You can’t go to a major solar conference without hearing about women in solar. It was a recurring theme at Solar Power International this week. So, what’s the buzz?

The issue

In case you’re new to this one, here’s a quick rundown on the issue, which we’ve covered before:

  • Women make up only about 20% of the solar workforce.
  • Companies with more women, and more diversity in general, do better.
  • Many solar customers are women, so we need solar workers who understand them.
  • Both solar and the tech industry are struggling to attract and retain more women.

What’s being done

As more women get into solar, more efforts are being made to support them and grow their numbers:

  • Organizations like Women in Solar Energy (WISE), Women in Cleantech and Sustainability (WCS), and Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) are working to support women in solar and other clean-energy fields. With a slightly different slant, Women4Solar aims to bring women and women’s perspectives to the forefront of the solar industry.
  • The National Women in Solar Initiative started by GRID Alternatives and SunEdison provides women with hands-on training, real-world experience in solar installation, and paid fellowships, plus solar installation events and other networking opportunities.
  • Some solar companies are seeing the benefits of hiring more women, and doing more to support and retain them.

What you can do

At SPI, I ran into a male colleague who founded a solar startup. He and his (female) CEO have been actively trying to recruit more women to their company. But he’s feeling frustrated. When he advertised for a coder, only a handful of women applied for the job. Only one showed up for a coding test. He wanted to know what he could do.

There’s no simple answer to his question, and no simple fix for this systemic problem. But we can tackle it from a number of angles. Both women and men can take actions that will add up to a big effect:

  • Join and support organizations like WISE, WCS, and WEN, and Women4Solar.
  • Make a pledge for gender inclusion in solar, following the example of Ed Zimmerman’s tech pledge. For example, you might pledge that if you’re invited to a panel with four or more speakers, at least one must be a woman. The more women are on panels, at conferences, and at other solar events, the more women will see solar as an area they can go into. (You don’t even have to limit this pledge to the solar industry.) You can also sign the #NationWise Pledge for Women in Solar, to help foster a strong female workforce for clean energy.
  • Call out all-male panels, following the example of Dr Saara Särmä. Use the hashtag #AllMalePanel on Twitter, or submit your example on Tumblr.
  • Speak up at your company and at events, to bring the issue to people’s attention.
  • Reach out to other women, whether it’s to support them in their careers or to ask for advice on yours. LinkedIn is a great forum for this.

The situation at SPI

BoothBabe1We noticed more women at SPI this year than in the past, something that was corroborated by fellow conference-goers. While the number of women is on the upswing, the booth babe count is thankfully on the decline. We spotted a few of the usual suspects, but at least they weren’t in cages.

While there were certainly some women on panels at SPI, we’d like to see more — especially on the General Session panels. We hope this will continue improving.

We didn’t have a chance to catch all the women in solar doings at this year’s SPI, most notably the popular Women in Solar Energy breakfast. A welcome feature of WISE events is their interactivity and focus on follow-up — so it’s not just an inspiring feel-good session but a true call to action.

Insights from Professional Women in Solar event 

We did make it to the Professional Women in Solar Panel Discussion and Reception, which, like other women-focused events at SPI, was sold out. This event has a long history for solar, having been held for nine years now. It’s SPI-only, so its effects are somewhat limited. But it always draws excellent panelists, and this year was no exception.

Tamara Mullings, Chief of Staff at SunEdison, had some great points on why diversity is important to any business — and especially to a solar company:

  • Diverse teams and companies outperform. Numerous examples and figures back this up.
  • When we include women, we tap into a much larger talent pool — something important to do as our industry grows.
  • Having more women in a company helps the company better understand and acquire customers.
  • It’s the right thing to do, and it drives brand reputation.

SunEdison has specific diversity and inclusion objectives:  to create a thriving work environment, build a more diverse team, and provide thought leadership and a model for the industry. To this end, the company has developed a number of “diversity and inclusion” policies and programs, such as maternity and paternity leave, flextime, awards and pathways for growth, and a policy for a respectful workplace, with zero tolerance for harassment.

Broadening the discussion to include other parts of the world, Andrea Griffin of SunFunder and Leslie Labruto of the Clinton Climate Initiative got into some interesting global data about women. Griffin pointed out that many customers in the emerging markets served by SunFunder are women. Unusual for a financing company, SunFunder has so far had a 0% default rate. (Could those two facts be related?)

Labruto, who works with island nations, said her organization is highly data driven. When they started looking at why there are so few women in island governments, they realized that globally, only 22.2% of parliament positions are held by women. In the U.S., only 5% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women CEOs.

How do we change this? The Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings project can help companies. A good first step is to identify a champion for the effort in the organization. While this is important, the corporate culture has to change — so the effort can’t be limited to just the one champion. Support must be garnered from the top, since those at the top of an organization can influence corporate culture most effectively.

Also important, said Labruto, is to name the issue. Say what’s missing — often, issues confronted by women in solar won’t be dealt with if they’re not identified and named.

Labruto approaches the issue similarly to how her organization approaches climate change — as a systemic problem. She suggesting thinking about how to change the system in your company.

Another thing we can all do, the panelists advised, is to vote with our career decisions. Choose jobs at companies with cultures that support women — and all employees. Ask for what you want; we’re at the point in the industry where this is possible.

As Labruto said, “We can be the CEOs. We can be the ceiling-breakers that we want to be.”