#STANDTALL: POLICY BRIEF—CLOSING THE GENDER GAP IN ENERGY SECTOR
In development literature, investment in women is dubbed smart economics, because of the attendant multiplier effect that accompanies women empowerment initiatives. In terms of energy services, the entire ECOWAS region is under-served. More acutely, observers have noted that the consequences of this energy scarcity is direr for women than their male counterparts. This is a serious issue for the region, since women constitute “50% of the ECOWAS population and 43% of the work force”.
Generally, life expectancy is low in the region. This is coupled with the fact that women live longer than men and as a consequence, many families and households are headed by women. In a 2013 workshop organized by ECREEE, it was documented that “female headed households tend to be the poorest and therefore often lack the collateral to pay for connection fees and also to finance off-grid energy systems”.
ECOW-GEN network also noted that “per day, the time spent on gathering wood fuel ranges from 1-2 hours in Liberia, 3-4 hours in Nigeria and 3-5 hours in the Gambia. The time dedicated to this activity deprives women of numerous opportunities for self-advancement, especially in economic endeavours and therefore contribute to the development of their community.” That women do not have access to the energy they need is just one-half of the problem. The flip side is more disturbing as it depicts a societal inequality; it is the fact that women are under-represented in the energy sector, most especially in the technical areas.
An ILO 2007 study noted that in developed countries, the share of female employees in the energy industry is estimated at only 20%, most working in non-technical fields such as administration and public relations. Worldwide, women account for only 9% of the construction workforce and make up only 12% of engineers. The UN Women (2010) went on to document that “worldwide, women occupy around 19% of all ministerial posts, but only 7% of these are in environment, natural resources and energy, and a mere 3% are in science and technology.” The figures are even much lower in developing countries.
PREVAILING POLICY SCENARIO
The traditional role of women in the family is that of a home maker. This is most especially true in the rural areas. As a result, they need woodfuel, they need motive power, they lack access to modern cooking facilities, they need lighting, they need communication but all these needs come to naught. The shortage of energy services leads to significant loss of time and productivity. Worse still, many girls are brought up just to follow the status quo.
Another factor that reinforces this state of affair is education. The ECOW-GEN group reported that “compared to men, women have fewer opportunities to be competitive in the job market since fewer numbers are enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiary schools.” Put more succinctly, “at the primary level, for every 100 male students there are 92 females, and at the tertiary level there are only about 52 female students enrolled in higher institutions of learning for every 100 male students.”
There was also a sample study involving the Gambia, Ghana and Liberia which discovered that in 2012, in the Gambia, Ghana and Liberia only 24%, 15% and 23% of the graduate’s population in science and engineering, respectively were females. The dearth of the female gender in sciences and engineering is scary. And this is not due to low IQ on the part of the women or for lack of intelligence or ability. It is really about value in the society.
STEM disciplines are perceived largely as male disciplines as the career opportunities are deemed ‘man work’. It is so bad that some do not feel very comfortable with a lady teaching mathematics or physics as an occupation, while same is very much okay for a man. So, beside the education gap already alluded to, is carrier consideration. Some ladies do eventually opt for training in the STEM fields but yet highly technical works are deemed men’s work, regardless of whether women have the skill or not.
Corroborating the ‘gender facedness’ of some career paths, a female friend of mine related to me in confidence that her true discipline of interest is mechanical engineering but for fear of societal stigma she opted for electronics engineering. Her departure is not too drastic but for the fact that she shied away from her primary interest is telling. I am a physics student. Of about 20 girls in my class of 80 students, not more than five are willing to take on the field and practice.
The challenge of building a family is another case in point. It goes without saying that the desire to build a strong family is strong and prevalent in the ECOWAS Region. In a conversation with two female engineering students, one asked the other: are you hoping to ever get married? Who wants to marry a female engineer? She was quick to point out female lecturers in their department who already had doctorates and were not yet married; and by their calculation, are not likely to settle down with life partners. These social considerations drive young girls away from high-tech areas and they saunter to medical fields where marriage is almost guaranteed.
The way out of the gross underrepresentation already described is quite tenuous. There is simply no straight way out. I propose a multilateral approach involving all stakeholders:
- CATCH THEM YOUNG:
It has already been noted that fewer women than men pursue training in STEM. Some factors responsible have also been outlined. Training in these fields provides the necessary skills required for entry into the technical sector. If for instance we recruit a number of young women equal to the number of men currently in the sector, the inequality disappears. It becomes obvious that all we have to do is recruit the ladies; enough of them into the sector.
But for this to happen, they need the requisite skills. So I propose we catch them young from the senior years of secondary school with strong incentives like scholarships, internships, mentoring, etc. I do not refer to the awarding of scholarships to the brightest young chap. But in this case, the incentive should be arranged to benefit an average female science student. The summary is this: make the energy sector attractive to the young girls aspiring for careers in STEM. Provide a motivation for them to work towards obtaining the necessary skills and training.
Furthermore, the working policy in the technical areas should be reshuffled to make the sector appealing to married women. In that case, family and marital considerations would not debar or discourage girls from aspiring for a career in the field. Role models should also be provided for the young ones. Successful women who rode to success by building a career in the energy sector should be presented to the young girls for emulation. Children have a way of following suitable role models.
- ADULT TRAINING:
There is this popular statement in Adult Education discipline that “adults contribute to development now!” Training adults have an instant remuneration. A study in Guinea indicated that rice de-hulling machines took twenty minutes for a task for which each women previously needed half a day. This was part of a multifunctional platform that has a simple diesel engine that can power a variety of tools, generate electricity for lighting and refrigeration, or to pump water. The aim was provision of income generating opportunities through affordable energy services. Based on the current mean use of a similar multifunctional platform in Mali, the domestic time that can be freed with 450 platforms amount to over 1 million hours of tedious work. In 350 Malian villages with platforms, women’s average income has tripled from $34 to $101” according a UNDP report.
The most interesting thing the study established was that in addition to the benefits already outlined, almost all platforms were successful in operating on a cash-positive and self-sustaining basis. And most importantly, it is possible “for illiterate women to manage an energy enterprise, provided they receive training to obtain required skills”.
A similar case in point is the “Women Barefoot Solar Engineers” which is an initiative to train women, especially illiterate women on provision of clean and affordable energy. The Sierra Leone government invested about $820, 000 in the project. The women already trained hope they can run the project independently in what they describe as “the barefoot way”. The whole idea is to train women and include them in the technical part of the energy sector. More importantly, these trainings prepare people and enable them to enter the sector directly.
Getting women involved in this sector has a trade-off—what I call the women for women movement. An IFC study discovered that “female employees and entrepreneurs in the energy sector could be more effective at reaching out to female consumers”. The crux of the matter is that women can be brought into the sector in short term through various training programs. And to this end, there are successful case studies.
- POLICY PERSPECTIVES:
To solve gender inequality in the energy sector, we must put gender at the heart of energy policy formulation. The best way is to engage women in the sector, little as they are. Annie-Marie Slaughter writes that the best hope for improving the lot of all women and closing the gender gap is to close the leadership gap. I propose that to promote and facilitate women entry into the energy sector, give the leadership position to a woman. To infuse more women into the technical part of the energy sector, elect a woman to head the technical sector.
In proposing leadership as a solution, we have a practical lesson from Nigeria’s Ministry of Communication Technology (CommTech). The Commtech minister, Dr. Ms Omobola Johnson is a woman. For one, she is the pioneer minister of that ministry, and only the ministers of Trade and that of Agriculture could be judged ahead of her in terms of performance. She introduced several gender sensitive programs to bridge the gender divide in ICT sector like SmartWomen Nigeria Initiative, 1000 Girls in ICT Training Program, ICT Girls Club and More recently Girls in ICT Day National Essay competition which is currently ongoing.
Annie-Marie Slaughter concludes after a prolonged analysis that “only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that works for all women. That will be a society that works for every one”. But unfortunately, as noted earlier, 19% of ministerial posts worldwide are occupied by women and worse still only 7% of these are in environment, natural resources and energy. This must be improved to make progress.
On a final note, social problems are solved because studies reveal where the root causes are. In the same vein, studies about energy issues should disaggregate statistics according to gender to bring out gender dimensions of the problems clearly. It must also be noted that over and above all this, the cooperation of men must be enlisted to facilitate the closure of this gender gap.