As part of the Wind Industry Forum, held in Melbourne this week, the Clean Energy Council organised a “Women in Renewables” breakfast / networking event. There are a number of these type of events and organisations being set up around the world, to address the clear weighting of jobs (particularly leadership or tech jobs) towards men. And while we’re at it, white men.
There are Women in Renewable Energy (WIRE) or similarly named entities in California, Hawaii and Scotland, with projects and programmes taking place in other countries to try to address the gender imbalance in the sector.
The meeting hosted by the CEC yesterday was a very good event, with a very interesting speaker. Melanie Robertson has been the site manager for Waubra Wind Farm in Victoria, Australia, for the last four years. She shared some of her experiences from her time there and I thought that some of her experiences, and the discussion that followed, were interesting.
General leadership challenges
The challenges Melanie faced at the start of her role were many and varied, and would have been difficult without any additional complexities that come with adding female leadership in a male dominated team to the mix. There were problems with team work, productivity, facility performance, motivation and accountability, and niggling safety issues. Melanie faced a myriad of issues, requiring small, incremental steps and which took her two years to get on top of. She said it took her six months to try to figure out what was even going on, and which stories were true, and which team members were being quite toxic (my word, not hers).
This type of discussion around leadership styles is an interesting one, which sits outside of the gender conversation and spans all sectors. It’s one that focuses on how to get the best out of a team, how to listen, how to motivate, how to engender trust. Another talk I went to recently, hosted by the Centre for Workplace Leadership, had Paul Levy, who was previously in charge of the running of a hospital in USA, delving into these types of leadership challenges. And the role that leadership has in instilling a culture of teamwork, accountability and learning. It looked at just this kind of topic: identifying and addressing organisational issues, and how the leader needed to accomplish a sustained culture change to avoid or mitigate against internally and externally caused disasters. Not easy, not necessarily cheap, but with massive long term benefits.
Another fantastic resource on this is a ten minute video by Inno-Versity, which animates a talk by David Marquet, a captain of a US submarine, who transformed how his crew operated, and moved decision making and responsibilities to the place where the capabilities and information lie. Very interesting, fun and worth a watch.
Something I raised, and which I’ve also heard or seen come up a few times in discussions on leadership and organisational habits (see also The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg) is that listening to team members, addressing concerns raised, instilling a sense of responsibility and accountability leads to improvements in safety on site. Melanie mentioned that there were small incidents that were increasing in frequency and had the potential to turn into more serious incidents. She also mentioned that her workforce was older than on renewables facilities in Europe (with an average age of 47 years) and that they were struggling with health concerns that manifest at this age. Focusing on small issues, addressing individual concerns, paying attention to the individual and team’s health (including providing pilates classes) has helped to reduce the number of incidents drastically.
Enough on that though. Back onto gender related discussions.
The male dominated environment
The discussion turned, at one point, to how Melanie managed the heavily male dominated environment, particularly when the tone of conversation got a bit rough. She said that this needs to be handled carefully, and that sometimes she’d need to be careful about when she decided to sit with the guys. And if the topic got too rough, she’d take guys aside to talk to them individually – asking if they’d be happy to say that in front of their wife, mother, sister. It’s repeated, and consistent messaging that starts to get things to change; without playing the fishwife. She also just let them be if they were just having a harmless laugh around the lunch table or perhaps chose to have her lunch separately.
A lady in the audience raised a question around whether or not she had any concerns about hiring women who were not in a leadership position, but were rather peers with the men on the team. Would she be concerned about them getting respect. I had a chat about this afterwards with the lady who raised the point, and I think this is a very interesting topic. It is one thing to be a female leader, with legitimate influence and authority to expect a certain behaviour. It is another to be on the floor with the guys, out in the field all day. Melanie seemed confident that her team would handle this well, and she’d be totally comfortable with it, but it did give me pause for thought. A very good question.
Something lovely that came out was over how her team members started talking to her about things that probably wouldn’t have told a male manager. Expressing concerns, frustrations or grievances. It’s not something that I’ve thought about, but empathy is a great female strength, often undervalued and possibly not recognised adequately as an asset.
It was a lovely morning and the women that I met were interesting, empowered and driven. Well done to the CEC for organising it, and I hope that this type of forum becomes more frequent.