Women networking to boost solar energy

By Sandra Damiani (Sapopema Comunicação Socioambiental)

Ilustração: Carmen San Thiago (Cajuí Comunicação)
Illustration: Carmen San Thiago (Cajuí Comunicação)

Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing sectors in the global energy industry, generating jobs and opportunities for socioeconomic development and environmental benefits, but the proportion of men and women in this sector remains quite unequal. According to a survey conducted by Greener in 2020, 40% of solar energy companies in Brazil have no women on their staff. The desire to change this imbalance prompted five players to create the Women’s Network in Solar Energy (Rede Mesol), an initiative supported by GIZ Brazil through the Energy Systems of the Future (ESZ) project, which encourages the uptake of renewable energies in Brazil’s energy mix.

After watching a webinar on energy grids by the International Society for Solar Energy, five renewable energy researchers from southern Brazil talked about their local environment: they were a minority in the sector, and they often looked down on in their day-to-day work. Then they felt like meeting other women in this sector in Brazil and learning about their experiences. They volunteered to host the 1st Meeting of Women in Solar Energy, which had 30 attendees in-person and was also held on-line – so far the event has had in excess of 1,000 views. The Rede Mesol was born out of this meeting, with 285 women in the WhatsApp group and more than 1,800 followers on social media.

Prejudice and overcoming prejudice – The story of Kathlen Schneider, co-founder of the Rede Mesol, illustrates the need to make this market more inclusive and the importance of networking for women in the solar energy sector. As an undergraduate student, Kathlen had to carve her own path to work with sustainability in the civil engineering industry. This is a male-dominated universe – there were six times as many men in the classroom and little was said about new markets for work and innovation with a focus on sustainability.

When looking for opportunities on campus, she volunteered at the Laboratory of Energy Efficiency in Buildings at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, where she held a scientific initiation scholarship. It was after getting to know women from other countries as part of an exchange program in New Zealand that she developed a clearer awareness of all the gender inequality in this sector in Brazil.

“I had a hard time in engineering school as I suffered a lot of prejudice. People looked down on me, I heard jokes about my body, about being beautiful and never about my intelligence. You have to play along in this male-dominated world in order to carry on. Even so, I consider myself in a privileged position. The reality is even tougher for low-income, black women with no equal access to education, and that’s the majority of women,” she says. In a survey conducted by Rede Mesol in 2019, 64% of females working in the sector reported that they had heard sexist comments and 49% had suffered discrimination in the workplace because they were women.

GIZ Brazil established a bridge between Rede Mesol in Brazil and other networks, such as the Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition (GWNet), where Schneider participated in a yearlong mentoring program in South Africa with support from ESZ project. “GIZ played an instrumental role in making ideas come true. The network took on an incredible scale,” says Schneider, who is currently managing the Institute for the Development of Alternative Energies in Latin America (IDEAL).

In 2021, the Rede Mesol collaborated with the German-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Rio de Janeiro (AHK-RJ) and relied on support from the C40 Cities Finance Facility (CFF) and GIZ to conduct the survey “Solar energy in Brazil: what are the barriers and opportunities for female workers in this sector?”. This study showed that women enter the solar energy market at a younger age and tend to be more educated than men, but on average they earn 31% less than their male co-workers. Almost all of them (92%) reported that they faced barriers and challenges to remain in the sector, such as a macho attitude and prejudice, lack of information and opportunities, as well as poor access to leadership positions. Racial inequality also emerged from the survey. Among all respondents, only 30% are black.

As a result of actions in the Rede Mesol, female workers in the solar energy sector are starting to get to know each other, to network, and even provide job referrals. Many partnerships of women who developed projects together emerged in the WhatsApp group. “Women are starting to become more aware of their condition and fight for a different world. We hope that the next generations will find a more equal place,” she says. For this, the Women in Energy campaign was launched on YouTube in collaboration with GIZ to encourage young girls to pursue higher education with a view to working in the sector later.

Gender equity with the inclusion of cis- and transgender women also provides new perspectives to tackle global environmental challenges. “We urgently need to find solutions to climate change and if we continue on this business-as-usual path we are not getting anywhere different. By having more diverse perspectives, more women and people in different social, economic and environmental contexts, we can have different solutions and richer ideas, proposals and solutions.”

Project: Energy Systems of the Future (ESZ)
Partner: Ministry of Mines and Energy
Commissioned by: Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ in German)

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