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Gender equity in the new economy

Ensuring social justice, equality in the global race to reduce emissions

Bipasha Baruah is working to understand how to ensure a global, low-carbon economy will be more gender-equitable and socially just than its fossil-fuel-based predecessor.

“There is much more attention being paid in research and policy circles to the technical and financial instruments that will enable us to transition out of fossil fuels than on social equity issues that must also be considered for a just transition to low-carbon economies” said Baruah, who joined Western in 2012 as Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues.  

Earlier this year, Baruah was named the new Western Research Chair for Strategic Focus, recognizing her innovative, interdisciplinary research at the intersections of gender, economy, environment and development; gender and work; and social, political and economic inequality.

Addressing the fact that women are already severely under-represented in both fossil fuel and renewable energy employment, Baruah’s work stands out for focusing on employment and social policy to reduce gender inequality in the transition to sustainable energy.

“How can we build economic systems that recognize and work within the biophysical limits of our finite planet, while simultaneously reducing poverty and inequality?  

“If we don’t have appropriately targeted training, education, employment placement, financial tools, and supportive social policies and protections, the green economy may exacerbate existing social inequities and hinder global human development and poverty-alleviation goals.”

Equitable energy sector

Over the past 10 years, Baruah’s work on women’s employment in renewable energy and resource efficiency has influenced policy within governments, financial institutions and non-governmental organizations. In 2015, she was elected a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

In 2019, Baruah co-authored a report for Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which explored opportunities for inclusion and equity in the ongoing transformation in the energy sector driven by renewable sources.  

IRENA has estimated the number of jobs in the energy sector could increase from 10.3 million in 2017 to nearly 29 million by 2050, as the transition towards a “renewable, distributed, decarbonized energy system” leads to significant economic and social benefits.

According to the 2019 report, women represent 32 per cent of the renewable energy workforce. This is a higher proportion compared to the oil and gas industry, where women only make up 22 per cent of the workforce. Still, despite the higher percentage, women’s participation in the renewable energy sector is mostly focused on administrative jobs (45 per cent). Only 28 per cent of women working in the renewable energy sector are in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) jobs.  

At the cusp of this global transition to renewable energy, embedding social justice and equality in policy planning and development is critical to ensuring economic security for the world, Baruah said.

“I look at it as a trilemma — instead of a dilemma – because you really are looking at environmental protection, but we also need economic security for the world’s people, and we also need to pay attention to gender equality and, more broadly, social justice.”

As the world faces this climate crisis, the decisions made over the next 10 years will have a significant effect on how people will live their lives for the next 200 years, Baruah explained. Her research has been focused on the sectors with the most potential to significantly impact the world’s carbon emissions. A big part of her work had been in the energy sector, not just looking at the different technologies driving the transition to renewable energy but also, and more importantly, their implications for gender equality and social justice.

“Are these technologies accessible to people? Are they affordable? And I also look at what kind of employment opportunities these technologies are providing. Because traditionally, the fossil fuel sector, the energy sector, was very male-dominated… so there’s a potential to change that. We can do things differently,” Baruah said.

But believing that things will change just because the technology has changed is not enough. “Equity and justice have to be planned much more proactively; it’s not going to happen by itself.”

Women in STEM

Baruah has collaborated with global organizations to help shed light on existing inequalities and guide policy development as the movement toward a low-carbon economy continues to gain traction. Her reports highlight the areas where progress is being made and where the gaps remain. And one such ray of light is in Sub-Saharan African countries, where a recent study found there were more women on the boards of renewable energy companies in Africa (27 per cent) than there were in G20 countries (20 percent).  

“Having done this work for a long time, it doesn’t surprise me,” said Baruah, who was a collaborator on the study, Women’s participation in the renewable energy workforce in Sub-Saharan Africa, commissioned under the Energy2Equal Program, in partnership with the Government of Canada and the International Finance Corporation, a sister organization of the World Bank.

Equity and justice have to be planned much more proactively; it’s not going to happen by itself.

“In a lot of the most well-paid jobs (in renewable energy companies), you need to be trained in STEM fields,” Baruah explained. “Contrary to what people assume, STEM education is often far better established in Asian countries and in non-Western countries. So the levels of STEM education for women is very counterintuitive.”

Canada, for example, produces less than 20 per cent of women engineers every year, while in countries like Mexico, India and China, up to 50 per cent of engineering graduates are now women, according to Baruah.  

The novelty of the renewable energy sector is also a factor for increased participation of female workers and professionals in this sector than in older industries like oil and gas.

“When you look at fossil fuels, or other industries, sometimes their institutions, the histories, the cultures are very entrenched. When you have something that’s a new sector, those institutions, those structures have not quite hardened yet,” Baruah explained. “And that’s why you often end up with better statistics than you do with (the older industries).”

Recruitment has not been a problem for the renewable energy sector, particularly for junior-level positions. The problem for women begins when they start moving up the ranks.  

“Now there are more women earning PhDs, medical degrees and law degrees. It’s changed dramatically. But I think some of the systems have not changed. Gender roles within households have not changed, often because of domestic responsibilities with childcare, with caring for elderly parents and caregiving responsibilities in different ways. I think that piece hasn’t changed to the extent that it needs to change,” Baruah said.

The idea that women should have access to jobs at par with men is well-established, she said. “But the idea that caregiving should be as much everybody’s responsibility in society has not permeated. So that’s when we start seeing challenges at the mid-career level for women.”

Changing nature of work

During her renewable five-year term as Western Research Chair, Baruah will continue studying other defining questions of our time, including the changing nature of work and the effects of degrowth (a scenario in which economies contract rather than grow over time) on gender equality. Related topics of interest include the effects of remote work, job-sharing, flexible schedules, and policies that alter the expectations of work.

“Ironically, COVID presented a real-life lab to look at these issues more closely,” Baruah said. “As a researcher studying diversity and inclusion, obviously I have to look beyond just the energy sector to how work itself is changing in the future.”

Baruah is also examining the future of work as it relates to disruptive technologies.

“Navigating disruptive technologies, such as automation, artificial intelligence and robotics, is a major challenge facing
workers today,” she said. “I’m trying to understand how these disruptions will promote or obstruct gender equality. People of all genders will face challenges in navigating automation.”