OPINION: Gender balance in energy research – it’s time we had a power shift

Jess Britton, Basia Cieszewska and Julie Smith argue that energy academia and the energy industry can and must share their experience on improving diversity. The result will be more innovation

As the UK parliament declares a climate emergency and legislates for a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target it is clear that climate action needs women. Research shows that having a more diverse workforce leads to more innovation, and companies with more women on their boards are more likely to proactively invest in renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions throughout their supply chains.

In UK academia, across all disciplines, women account for 58% of postgraduate students but only 25% of professors. Women are significantly under-represented in many of the subject areas which underpin clean energy, particularly science technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU.

Recognising the need to build a more inclusive energy research environment our recent report – Power Shift – explores gender balance in UK energy research and makes recommendations on how to drive change. While our project looked specifically at data on academic research funding and talked to female energy researchers, the links to gender balance in the wider energy industry are clear.


Exploring gender issues in energy research

Energy research is hugely diverse, cutting across many disciplines, technologies and issues. Our research spoke to 59 female energy academics from across career stage, disciplines and institutions to better understand the issues they face. We also analysed data on gender and energy research funding, focusing on funds distributed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The analysis of the available funding data confirms what has been long felt among the energy research community – gender balance is poor (see below).

Our findings show the proportion of female researchers funded remains low. In addition, grants awarded to women tend to be of smaller value. There is also a significant drop-off between the number of female PhD students and funded female researchers, which means that energy research is losing talent at an early stage. Our interviews with female researchers unearthed a whole range of issues that are holding women back. Some of them relate to funding processes but it quickly became apparent that progress in those areas needs to be accompanied by systemic change within the institutional structures and cultural environment of universities.

The research identified four key ways in which funders and universities can work to improve gender balance: look at the data; fund more women; stimulate career progression for women; and build on what’s working.

Our report details 30 key recommendations across these four areas. It applies to academia but there are clear cross-overs with industry.


Look at the data Understand the data and be transparent: research funders have some way to go to ensure detailed data on gender balance are available for cross-cutting issues such as energy. For industry, this means going beyond gender pay gap reporting and being open about the drop-out points for women. Speak to women: our work with female academics revealed how infrequently women are engaged with, regarding their career experiences. If you don’t ask women what the issues are its unlikely that the problems can be solved.

Use quantitative and qualitative data to help identify key intervention points. For example, both data sets in our study indicated that the trend towards large grants and big consortia disproportionately impacts female academics.


Fund more women Our recommendations under the topic ‘fund more women’ were particularly aimed at research funders, but industries can support diversity in research by ensuring they seek out female collaborators on funding bids or advisory panels. The most senior, high profile academics (who are more likely to be male) are not necessarily the most actively involved in cutting-edge research.

There is a gap in support for networking and collaboration between female leaders in the energy industry and female academics. Funding structures and a lack of diversity of funding types can also be a barrier. At its most basic this means ensuring funding and other events are accessible and timescales are realistic (including for part-time workers).

Stimulate career progression for women The ability to work long hours should not be synonymous with productivity and commitment. Similarly, part-time work and career breaks should be clearly accounted for in assessment and recruitment processes. Recognise that organisational cultures may also need to be tackled. Simple things like boozy evening networking events are not accessible to all. Champion the achievements of women at all career stages and provide diverse role models. There is also a role for mentoring between industry and academia. Confront unconscious bias. This means going beyond generic training for staff, to trialling the impacts of anonymised recruitment and assessment.

Build on what is working Identify key points of engagement to build gender balance: combine specific targeted actions, with long-term action on structural issues that promote organisational cultural change.And use a top-down and bottom-up approach – systemic solutions are the only ones that work.

The recommendations in our report serve as a starting point but there is a need for more research on gender balance, nationally and internationally. Further research should also take account of the many intersecting characteristics that determine whether diverse voices in energy are heard.


Download the full report and recommendations here

  Power Shift: How to build Gender Balance in the Energy Research Portfolio

First published in the August 2019 issue of New Power Report