The wind power industry must undertake immediate wide-ranging action to address a gender imbalance that has left the otherwise progressive sector lagging even oil & gas at a time when it needs a diverse workforce to meet its objectives in the energy transition, a high-level Recharge digital roundtable on the issue was told.

Wind’s laggard status in representation of women emerged in a 2020 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) that found women making up just 21% of the industry’s workforce, well behind 32% in renewable energy as a whole and trailing 22% in the oil & gas sector.

The study highlighted what Rabia Ferroukhi, director of Irena’s Knowledge, Policy and Finance Centre told the Recharge roundtable is “an ongoing bias against hiring and promoting women that is difficult to overcome”, even in regions such as Europe, where women are generally better represented in the workforce.

Panellists for the roundtable delved into issues ranging across recruitment, promotion, corporate culture, the need for quotas, and encouraging more girls to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, as they tackled what Recharge editor-in-chief Darius Snieckus, moderating the event, described as a failure by a sector that is “otherwise incontrovertibly progressive when it comes to the energy transition”.

Jenneke Verhoef, general manager, technical, for offshore wind at Shell, said the growing wind department at the oil supermajor had now hit a 33% female share amid a process of “cultural change and continuous effort”, but still sees further need for progress, with a diverse workforce essential to the “innovation culture” needed if the business is to succeed as it develops emerging technologies, including floating wind, and new energy vectors like hydrogen.

“We need diverse and critical thinking to really progress the industry,” she said, highlighting some of the detailed thinking required on gender issues.

“Even the way you write a job description [is important]. Words like ‘champion’ or ‘expert’ or ‘strong’, those are typical words that attract male candidates but not female.”

Abby Watson, head of government affairs, at Siemens Gamesa, noted the global wind OEM had created a “gender decoder” tool to use when drawing up job descriptions in a bid to remove any bias that could deter female applicants.

But Watson said recruitment was just “one element” companies needed to consider when evaluating their performance on gender and other diversity issues.

She spoke of a range of issues, from being aware of the risk that women may be less “visible” in physical workplaces – as they may be more likely than men to use flexible working options – to eradicating differences in the way men and women are seen when negotiating promotions or salary increases.

Women are perceived as pushy or greedy, where a man might be seen as assertive.

“Women are more likely to be perceived as pushy or greedy, where a man might be seen as assertive or a strong negotiator – these are the things companies need to be mindful of,” said Watson.

Marina Hsu, managing director of CI Wind Power Development Taiwan, gave the Recharge event an insight into the challenges of being a woman in what for the Taiwanese was the entirely new industry of offshore wind when she began her career.

“You faced a lot of ridiculing – because of disbelief in the technology itself [back then], and also because you are a woman. It was difficult,” she said.

However, Hsu said there had been progress in the Taiwanese offshore wind sector, which now boasts a strong representation of women among the major developers active there and is giving a crucial example to “young female students that they could become a leader one day” – and so address what several panellists identified as a problem persuading women and girls to study and work in science and technology-related areas.

Hsu said it is crucial to “promote and educate and inspire more young women to be involved in this industry – and influence women in other industries to give this a shot”.

The potential of the wind industry and other renewable sectors to use their topicality and progressive credentials to appeal to young women, and indeed other underrepresented sections of society, was highlighted to the Recharge event by prominent psychologist Raj Persaud.

Persaud said renewables could be “missing a trick” by not tapping into the interest created by an industry that is often “headline news”.

“You can be news-reactive – capitalise and disseminate more information about how you can get a job in this sector,” he said.

As the panellists addressed the breadth of the challenge around gender diversity, several of the industry leaders said targets and quotas will play a crucial role in closing the gap in wind power and elsewhere.

Irena’s Ferroukhi said: “We do need to introduce gender targets and quotas. They have proved to be quite effective, whether in corporate boardrooms in France or Germany, [or in the] private sector.”

· The recording of this event is available here. Reports on some other recent Recharge Digital Roundtables are below