• Joanne Sheahan

Back in April this year, we hosted a panel discussion on Women in Energy at SEAI’s Energy Show in the RDS. The aim was to start a conversation around the low visibility and under-representation of women in the energy sector and through such a discussion, explore what organisations like SEAI could do to address this issue.

Starting a conversation about women in energy

The idea for a panel discussion grew out of an increasing awareness that women’s representation in the energy sector is generally low. This is obvious from meetings my colleagues and I participate in, conferences we attend and speak at, and, in general, across the media. We started to ask ourselves the wider question of why women’s participation in the energy sector is so low, and if women see the sector as an attractive career option.

The 2017 Energy Show offered a chance to shine a light on the challenges and opportunities for women working in the sector in Ireland, and the importance of recognising the role women have in Ireland’s transition to a low carbon society.

The Women in Energy panel discussion attracted a large audience. Director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA's) Office of Environmental Sustainability, Dr Eimear Cotter chaired the panel. She was joined by Professor Orla Feely, Vice President for Research, Innovation & Impact in UCD; Aoife MacEvilly, Commissioner at the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER); Marie Donnelly, former Director for Renewables, Research and Innovation, Energy Efficiency in the European Commission; and Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government.

You cannot be what you cannot see

The discussion kicked-off on the significance of female role models, considered critically important in terms of reducing gender stereotypes. However, when someone’s success and achievements seem unattainable, it can adversely affect younger women’s self-perceptions and leadership aspirations. Female role models are perhaps most inspirational when we can actually relate to them.

Sticking to the subject of inspiring women, the importance of mentoring was noted, particularly the value of being mentored by someone just a few career steps ahead. For girls in secondary school, hearing from women studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at third level can positively influence university choices. Similarly, women at university could benefit from connecting with women who are in the early stages of their career in the energy sector. 

A low carbon society needs a mix of skills, disciplines and people

The discussion factored in the evolution of the energy sector from a traditional, upstream, largely oil and gas based energy system to a smart, low-carbon, consumer-focused industry and what this means for gender equality. In addition to traditional engineering roles, a new, modern energy system will require a broader range of skills and disciplines. For example, social scientists, communication specialists, community liaison officers, lawyers, project managers, accountants and tax advisors will all be required to support Ireland’s transition to a low carbon economy energy system.

Positive steps forward for gender equality 

The conversation then turned to the silent but powerful unconscious bias that we all hold across a broad range of issues, including gender. Last year, the Higher Education Authority (HEA), published a report reviewing gender equality in Irish higher-education institutions (HEI). The HEA report states, “A fair and transparent organisation will encourage women to have confidence that they will be recognised and assessed based on their true merit and excellence without unconscious bias, and in turn encourage more women to stay in the career pipeline”. Although focused on higher education, this is true across all organisations. The HEA work noted that since the establishment of the first Irish university 424 years ago, there has never been a female university president.

Concluding on a positive note, the panellists pointed to what different organisations are doing to affect change. Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) address unconscious bias in relation to research funding by providing a short training session for their evaluators during the peer review process. This year SFI, the Irish Research Council (IRC) and the Health Research Board HRB will require HEIs to have Athena SWAN gender equality accreditation in order to be eligible for research funding. The Athena SWAN Charter is an internationally recognised ‘quality mark’ for gender equality administered by Equality Challenge Unit in the UK. Accreditation indicates that a HEI has demonstrated its commitment and work in advancing gender equality across all academic disciplines. Currently, five universities in Ireland have bronze institutional awards: UCC, UL, TCD, DCU and UCD.

Women in energy network

Following the success of the panel discussion, there was overwhelming support for convening a women’s network to connect with other women working in the energy sector and address some of these issues. SEAI will host a Women in Energy Network lunch on the 10th of October in House, Leeson Street, Dublin.

If you are interested in the Women in Energy Network, please join our Women in Energy Ireland LinkedIn Group.

Author biography

Joanne Sheahan works on SEAI’s Research, Development, Demonstration and Innovation (RDDI) Programme. Joanne holds a B.A. and L.L.B (Law) from NUI Galway, and a Masters (MSc) in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh. Prior to joining SEAI, Joanne worked as an environmental and sustainability consultant in London and Dublin in the offshore oil and gas and offshore wind sectors. Joanne also worked for a not-for-profit supporting community energy projects in the UK. Follow her on twitter @JoanneCSheahan. For more information on SEAI research funding visit www.seai.ie/grants/research-funding/