About 20 years ago, geoscientist Kirsten Marcia spent two days underground mapping a Northern Saskatchewan gold mine. Then she was turfed, superstitious male miners telling her she’d bring bad luck to the project.
Now the chief executive of DEEP Earth Energy Production Corp., Ms. Marcia was at a geothermal conference in California recently, facing a completely different reality. Almost everyone had a tiny set of wings pinned to their clothing, a symbol of support for Women in Geothermal, or WINGS, a non-profit whose goal is to promote the education, professional development and advancement of women in the geothermal community.
“It’s such a refreshing tailwind, compared to the headwind that I had early on in my career when I was literally not allowed to be underground,” she says. “Now you’ve got this whole division that is supporting this new clean energy industry.”
As the energy sector rapidly diversifies in a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the traditionally male-dominated industry is going through a profound shift. And a new report from the Pembina Institute, a think tank, says the rapid growth and change associated with the energy transition presents a unique opportunity to remedy inequities within Alberta’s energy industry.
The report, released Friday, is the first step in quantifying the barriers women face in the energy sector, and figuring out solutions to create a more equitable work force. While it focuses on Alberta, the heartland of Canada’s energy industry, Pembina senior policy analyst and study co-author Laura Hughes says researchers are engaging with women across the country.
“We are at a point where we are rapidly designing what our economy is going to look like – specifically in Alberta – and if this is not at the forefront of what’s being addressed within that, it’s already going to be too late. It needs to be part of the design process from the start,” Ms. Hughes says.
Next, she and her team will gather more data around barriers in the energy sector. They will then work with women to develop solutions, and engage with industry leaders and government policy makers to make sure changes are implemented.
In the oil and gas sector around the world, women comprise 27 per cent of positions that require a college education, 25 per cent of mid-level positions and only 17 per cent of positions of leadership, according to the report.
The traditional energy sector is still one of the least gender-inclusive sectors, according to a United Nations Development Programme brief cited in the report, and the renewables sector has only a slightly higher rate of work-force participation by women than other areas of the energy industry.
The report identifies five key barriers to women’s participation and leadership in Alberta’s emerging and traditional energy sectors: lack of access to opportunity; lack of good jobs; an inability to advance; an income gap; and the broader industry culture.
Rayna Oryniak is president of Calgary Women in Energy, a non-profit formed close to 20 years ago as a space where women in the industry could come together, share ideas and have each other’s backs in a male-dominated field.
“It’s really intimidating when you go to a conference and you’re the only woman in the room, or you go golfing with your clients and you’re the only woman on the team,” she says.
Ms. Oryniak points to the Calgary Petroleum Club, a private club established in 1948 for oil executives. Until 1989, it refused to let women become members. But now, she says, investors actively examine environmental, social and governance issues, and representation of women on company boards.
“You’re seeing a change in the industry, and in the way people are looking at the industry,” she says, adding that the energy transition is creating an opportunity for a new way of doing things.
“Different perspectives are going to be key to making this new energy system really successful,” she says.
Ms. Marcia, with DEEP, has already noticed a shift in culture and feels as though the energy sector is on the cusp of change.
“There’s a huge gap to be filled that if women jump in, and they’re supported by men in the industry, there’s a wonderful gender transition that’s about to happen,” she says.
That support from men – particularly men in leadership roles – is something she and Ms. Oryniak both say is key to getting more women into the energy sector.
Ms. Marcia estimates about half the people in the geothermal sector are women, but emphasizes just how important it was to see those little wing pins on lapels – including the huge number of men who are members of the WINGS non-profit.
Two decades ago, she says, women either decided the barriers and male-dominated culture were too much and bailed, or dug in to fight for their positions and something they’re interested in.
That often created drive and tenacity in the women who remained, she says, but “if you’re looking into a field of men and male-dominant careers, it’s a scary situation to try to want to leap into that shark tank.”
“In these new clean energy industries, maybe the industry pathway for women is having the opportunity to avoid that old-fashioned energy culture. To not have to fight through that, and to get to jump into a clean, fresh, non-traditional energy sector that doesn’t have all that baggage.”