Today’s Outlook for Women in Cleantech

 In WCS Blog

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By Maria Ava

Despite all the advances women have made in the world, we’re still underrepresented in tech. Cleantech is no exception. Why is this happening, and what can we do about it?


Perhaps it starts when we’re younger and are taught that science and technology are exclusively for boys. This can be amplified further when we actually do get into the field, and biases and questions about our capabilities come into play. No matter the reason, it’s an ongoing issue that must be addressed.

The many recent stories about women in tech shed some light on the issue. And we’re seeing some rays of hope in the form of serious actions to rectify the situation.

Why are there so few women in tech?

Gender representation in tech has decreased since the mid-1980s, when 37% of computer science majors were female. Now that number is closer to 18%. In some cleantech areas the percentage of women is going up, but it still remains very low. We hear about this a lot in solar, where, as in many STEM fields, women make up onlyabout 21% of the industry.

In today’s tech workplace, a male-dominated “brogrammer” culture has excluded women. Even highly skilled experts are often overlooked and passed over for advancement. Women speak of hostile cultures where they are criticized not for their performance but for personality, behavior, and appearance that do not conform with male culture.

The culture in technology startup companies and venture capital firms thrives on risk-taking. That’s also true in cleantech, which is full of startups trying new things. The expectation of all-night working marathons in many of these companies clashes with the needs of families, and may keep women in the traditional gender roles of family care and child-raising. Similarly, team bonding arising from many long, intense work sessions could feed into a culture that excludes women as equals.

Changes afoot in tech

But this may be starting to change. Women’s voices are making a difference in tech. They’re helping to bring about gender-friendly changes and encourage respectful and inclusive attitudes.

Many strong, visible female role models and organizations support technical women:

  • In September 2014, President Obama appointed Megan Smith as the US Chief Technology Officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy to focus on how energy policy, data, and innovation can advance the future of the United States.
  • Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez has vigorously advocated STEM education for girls.
  • Women in Technology, International (WITI) empowers technical women through conferences, workshops, networking, and training in workplace advancement.
  • PowerToFly supports accomplished tech women in choosing flexible or remote jobs. This lets them attend to family without jeopardizing either their family or their career, as they might have to at companies with full-time on-site jobs.

The Anita Borg Institute, aiming to ensure that women are vital to building technology,has compiled a list of the best places to work, including such giants as BNY Mellon, Apple, American Express, Google, eBay, Goldman Sachs, IBM, and USAA. Google’s workforce is up to 30% women, although the number is only 17% women for its tech workforce. Many other companies have about 25% women in their engineering and development areas.

A new executive role, Chief Digital Officer, may help crack the glass ceiling; women have recently been outpacing men two to one in this role. And according to USA Today, women were a significant force at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference focusing on startups.

Focus on women in cleantech

Many cleantech industries are putting a similar focus on women. A prime example is solar.

The solar industry is young and growing, and like many tech industries, it thrives on rapid development and disruptive breakthroughs. So while the organization of women in solar was slow to happen at first, it’s sped up recently. This was clear in the galvanizing response by Women in Solar Energy (WISE) to the booth-babe culture at trade shows. In dynamic technology areas, change can occur rapidly.

WISE aims to pull together the collective energy and experiences of women across the United States who are working in all aspects of the solar industry. That means anyone from women making the panels to those working at local energy companies – andeven female students who are interesting in going into the solar industry. Because of solar’s resemblance to the construction and engineering fields, many women are hesitant to enter this young industry. However, this is a mistaken assumption. The solar industry needs a diversity of talents and outlooks, matching the diversity of roles and functions within a company.

In a sister clean energy industry, the organization Women of Wind Energy features pathways to success via mentorship and coaching. And Women in Cleantech and Sustainability also seeks to further women’s roles in green industries.

These organizations and more have worked to create a positive impact on the cleantech field for women. Hopefully, many more will follow in their footsteps.

Encouraging women to thrive in cleantech

How can we support more women entering cleantech – and encourage them to stay there? We need to ensure that women realize they can enter careers in diverse areas of job functions through their transferable skills, not just through the STEM fields. It’s also key for middle and upper management to set the tone of inclusiveness and for women to support other women.

We can hope that the recent condemnation of hostile attitudes and cultures, together with active steps to nurture and mentor women throughout the technology and engineering areas, will help all cleantech industries develop a gender-friendly and diverse culture that will benefit all.

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Maria Ava is a freelance writer currently living in Chicago. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a minor in Communication. She blogs about environmentally friendly tips, technological advancements, and healthy active lifestyles.

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