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You can't solve SA's energy crisis with half the team

Mar 10 2019 15:58
Sharron L. McPherson

Amid calls for change and transformation of South Africa’s energy industry across all sub-sectors and plans to restructure and unbundle the failed state utility, Eskom - Minister of Energy, Jeff Radebe, is urging all stakeholders in the energy sector to engage in meaningful consultations about transitioning to more renewable energy sources.

Research by EY shows that greater female representation in boardrooms of state utilities results in better business performance, with the top 20 gender-diverse utilities outperforming the bottom 20 by 14.8%.

Yet the energy sector in South Africa - and indeed worldwide - has been a male-dominated arena for decades, with very low female representation at executive and senior levels. 

According to the recent Ernst & Young’s (EY), Women in Power and Utilities Index, only 5% of board executives and 16% of board members of the top 200 utilities globally are women.

Vanessa Moungar, director of the African Development Bank’s gender, women and civil society department, echoes research that is by now widely known and cited when she says,"[d]iversity is not only nice to have, there’s a business case for it."  

What is at stake goes to the very heart of ‘sustainable’ and ‘inclusive’ infrastructure growth and development in Africa.

Energy transition

It is not only about money and profit - experts say a lack of women in energy is holding back the sector in terms of mitigating climate change.

Catherine Mitchell, a professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter who has worked on energy issues for more than 30 years, says she believes a failure to transform adequately in terms of race and gender is also slowing down the industry's energy transition.

There is evidence to back up her claim. According to Mafalda Duarte, head of the Climate Investment Fund, research shows that agreements on the environment are more likely to be signed and projects relating to natural resources, such as water, have a bigger chance at success if women are involved in decision making.

A report released in March 2018 showed that boards with greater gender balance tended to prioritise environmental issues and are more likely to invest in renewable power, low-carbon products and energy efficiency.

Yet another study found that women in the US House of Representatives consistently outvoted male counterparts on protecting the environment.

An Australian study reveals women at Western Sydney University were eight times more likely to think that climate change would impact on their lives, compared to male respondents.

This is why some, like Dana Elhassan, senior gender expert at the African Development Bank, believe that empowering women in the context of climate change is important. "You cannot solve a problem with half the team," says Elhassan.

Unfortunately, in South Africa, women do not even constitute half the team on boards of companies operating in the energy sector and certainly do not constitute even one third of senior management.

Outdated ideas

Sexist, outdated ideas continue to persist despite overwhelming evidence that proves the benefits of inclusive practices. Unfortunately, ideas like those of the controversial former CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering, Manglin Pillay, who claimed there was no place for women in engineering or the field of science, still prevail. Even though Pillay was sacked over his comments, it is clear that his views are not that uncommon in the Southern African context.

According to Dr Margaret Mkhosi, who was the first black woman in South Africa to attain her PhD in nuclear engineering, "We have been brought up in an environment that promotes the culture of men being superior to women.

"Young women are being told that STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is for a man, and they’re suited for domestic jobs, so they don’t see themselves putting on boots and a hard-hat to head out to the field." Dr. Mkhosi also shared that she was consistently ridiculed during her studies.

Fighting fire with facts

Yet, despite the considerable odds against them, there are a significant number of women succeeding in the energy sector. Women like Dr Mkhosi and others like Brenda Martin, CEO of the South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA), are fighting fire with facts.

Martin tells skeptics of inclusive growth that the "renewable energy sector is currently four times more employment-intensive than the country’s coal and nuclear sectors, as confirmed by the Department of Energy".

Her organisation has promoted women in leadership in the energy sector through programmes that proactively address issues of gender and transformation and more recently this has been backed up by an Industry-wide commitment on employment transformation.

"Transformation of the four-year-old SA renewable sector requires specific programmes focused on actively taking up opportunities within the value chain of renewable power. It is part of SAWEA's commitment to actively working to drive a goal-focused transformation agenda within the renewables industry,"says Martin.

Other groups, like South Africa’s Women in Oil and Energy SA (WOESA) also highlight the importance of a coherent approach including specific programmes, and targeted initiatives based on actual policies.

South Africa is in the process of finalising  the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which will be government’s long-term plan for energy. It will likely lead to more renewable energy contracts and partnership opportunities for women involved in the renewable energy sector in South Africa.

READMore pain for consumers as food prices, farmers to be affected by electricity hike

With hope, REIPP Round 5 will introduce specific gender equality qualifying factors, incentives and policies to promote women-owned businesses and companies.

At the recent Women in Energy conference held in Cape Town, it was clear that there are many competent, skilled and smart women in the energy sector in South Africa and indeed, on the African continent, who are able to play in the big leagues, discuss solutions to serious energy dilemmas and come up with solutions to industry problems.

More than talk

One of Africa’s largest women’s investment companies, Women in Infrastructure Development & Energy (WINDE), has over 2 000 women-owned businesses and operated businesses which have increased women’s participation in some of Africa’s biggest smart city development projects.

The South African energy sector needs people to do more than talk. What the sector needs, is a greater commitment from government and private organisations in terms of inclusive growth.

We need fora where we are able to talk specifics in terms of increasing women’s meaningful participation as service providers and in procurements - and their ownership in IPPs in the renewable energy space.

Women in the energy sector don’t need a handout - they need a hand. Then they will get down to good business practice and help bring about the transformation of an industry that is in dire need of it.

Sharron L. McPherson is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) and the Co-founder and Director of The Centre for Disruptive Technologies. She is also a co-founder and shareholder of the Women in Infrastructure Development & Energy Consortium.

* Update: This article was updated on 12 March to reflect that Dr Mkhosi was the first black woman in SA to attain her PhD in nuclear engineering.



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