Ed’s note: The benefits of promoting women in energy


A recent study has revealed that utilities with a greater female representation tend to show better business performance, with the “top 20 gender-diverse utilities outperforming the bottom 20 by 14.8%.”

Yet, the energy sector globally still tends to be a male-dominated arena. The research done by EY further reveals that only 5% of board executives and 16% of board members of the top 200 utilities globally are women.

In Asia, the number of women in energy ranges between 3-15%, while the number of women engineers or technicians is even lower (between 1-6%).

The 9th August is National Women’s Day in South Africa and now seems an appropriate time to mention being a woman in the energy sector, especially a politicised energy sector, can be particularly challenging. Take the example of Karen Breytenbach, the outgoing head of South Africa’s PPP office.

Bretytench, who has garnered global respect for her leadership of the South African Renewable Energy IPP programme – and whose team is credited for encouraging investment of well over R200 billion ($15 billion) into the South African economy and the creation of more than 38,000 jobs – has been told that her services are no longer needed. Explanations have been vague and conflicting.

Breytenbach was told in July 2019 that she needed to vacate her position – leaving the IPP office without leadership at a crucial time for both the programme and South Africa’s economy.

The reaction within the sector has been swift and scathing and the opposition Democratic Alliance has requested that the new minister of energy, Gwede Mantashe, provide answers to Parliament.

While Breytenbach may be the victim of political manoeuvring, was any of it influenced by the fact that she was a successful woman? Many women have found that paternalistic attitudes continue to pervade, not only the energy industry but industry globally. In Europe and the US, very few women are utility leaders, even fewer in developing regions.

Dr Margaret Mkhosi, a woman who has broken the stereotype mould would agree. The first black woman in South Africa to hold a nuclear engineering degree, Mkhosi says: “We have been brought up in an environment that promotes the culture of men being superior to women.

“Young women are being told that STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is for a man, and they’re suited for domestic jobs, so they don’t see themselves putting on boots and a hard-hat to head out to the field.” 

Malaysia’s newest minister of energy, Yeo Bee Yin is another woman breaking moulds and reshaping an industry.  Asian Utility Week takes place early next month and will be opened by Minister Yeo, who at 36, was the youngest member of the Selangor State Legislative Assembly. She has held her position since July 2018 and has already made significant inroads into increasing goals for renewable energy; and driving an energy efficiency overhaul of all government buildings in Malaysia.

Money, profit and climate change

Diversity isn’t only about political correctness; it actually makes for doing better business and driving environmental policy.

Catherine Mitchell, a profession of energy policy at Exeter University, says that the lack of women in energy isn’t just impacting money and profit, but is holding back the sector in terms of mitigating climate change; and research shows that agreements on the environment are more likely to be signed and projects relating to natural resources, such as water, have a bigger chance at success if women are involved in decision making.  Even in the US House of Representatives has it been found that women consistently outvoted male counterparts when it came to environmental protection. 

I’ll leave the last word to Dana Elhassan, a senior gender expert at the African Development Bank, who says empowering women in the context of climate change is important because “you cannot solve a problem with half the team,”

Do you know an amazing woman in energy? We’d love to hear more about her. Write to us at editorial@smart-energy.com