It's 2014, yet there are still gender stereotypes that incorrectly assume that women should be limited to a certain set of career domains. Canada's electricity and renewable energy industry is one such area. Women represent only one quarter of the electricity and renewable energy work force, and fewer than 5 per cent in trades-related occupations, but we are making gains.
Over the next 20 years, the electricity industry will see the expansion, replacement, and refurbishment of most of the electricity infrastructure, much of which was built 30 to 50 years ago. At the same time, the industry will be challenged by the number of retirements projected to occur as baby boomers reach the average retirement age – which is 58 – for this sector, and that will mean there will be tens of thousands of jobs to be filled by younger employees.
Solution: Women, education, overcoming stereotypes
Our mandate at EHRC is to ensure that the HR requirements of the electricity industry are met over the long term. One obvious way to address the pending skills shortage crisis is to increase the participation rate of women in the sector.
Our challenge is to engage and educate young women, educators, industry, government, and all related stakeholders that women are just as capable as men to perform jobs that were previously thought of as 'male-oriented jobs.'
Our research indicates that a substantial number of young women and girls possess an interest and often a passion for the physical sciences, mathematics and technology from a young age. Despite showing interest and strength in these subjects, many women indicated that they were encouraged to channel that interest into more traditional 'female-oriented jobs' – such as teaching, nursing, nutrition, and others. In many instances, women with family members in the electricity sector were encouraged and supported to follow in their footsteps, but females without a familial tie to the sector cited that they were often guided away from trades or technology and pushed towards more traditional female roles and careers.
Challenging the stereotypes
Women surveyed in our recent Bridging the Gap research project indicated that additional career awareness would help to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes of many occupations and trades as being 'men's work.' Highlighting women in advertising and marketing strategies can help to break down gender stereotypes and shift society's view to one that accepts that women are just as capable as men to have careers in trades, technology and electricity.
Leading the way
What's the secret to recruiting women and girls to the electricity and renewables sector ? Women and girls need to see female role models in the workplace – over and over again. They need to receive the message that women can work and be successful in engineering, technology, technical and trades careers.
Who is responsible for leading the way? Everyone who has a voice and the opportunity to break down these gender stereotypes:
• Employers need to develop and maintain inclusive workplaces, and work within communities (high schools, for example) to communicate to girls and women the skills sets and training that's required to work in the sector. CEOs need to lead by establishing a culture where there is no such thing as a 'nontraditional' role for a women. Pre-apprenticeship programs supported by government, colleges and employers provide another vehicle to support women interested in trade related occupations.
• Parents, teachers and guidance counsellors are all key influencers in a young persons' life, and can take the lead when it comes to breaking down stereotypes. As lenders of advice they need to be made aware of the potential for women in trades and technology.
• Women can provide a strong support and information network to those who are working in the field and need support, or those looking to enter the sector who want a "real feel" for what the job entails. Mentorship and sponsorship is critical for the recruitment and retention of women in the sector.
• Men and boys need to be educated that it is common and acceptable to have women work in the industry in any job. As in other previously male-dominated industries that are now have more equal representation (such as law and medicine), men need to be reinforced that these professions are gender-independent.
As a female CEO working to support the electricity industry, I can tell you firsthand that my focus is on executing the daily duties of my job. I don't think of my gender when carrying out my responsibilities. It's a welcoming industry where competence is valued over gender. So women need to tune out the negative noise, dismiss the cynics and critics, and take this message to heart.
Few of us reach our goals without the support and advice of others. Paradigm shifts require repeated focus and attention, and normalizing women in the trades and technology careers will take leadership and commitment by industry and education leaders, as well as women themselves, to truly become women of power.
Michelle Branigan is the CEO of Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC) (@electricityHR), Canada's leading source for HR information for Canada's Electricity Industry. EHRC recently released the findings from its Bridging the Gap project, a public/private initiative that aims to increase the representation of women as skilled workers in the electricity and renewable energy sector in Ontario and nationally.