Women apply here: The solar industry is trying to fix its gender issue

Solar is one of the fastest growing industries in the US, which now employs more people than the coal and natural gas industries combined, but women have largely been left behind. In a series on careers in energy, CNBC partner Breaking Energy takes a look at the women, organizations and companies pushing for a more gender-diverse workplace.

solar power gender gap
Pedro Castellano | Getty Images

When the pull of construction lured Anna Bautista away from her background in engineering (she has impressive credentials from MIT), her father brought out a ladder and had her practice safety. Bautista was determined to flex more than just her brain while she pursued a career in energy. She wanted to join the ranks of those physically installing solar panels onto roofs – a job where the rewards from hard work are fantastically immediate. Bautista's story is as compelling as it is unusual. Women still make up a small minority of the solar workforce (19 percent according to this study).

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Falling behind

"Just in the last year solar jobs have increased by 20 percent, but still women are underrepresented in those numbers," said Bautista. The leading solar conference – Solar Power International – is overwhelmingly male; one female participant estimated that 14,000 men showed up, compared to just 1,000 women this past october. (Bringing more women to the conference has been a priority for over a year, according to conference organizers). For an industry expanding at such a rapid clip, and promising to transform the energy landscape, having a male-dominated workforce means "the solar industry is missing out on an opportunity," according to Kerinia Cusick, VP of Advanced Solutions for SunEdison. (It's not just women either – solar also has a diversity problem, which was covered well here).

Bautista wasn't discouraged by the lack of women in solar, or the even smaller demographic in the construction industry (12-13 percent compared to the overall industry average of 19 percent). She figured she'd start out at the bottom "washing trucks" and work her way up. Now, Bautista is director of construction for GRID Alternatives, a non-profit solar installer based in Oakland, California. Hers is a story of success and inspiration to others.

Change the messaging, get a new audience

The solar industry hasn't been doing itself too many favors; corporate boards dominated by men and industry events featuring women in bikinis don't shout inclusivity. But the women already in the sector are pushing for change.

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For Danielle Merfeld, technology director at GE Global Research, getting more women into the field is party a matter of messaging and connecting the impact solar can have on communities and families. "It's just transformative when you think about [the impacts of] generation and use of energy. We can easily see healthcare in this way, but its so rare we think of energy that way," Merfeld said. Promoting that often and early could encourage more people, and women in particular, to apply for jobs in the field.

For the residential solar installer, the "lack of diversity was fundamentally holding SunEdison back," said Cusick. About a year ago, SunEdison started looking internally to see what it was doing right, and where it was going wrong. The lack of women in senior positions was a red herring for the team. Cusick acknowledges that young women starting out in solar look at top-level executives and realize none of them are women; that sends the message that women can't climb the ranks, aren't valued, and creates problems with retention.

"It's just transformative when you think about [the impacts of] generation and use of energy. We can easily see healthcare in this way, but its so rare we think of energy that way." -Danielle Merfeld, Technology Director, GE Global Research

To deal with that, SunEdison looked at policies that work well for women in other industries. Changes in maternity (and paternity) leave were instituted, as was flex time to allow employees to better manage work-life balance. Though the policy is still fairly new, the company has "seen bumps in ratios of women primarily at senior and entry levels," according to Cusick.

Women in solar initiative

Merfeld thinks its more than just friendly policies; it's getting the right messaging too. For her, working in energy is a way to positively impact the world. "The literature about what makes women and girls choose their careers really links into the nurturing and community aspect… [that's] one area that hasn't been exploited much by the industry to attract or retain women," said Merfeld.

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To bring more women in the industry, SunEdison partnered up with GRID Alternatives on a Women in Solar Initiative. SunEdison donated $1 million to the non-profit, which in turn pledged to train 1,000 women on solar installations. GRID hopes to get at least 30 women trained as "team leaders" – those who can run a construction crew, know the ins-and-outs of the equipment, and have the wherewithal to direct both men and women on a rooftop. The goal is "doubling the amount of women we have on our installations," said Bautista.

Women and the bottom line

For Cusick, having more women at the table isn't just about equitably balancing the workforce. It's also about the bottom line of the business. "Increasingly our customers are women, so simply just appealing to and understanding our customer base [is important]," said Cusick. Indeed, studies show that women control the purse strings to home improvement projects.

"If we think we the solar industry is going to be competitive, going to achieve some of the grandiose visions we have with regards to growth and scale and number and deployment, you can't approach it and think of yourselves as niche. You have to be completely mainstream. And being completely mainstream means appealing to both genders and attracting both genders," Cusick added.

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For Emily Kirsch, the founder and CEO of Oakland-based solar incubator SfunCube, having women found companies is essential to solar's innovation story. Her incubator is home to a number of solar startups that deal with the soft costs associated with installations. Kirsch supports women through the incubator, but also informally through specialized networks meant to connect up-and-coming leaders in the field.

Solar stocks move in tandem with oil
Solar stocks move in tandem with oil   

Women-centric events like Kirsch's informal networking events are trying to even the playing field and provide support – both professional and emotional – for those in the field. GRID Alternatives now runs women-only installations. "Working in a male-dominated field, women may feel the burden of being representative for their gender so that they either work harder to prove themselves or feel intimidated and not respected. That's why women's builds are a great space for women interested in solar careers to gain empowering skills and to ask their questions in a supportive environment. Part of building competence and confidence is making mistakes and learning from them," said Bautista.

For women interested in the field, Bautista, Cusick, Merfeld and Kirsch all talked about the need for smart, driven women (SunEdison encourages readers to check out their career page). It's also an industry where having five years of experience grants veteran status. For those wanting to forge a career or start a new one, that's a good thing. "Solar is still a newer industry where folks can start at the bottom and can move their way up quickly," said Bautista.

—Kate Rosow Chrisman, Breaking Energy