Not only is solar one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S., it is also a primary source of new jobs. In a recent blog post, we discussed a few impressive statistics–President Obama’s State of the Union claim that 1 out of every 83 new jobs is solar-related, and the fact that solar employment has seen 20% year-over-year growth for the past three years, among them.
With the solar industry now employing more than the coal and natural gas industries combined, it may surprise many to learn that women make up just 19% of the solar workforce. Even the leading solar conference, Solar Power International, is overwhelmingly male, despite the fact that driving female attendance has been a priority for more than a year.
As a fast-growing industry, solar depends on innovative thinking, and its commitment to new ideas is undermined by a lopsided workforce. Fortunately, there are inspiring success stories we can point to as signs of progress. Dr. Gay Canough, the president and founder of ETM Solar Works, is living proof that women can excel in the solar world–she’s been doing exactly that for nearly 30 years.
Dr. Canough’s technical chops are second to none. ETM started out as an aerospace consulting firm, working on conceptual designs for NASA’s Lunar Prospector (which spent more than a year on the moon in 1998-1999) and conducting studies on space-based solar power.
That led to work a little closer to home, where she was one of approximately a dozen founders of the NY Solar Energy Industries Association (NYSEIA). Today she designs and installs residential and commercial solar electric- and hot water systems, and estimates are that ¾ of the solar installers in New York state have been through one of the more than 200 solar training courses led by Dr. Canough since 2000.
She says that when the path into an industry isn’t obvious, sometimes individuals create their own opportunities–and that leads to business creation.
“You don’t have to be limited as much by the old ways when you’re the boss,” Dr. Canough says. “And when you run your own business, you have an opportunity to choose who you work with, for the most part.”
Another encouraging development is seen with GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that is going to great lengths to right the ship of gender equality. Renewable energy giant SunEdison recently donated $1 million to GRID Alternatives and their Women in Solar Initiative. In return, GRID Alternatives promised to train 1,000 women to perform solar installations, and they hope to have at least 30 women in place as “team leaders” to manage construction crews and direct both men and women on job sites.
Emily Kirsch, the founder of an Oakland-based solar incubator says that inspiring women to start solar-based companies is a vital part of the industry’s innovation story. The incubator is home to multiple solar startups dealing with the soft costs associated with installations, and Kirsch supports women both directly (through the incubator), and informally (through specialized networks meant to connect up-and-coming leaders in the field).
“Working in a male-dominated field, women may feel the burden of being representative for their gender…they either work harder to prove themselves or feel intimidated and not respected,” says Anna Bautista, director of construction for GRID Alternatives, which also runs women-only installations. “Women’s builds are a great space for women interested in solar careers to gain empowering skills and to ask their questions in a supportive environment. ”
Ashley Paulsworth, a policy analyst who has worked in the renewable energy space since 2010, believes the fit between women and this industry is a natural one; she says women sometimes view the world in a more holistic way, which may actually encourage an interest in sustainability and renewable technologies.
“Most of my managers within the energy industry have been women,” she says. “And their directors have been women as well. I think this industry offers a real opportunity for women to participate in science and technology in some interesting ways.”
She adds that solar has really only matured in the last decade, so we may not have had time for long-term biases to form. “Hopefully this will give women a chance to participate in career growth more easily in the renewable industry.”
Like any up-and-coming industry, solar has a definite need for smart, driven people of any gender. For those who feel the draw of a solar career, the upside is significant; jobs are plentiful, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median hourly wage for PV installers at more than $20/hour, and as little as five years on the job can be enough to earn veteran status.
For women (or men) wanting to forge a career or start a new one, this all points to a world of opportunity, and a future that could be as bright as the solar industry itself.