Opportunities and barriers for women in South Africa’s energy transition

© Shut­ter­stock

Women are under­rep­re­sent­ed in the ener­gy sec­tor. Glob­al­ly, women hold around one fifth of the jobs in the oil and gas indus­try and less than a third of the jobs in the renew­able ener­gy sec­tor. The sit­u­a­tion is sim­i­lar in South Africa, where women account for just 31% of the employ­ees of state-owned elec­tric­i­ty util­i­ty Eskom and 21% of the work­force in the coal sec­tor. Female under­rep­re­sen­ta­tion is cur­rent­ly even worse in South Africa’s renew­able ener­gy sec­tor, where women account for only 14% of employees.

How­ev­er, those female employ­ees are usu­al­ly bet­ter edu­cat­ed than their male col­leagues (e.g., 67% of females com­pared to 49% of males at Eskom hold a post-matric qual­i­fi­ca­tion), which results in females hold­ing pro­por­tion­ate­ly high­er posi­tions despite being under­rep­re­sent­ed in absolute terms.

How women expe­ri­ence work­ing in South Africa’s pow­er sector

Women work­ing in high-skilled jobs in South Africa’s ener­gy sec­tor tell sim­i­lar sto­ries. The way to high­er edu­ca­tion requires many to get a bur­sary, for which they have to be top stu­dents in school. While the women we talked to felt that they enjoyed the same oppor­tu­ni­ties as their male peers to go to uni­ver­si­ty, they found that women are large­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed in STEM sub­jects (sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, and math), a fact faced also in mod­ern West­ern countries.

This trend con­tin­ues once they start their career: women work­ing in the pow­er sec­tor often find that they are both the only woman and the youngest per­son in the room, a sit­u­a­tion that can make it dif­fi­cult to feel like they belong and that their opin­ion mat­ters. Vuyo Mati­wane, Tech­ni­cal Project Devel­op­ment Man­ag­er at BTE Renew­ables, forced her­self to speak up at least once in every meet­ing to be heard and seen, even though she was scared to do so at first. Devak­sha Maharaj, founder and Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of IKIGAI Engi­neer­ing, expe­ri­enced being treat­ed as an assis­tant and being asked to take notes, even when it was clear­ly some­one else’s job, so she learned to make sure that every­body under­stands who is the engi­neer in the room – “very grace­ful­ly”, she says, in order not to step on anyone’s toes.

Anoth­er dif­fi­cul­ty lies in the lack of sup­port for women. Lenah Mabusela, Pow­er Engi­neer at Glo­beleq, states that even if women have the same qual­i­fi­ca­tion as their male peers, they still always need to prove their com­pe­tence. “Women are extreme­ly capa­ble. They do a lot with lit­tle resources”, she says. “Women don’t need their hands held. They only need their seniors to treat them in the same pro­fes­sion­al way as they treat their male col­leagues and give them the same oppor­tu­ni­ties.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in her expe­ri­ence, that is still not often the case. How do women deal with sit­u­a­tions like this? Devak­sha Maharaj advis­es women to stick togeth­er and get advice from women in sim­i­lar posi­tions. On the oth­er hand, Mamoso May, CEO of Dor­p­er Wind Farm, says it takes men in pow­er to speak on behalf of women to break up the male–female divide and fos­ter mutu­al appre­ci­a­tion. Vuyo Mati­wane nev­er had a men­tor her­self but is now part of the men­tor­ing pro­gramme “Ener­gis­ing Women to Advance the Ener­gy Tran­si­tion” orga­nized by the Glob­al Women’s Net­work for the Ener­gy Tran­si­tion (GWNET) in part­ner­ship with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Inter­na­tionale Zusam­me­nar­beit (GIZ), and wish­es to guide oth­er young and emerg­ing female pro­fes­sion­als in the renew­able ener­gy sector.

Hav­ing to choose between career and family

One of the most chal­leng­ing issues for many women is the need to bal­ance the demands of pro­fes­sion­al and fam­i­ly life. The province of Mpumalan­ga has a high teenage preg­nan­cy rate, which rep­re­sents a chal­lenge in bridg­ing the skills gap between males and females. Women with­out minor chil­dren have high­er labour par­tic­i­pa­tion rates than those with minor chil­dren. It is evi­dent that child­care respon­si­bil­i­ties are a lim­it­ing fac­tor for career devel­op­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly among women. Because of the high pover­ty rate among less qual­i­fied peo­ple in South Africa, women are oblig­ed to work full time and must often shoul­der the bur­den of man­ag­ing a house­hold and com­mut­ing long dis­tances to child­care facil­i­ties alone. It is there­fore cru­cial to pro­vide child­care facil­i­ties near train­ing cen­tres and work­ing hubs.

But also high­ly skilled women that have long work­ing hours or whose job requires them to work on-site at pow­er sta­tions for longer peri­ods strug­gle to find the time for a part­ner or a fam­i­ly because they don’t get the sup­port they would need. In fact, many of our inter­vie­wees per­ceive that women in South Africa are still expect­ed to care for the chil­dren and do the house­work on top of their paid job. Mamoso May was told by a for­mer man­ag­er that he would not employ young women because they might get preg­nant and miss work. As a result of this lack of sup­port, many women sac­ri­fice either their job or their per­son­al life with the deci­sion not to have chil­dren – or they post­pone this deci­sion until their for­ties. “Men don’t have to choose – they can have both”, Lenah says, point­ing out the obvi­ous imbal­ance between the gen­der roles.

Being her own boss and hav­ing the sup­port of her hus­band, Devak­sha Maharaj can plan her work­ing hours around her children’s needs, but most women don’t have this oppor­tu­ni­ty. Vuyo Mati­wane notes that reduced work­ing hours are not com­mon in the coun­try but could help women with fam­i­lies to stay in their jobs, earn an income, and not fall behind. Day-care cen­tres at the work­place or being able to work from home would also be a good start to make the sec­tor more fam­i­ly friend­ly, as well as breast­feed­ing sta­tions at pow­er plants for young moth­ers work­ing on-site. Women who start a fam­i­ly often also lack finan­cial secu­ri­ty: at the moment, South African employ­ees are only enti­tled to four months of unpaid mater­ni­ty leave, leav­ing many moth­ers only with the option to apply for unem­ploy­ment benefits.

Oppor­tu­ni­ties for women

Despite these bar­ri­ers: what ben­e­fits and oppor­tu­ni­ties do women work­ing in the ener­gy sec­tor see for them­selves and oth­er women? Lenah Mabusela says she chose engi­neer­ing because it was con­sid­ered a sta­ble career. Mamoso May val­ues the social aspects of her work: South Africa’s renew­able ener­gy pro­cure­ment pol­i­cy is unique glob­al­ly in its empha­sis on pro­vid­ing ben­e­fits for com­mu­ni­ties in the vicin­i­ty of projects. With parts of the rev­enue of the wind farm man­aged by May, school toi­lets could be fixed, and the pro­gramme runs health tests for kids and sup­ports promis­ing stu­dents to enable them to go to university.

Bertha Dlami­ni, Found­ing Pres­i­dent of African Women in Ener­gy and Pow­er (AWEaP), explains that her inter­est in ener­gy stems from the oppor­tu­ni­ties and dig­ni­ty that it allows peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties: “Access to elec­tric­i­ty enables access to infor­ma­tion, to qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, to health care, and an over­all bet­ter qual­i­ty of life.” With a cur­rent elec­tri­fi­ca­tion rate of 85%, many peo­ple in the coun­try are still exclud­ed from these ben­e­fits, and the rate is much low­er in the rest of Sub-Saha­ran Africa.

STEM careers are a tra­di­tion­al­ly male dom­i­nat­ed field. How can girls and women be per­suad­ed that there is a place for them in the field? Devak­sha Maharaj’s IKIGAI cours­es intro­duce chil­dren as young as two years to STEM sub­jects: “It is impor­tant to get the kids inter­est­ed in the top­ic at a very young age. And they need to learn that women can do these jobs, too – which is why we go into schools and talk to them, so they can see us”, she explains. Vuyo Mati­wane rec­om­mends imple­ment­ing infor­ma­tion cam­paigns and men­tor­ship pro­grammes in high school, when teenagers begin mak­ing deci­sions about their future jobs.

Tran­si­tion­ing towards more equality

There are prac­ti­cal aspects that need to be con­sid­ered to make women feel com­fort­able and safe work­ing on-site, such as pro­tec­tive gear, gloves and shoes in women’s sizes, and gen­der-seg­re­gat­ed bath­rooms. But the real chal­lenge lies in over­com­ing the less-vis­i­ble bar­ri­ers for women in a male-dom­i­nat­ed sec­tor. “Patri­archy is deeply embed­ded in the core of our soci­ety. But you can­not force change in men­tal mod­els. You need to make a busi­ness case for women”, says Bertha Dlami­ni. In oth­er words: men in pow­er need to see the ben­e­fits of employ­ing and work­ing togeth­er with women if they are to change their views.

“The coun­try is trans­form­ing. It is a good time to make a pos­i­tive change for women in the pow­er sec­tor” – these words by Bertha Dlami­ni express a view shared by many. A rel­a­tive­ly new sec­tor, renew­able ener­gy offers oppor­tu­ni­ties for women to par­tic­i­pate, as it is not weighed down by the “male indus­try’’ struc­tures that dog the old ener­gy indus­try. Ener­gy tran­si­tions towards renew­ables result in new career oppor­tu­ni­ties that do not require as much heavy phys­i­cal work as coal min­ing, for exam­ple. The bulk of job cre­ation in renew­able ener­gy is with­in the high-skilled labour group (esti­mat­ed as 68 – 80%), so upskilling and high­er edu­ca­tion are pre-req­ui­sites for women to be part of the ener­gy tran­si­tion. Women could be edu­cat­ed and empow­ered by estab­lish­ing ded­i­cat­ed pro­grammes at TVET (tech­ni­cal and voca­tion­al edu­ca­tion and train­ing) col­leges and by pro­vid­ing child­care facil­i­ties close to train­ing centres.

Although the renew­able ener­gy sec­tor is cur­rent­ly male dom­i­nat­ed, lead­ing organ­i­sa­tions in the sec­tor are pro­vid­ing men­tor­ship and coach­ing to enable women to take on lead­er­ship roles. One of them is the Gen­der Diver­si­ty Work­ing Group, a col­lab­o­ra­tion between SAWEA and SAPVIA that also includes WE Con­nect, a non-prof­it organ­i­sa­tion focus­ing on female empow­er­ment with­in the renew­able ener­gy sec­tor. AWEaP offers ener­gy sec­tor ori­en­ta­tion webi­na­rs and oth­er tar­get­ed inter­ven­tions to intro­duce women to the val­ue chains that dri­ve elec­tric­i­ty pro­duc­tion and help them iden­ti­fy entre­pre­neur­ial entry points, as well as inte­grate women-owned and ‑led com­pa­nies into local and glob­al sup­ply chains in the ener­gy and pow­er sector.

There is also increas­ing polit­i­cal sup­port for women in the ener­gy sec­tor. The Ener­gy Sec­tor Gen­der Min­is­te­r­i­al Advi­so­ry Coun­cil, found­ed in 2021, has the role of mon­i­tor­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of women in the ener­gy sec­tor and report­ing to the min­is­ter and his exec­u­tives. And the Prime Min­is­ter of Mpumalan­ga, Refilwe Mtshweni-Tsi­pane, empha­sized on the side lines of the Mpumalan­ga Ener­gy Sum­mit 2022 that many women have the skills need­ed to trans­form the ener­gy sys­tem in her province: “Our women are capa­ble. For far too long, they have been dis­ad­van­taged. I advo­cate for women to be at the cen­tre of the ener­gy transition.”

This arti­cle is the sum­ma­ry of an inter­view, con­duct­ed in the course of our research on oppor­tu­ni­ties and bar­ri­ers for women in the pow­er sec­tor in South Africa.

Authors: Lau­ra Nagel, Bet­ti­na Lebrun