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Women and Cleantech: Glass Ceiling Not Yet Broken

Ever since hearing of Saadia Zahidi’s work on gender parity at the World Economic Forum, I have followed the initiative with much enthusiasm. As a woman, I find her work not only refreshing but absolutely indispensable. Despite the world having progressed in so many ways, women worldwide still face a myriad of problems ranging from pay inequality all the way to human rights abuses so gruesome, they cause shock and despair around the world.

As bad as things appear, the truth is that what we see is likely just a fraction of what occurs. By very definition, the oppressed have no voice. This point was made clear last April when Kathryn Clancy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, pulled in three of her colleagues , Katie Hinde (Harvard University), Robin Nelson (University of California, Riverside), and Julienne Rutherford (University of Illinois, Chicago) to research the prevalence of sexual harassment incidents endured by female anthropologists during field work. The survey not only revealed that there was an alarming rate of such cases (more than 20 percent of female anthropologists had been victims of harassment), it also revealed that the victims kept the abuse silent.

“Quitting a field site, not completing and publishing research, and/or loss of letters of recommendation can have potent consequences for academic careers," said Katie Hindle to Science Magazine. "Taken together, these factors result in a particularly vulnerable population of victims and witnesses powerless to intervene. As a discipline, we need to recognize and remedy that an appreciable non-zero number of our junior colleagues, particularly women, are having to endure harassment and a hostile work environment in order to be scientists."

In recent years, there has been a series of reports and articles that have warned of the lack of women in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) citing hostility and isolation among the reasons for this disparity. For cleantech in particular, this seems like a far cry from the optimism that ran high during the initial boom that affirmed the industry had the potential to prevent climate change, fix the economy and break the glass ceiling for women.  In July of 2013, along with the excitement over Lynn J. Good’s nomination as the first female Chief Executive Officer of Duke Energy Corp, Good was formerly Duke’s Chief Financial Officer, also came much talk of the gender-equity issues that persist in the industry.

“You are seeing the impact of the extraordinary exclusion of women and girls from science, technology, engineering and math professions. Women more often rise through financial professions,” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, told Bloomberg Businessweek.  In December 2013, a report released by Catalyst showed that, for the eighth year in a row, there was no significant change in the number of women on corporate boards in Fortune 500 companies (16.9 percent of female participation in board seats in 2013 versus 16.6 percent in 2012).

Does this mean cleantech will not become the land of opportunity we hoped it would be? Not at all. The race is not over yet. In fact, we have just arrived at its most crucial point. There is an ever growing awareness for the need of a shift to clean energy and it is very likely the industry will see more and more positions to be filled in the next decade, opening new opportunities for women. Additionally, as we face increasingly complex global concerns, it will soon become necessary to develop the capital of our underused resources; in particular the female gender. Combine that with an ever growing awareness that it is time to shatter the glass ceilings that hold women back and you have a recipe for true progress.

As Saadia Zahidi gracefully concluded in her latest Huffington Post op-ed: “Global social change is coming: its progress will not be even, but it is irresistible.”

In the meantime, I offer some inspiration and motivation for all women considering cleantech:

Top 12 Women of Cleantech

Influential Women in Cleantech: Top 10 Women of Sustainability

Top 20 Women in Cleantech Investing

Lead image: Women sunset via Shutterstock

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