If gender-diverse companies financially outperform their less inclusive counterparts, then why do women make up only 24% of the solar industry? Why does this discrepancy exist and how can we work to eradicate it? Kaitlin Borstelmann of Portland Oregon Women in Renewables and Elemental Energy (POWER) has a few ideas. We spoke to her about the state of the industry, POWER and the benefits of bringing more women to the table.
Tell me about Portland Oregon Women in Renewables (POWER)… How did it start?
It started among solar friends in Portland. We wanted to come together in a space that was comfortable for us to discuss issues we were experiencing in our various workplaces that we felt were unique to us as women. We wanted to find ways to support one another in our career development, and to see if there were others in our area who could benefit as well. Once I started to put the word out, it grew like wildfire. The need was real — there were far more local women in solar than we realized. We also found women working in hydro and wind looking for a local women’s group they could go to for networking and opportunities to get involved in the industry in an exciting way outside of their 9-5 jobs.
What is the goal of the organization? Why is it necessary?
The latest solar census from The Solar Foundation states that women currently represent about 24% of the solar industry, trailing far behind the national workforce average of 47% in the last U.S. census. I believe most members of the industry would agree that increasing women in the workforce would be a good thing – and that goes beyond it just being the “right” thing to do – it makes national business sense.
Women’s empowerment is a key indicator for economic growth and future stable prosperity in growing nations. Recent studies have shown that gender-diverse companies financially outperform the national median by an average of 15%.
Why are our goals as a group necessary in this industry? Because POWER is all about both workforce diversity and inclusion. We seek to reinforce both the retention and expansion of women in our local industry. Increasingly, more women see the renewable industry as vibrant and full of potential. This also means that every year, more women get into the solar field and walk in on their first day of work only to feel that they are the minority.
When I started out in the solar industry, the gender gap made itself apparent very quickly. It was my first career and some part of me accepted that to be a woman in this industry outside of HR and accounting was a strange and difficult thing. But that was 2009, and this is 2016. Year over year, the solar industry has dramatically grown in numbers for full-time, living-wage jobs, and the percentage of women in the industry has grown exponentially as well. When I started in solar, the majority of women I saw at conferences were gaggles of “booth babes” in leather leggings or short dresses and tall-spiked heels. The message about where women fit in this industry was made very clear.
Once women started to filter into technically-detailed and strategically-important roles within the industry, I felt both excited and nervous. I thought, “this is what is needed in solar! This is what will help us mature!” But also, I felt a reservation that those women would leave quickly, once they learned how outnumbered they were.
As a woman raised by a highly successful, hyper-active sales manager father with a love of extreme sports and pulling his daughters into them – I have felt that I can empathetically embrace both sides of the gender gap. In this, I have found a path forward for communication in our industry.
In a way, POWER is a retention measure as much as it is a push for expansion of gender diversity. The group is full of incredible women. Smart, multi-faceted, experienced, thoughtful and hard-working. I feared that this type of solar worker, which is so absolutely critical to our growth as an industry, would grow tired and frustrated too quickly. I wanted to create a space where highly-skilled, impressive women could vent their frustrations and constructively work towards solutions.
That is what I find most amazing about this group of about 60 women — they are all proactive problem-solvers. We have all different personality types and roles represented – introverted, extroverted, project managers, installers, sales and strategy developers, etc. Not one of them has interest in wasting time complaining. Everyone wants to find a proactive path forward.
And every month, at every networking event we hold, I walk away feeling refreshed, inspired and energized. Ready to take on the industry and the world. Most members have told me they feel the same, and that is amazingly fulfilling. It is worth all of the time and effort.
POWER is all about “Workforce development, community building, and dual-approach empowerment.” Tell us more about those core elements…
1. Workforce development
The entire workforce pipeline from kindergarten to mid-life and beyond.
Our initiatives so far on this goal have been to create Solar Summer Camps for young girls. This year we taught 96 girls (ages 8 to 16) about solar through partnerships with both Girls Build and ChickTech in Portland. POWER hosted all-day solar camps that taught on-roof solar installation skills, how solar cells and electric circuits work, and had them power toys, such as a bubble maker, straight from the sun! In our ChickTech camp, we taught the girls soldering and they created their own solar-powered USB chargers to take home.
We are currently discussing initiatives that could support other portions of the workforce pipeline and are actively working with other organizations to amplify results all around.
2. Community Building
Building the network and amplifying the conversation.
We welcome women from all over Oregon into our group and our conversations. We hold monthly women-only networking events and we have remote members video in. We support the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association (OSEIA) quarterly roundtable discussions on women in solar that include both men and women in the conversation. The point here is to invite as many perspectives to the conversation as possible, to build up a strong network of women and male allies.
From the inside out and from the outside in.
There are a few different ways to assess the “empowerment” of women in this industry and our group has chosen to focus on two.
The more traditional perspective on empowerment places an emphasis on mentorship. Helping women become more confident, to speak up, to advocate for better pay and more responsibility, to help women negotiate better. The point is that the focus is on improving the skillset of the women.
We offer mentoring and support between women. It has remained informal because it has happened so naturally. Women have helped one another practice for interviews, negotiate raises, and find new, better-paying jobs. This has happened several times over the past 6 months. We are also engaging in conversations with the committee at OSEIA that has created a focused series on this style of empowerment.
But what happens when you already have incredible, confident, well-spoken women who know how to negotiate well that still feel as though they are not able to reach their full potential within their given industry? That is when the focus needs to be on how the industry as a whole can improve itself to empower women and increase inclusivity at the leadership level.
This empowerment goal is more abstract and something that we are actively engaging in discussions round — we are going to see how effective we can be in our local industry. We are lucky to be centered in an area that is open to change. We have fantastic support from OSEIA and are able to give input on the Oregon Solar Energy Conference (OSEC) – and owners of local solar installation and manufacturing companies have shown their support as well. Quarterly roundtable events that also include men from the industry will continue to offer insight and reinforcement from male allies. It is within this welcoming environment that we will be able to hatch some pilot programs and watch the ripple effects they create.
You’ve worked on the business development side of solar for a while. From your perspective, how is this industry growing and changing?
The industry as a whole is maturing. The seasonal “solar-coaster” (the major rush to install in Q3/Q4, taking a huge dip in Q1, and ramping back up in Q2) is starting to become less erratic. As the industry becomes more predictable, more legitimate, fiscally-sustainable companies are making their mark on the national stage. And as they do so, they are becoming comfortable making real investments in attracting and retaining high-quality employees. Long-term employee benefits are a reality in far more installation companies and now more women with impressive skillsets, education and experience are embracing the idea of moving over to the solar industry.
Our industry is experiencing an influx of talent, of both men and women. I had meetings with several of these kinds of high-power women at Solar Power International who finally feel that the solar industry has grown up enough to support their pay and benefit goals, and to grow their careers. It is a very exciting time to be a woman in the solar industry, and a very exciting time to be a part of an organization like POWER.
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