SOLA head of Project Development, Katherine Persson, visits a solar project.

What does a career in renewable energy look like if you’re a woman?

New SOLA executives lead the charge in a male-dominated industry

Whilst Women’s day in South Africa marks the historical contribution of women to ending Apartheid, it is also an opportunity to bring into public discourse the long way we have to go to reach gender equality. And it’s no different in the workplace – engineering is one of the most gender-unequal fields globally, and women are often sidelined and face multiple difficulties. However, as more women join and stay in the engineering profession, it paves the way for more diverse work cultures to thrive – so we asked some of our female executives to help us by giving an account of their experiences in the workplace so far. 

Getting started in renewable energy is often by chance, but it’s becoming increasingly easier to specialise in it from an earlier stage. “I got into renewable energy kind of by accident as one of the first jobs that came up when I left university was a role doing environmental studies for wind farms,” says Katherine Persson, Project Development Director at SOLA. “I’ve never really looked back since I started my career in renewable energy, it has always just seemed like a logical choice as it’s something that I enjoy doing and there has always been a need for my skills”.   

Robyn Moseley, Head of Operations and Maintenance at SOLA, agrees. “I was exposed to renewable energy concepts in my first job by chance, being given the task of looking into flywheel design, batteries, inverters and solar,” she remembers. “Once I started in the renewable energy industry I was hooked and never looked back”. 

“After my initial exposure to renewable energy, I signed up to do a Masters in renewable energy as I wanted to get to know more, but did not get into the business side until a couple of years later,” remembers Moseley.  Renewable energy courses used to be difficult to find, but now it’s becoming easier to go directly into renewable energy. “Renewable energy wasn’t ever punted to me as a career choice, so I’m super excited to see that entire University courses are now available, along with a growing industry that offers legitimate careers for people with lots of different education and skills backgrounds,” says Persson.

Despite both women creating thriving careers in Renewable Energy, it has not been without its challenges. It’s especially difficult to grow in a male-dominent environment where female mentors are rare. “There have not been many females which I have been able to utilise as mentors, so it has been a challenge to navigate and find ways of developing in the business, and work with my personality to find strengths and weaknesses to work on and grow.” says Moseley. 

Persson has had similar experiences. “I have worked hard to build my confidence working in male-dominated environments where I have sometimes suffered from a dash of ‘imposter syndrome’.  Over the years I’ve had hardly any exposure to working closely with females at executive level, which I think makes it even more challenging for women to learn and grow into these roles themselves.”

This, of course, is not helped by the microaggressions that many women face in a male-dominated environment, particularly how personal decisions are often judged in professional settings. “I face a lot of negativity about having a ‘demanding job’ when I have small children, although no-one asks about my husband’s ‘demanding job’, even though he also works full time,” sighs Persson. Moseley’s experience is similar. “I was once asked how my husband was going to eat for the week while I was away on site, or who takes care of my child when I am away,” she adds. These microaggressions can be exhausting to face on a daily basis, and add to the reasons that many female engineers leave the workforce. 

Then again, they are both extremely happy to have pursued careers in Renewable Energy. “The places I’ve travelled to for work, and the amazing people I’ve met, are definitely career highlights for me,” says Persson. “Being involved in Renewable Energy has allowed me to visit many interesting countries, such as Jordan and Rwanda, and I’ve kept in contact with many people throughout my career and made many friends,” adds Moseley.

There can be no doubt that the Renewable Energy industry, like most engineering-heavy sectors, have a long way to go in terms of creating equitable workplaces. Both Persson and Moseley agree that the sector has a long way to go, although green shoots are starting to appear, making the environment friendlier for women. To women seeking to enter into the renewable energy profession, Persson offers the following tips:

  • Although there are lots of engineering positions in renewable energy, don’t be tricked by thinking that it is only for engineers: our industry needs environmental scientists, social specialists, finance experts, logistics experts, lawyers, marketing experts, HR managers, etc. There is a space here for everyone to find their own flavour of ‘technical’.  
  • Be ready to learn, and learn fast. The demands of the renewable energy industry are changing all the time.   
  • Find a mentor – someone that can help guide and support you along the way. 
  • Groups of women in similar industries – such as WE Connect for women in renewable energy in South Africa – are also great sources of support.

“The renewable energy industry is vast and still growing.  There are many facets to the business and opportunities are there for any profession to thrive.  If you are willing to learn, dive in and be able to keep up with a fast-paced environment, renewables is for you,” echoes Moseley.

Are you still studying, but interested in pursuing a career in renewable energy? If you’re currently pursuing your BEng or BSc Eng in Electrical Engineering, you could qualify for SOLA’s engineering bursary. Click here to read more!

If you are currently working in renewable energy, have a look at our careers page for any vacancies we currently have available.

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