

“I would argue that what sets teams and entrepreneurs apart is rarely their technological prowess. More often than not, it’s the skills often dismissed as the ‘softer’ side of business – marketing, communications and product development; empathy, the ability to understand what is driving people’s behaviour, decision-making – all skills that women typically excel at.”

Sexism? Or Something Else?

Unfortunately, sexist behaviour can happen in any workplace. And it isn’t confined to obvious examples such as overt harassment.

The London Sustainable Development Commission’s “Women in Cleantech” report contains testimony from many women of behaviour that displays a subconscious bias.

For example, “hepeating”: where a woman makes a recommendation and is ignored; then a man makes the same recommendation, and it is adopted. Or the common practice of technical questions being directed towards less-qualified men, rather than more-qualified women.

There is also evidence that positive attributes – for example listening, organisation skills, consultative behaviour and inclusive management styles – are too often undervalued or, in extreme cases, seen as weaknesses.

This behaviour can have far-reaching consequences. Nearly half of the women surveyed expressed a lack of self-confidence. Many also reported feeling like an “impostor”, or that they didn’t “fit the mould”.

This can lead to a vicious circle where women are held back not just by the attitudes of male colleagues, but their own lack of self-belief – a point made by several highly successful women who advocate strategies for tackling self-doubt. Michelle Obama, for example, advises women to “know your own value”, while Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks of confidence and leadership as muscles, that need to be learnt. And, indeed, many of the women surveyed acknowledged the importance of coaching in practical measures, such as stating their credentials up front.

Another common theme was a lack of senior female role models, or the experience of being “the only woman in the room”.

On a positive note, many felt the sector was full of people of both genders eager to recruit, promote, and mentor women.

Follow the Money

One fact about gender diversity often gets forgotten: employing women is good for the bottom line.

Time and again analysis of companies around the world shows that those that employ more women, especially in senior management roles, are more profitable. And businesses founded by female entrepreneurs typically bring in double the revenue per dollar invested, according to a report from the Boston Consulting Group.

However, a new report by the British Business Bank found just 11% of the venture capital invested in new start-ups goes to businesses with at least one female founder. And all-female teams got less than 1% of the pot, a situation Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss wants to change.

Part of the problem is male domination of a finance industry where success often relies on networking. According to the British Business Bank, venture capital firms are 13 times more likely to give funding to start-up founders who are personally recommended to them by someone they know: what is known as a “warm” introduction. And the data shows all-female teams are less likely to get that crucial introduction.

But there’s also evidence that the process of pitching for investment itself is biased against women. The balanced way that women tend to present risk is seen as less alluring than the optimistic, “bright-side only” approach favoured by men. And even the questions asked in pitch meetings are often framed differently, with men being given more opportunity to focus on potential gains, and women interrogated about potential losses.

Yet entrepreneurship in the cleantech sector offers many benefits that can particularly appeal to women, including more flexible working patterns and a strong sense of purpose.

And things are changing. Centrica is committed to putting £100 million into new technology and ideas, and Jonathan Tudor, Technology and Strategy Director at Centrica Innovations, is clear about the benefits of investing in women.

“We’ve witnessed first-hand what an important contribution women have to play in the innovation space, with 60% of our venture investments last year being led by female founders, and women making up half of our technology and innovation advisory committee. As well as being a better bet financially, I believe that greater diversity will ultimately deliver better solutions for our customers.”

The London Sustainable Development Commission is even looking at the potential for a venture capital fund exclusively for cleantech start-ups with female founders, boards and management teams.

A Female Future

The challenges facing the world are too great to allow talent and ideas to be wasted. Both business practices and culture will need to change if women are to be attracted to the technology sector, and then choose to stay there.

POWERful Women is an initiative set up in 2014, with the aim of advancing gender diversity in the energy sector. It has ambitious targets, aiming to have women in 40% of middle management roles, and 30% of executive board positions, by 2030.

Ambitious, but achievable. Anna Gustavsson, Global Head of Propositions at Centrica Hive, is an example of a woman forging a career in new energy tech. She says the perception of the “old boys’ club” is gradually becoming out of date.

“It is true that there are still more men than women, but it is changing.”

The evidence from companies that have started making changes shows dramatic improvements are possible. Policies that empower and promote women lead to more profitable, resilient and innovative companies, with all employees, not just women, reaping the rewards.

It’s been more than a century since Ada Lovelace published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a computer; 75 years since computer pioneer Grace Hopper started programming; and 50 years since Margaret Hamilton’s software put a man on the moon. It’s time to inspire a new generation of women who will change the world. And nobody will tell them whether or not to put their make-up on.