Category: Opinion

Women in Renewables – Melbourne breakfast meeting

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.

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[Pic credit: CEC]

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.

Unexpected benefits

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.

Exporting Christmas. The spread of religious holiday based consumerism

There has been a lot in every form of news at the moment about the messages coming out of the US relating to Syrian refugees and the freedom of movement of muslim people.  I won’t mention his name (it doesn’t need more airing), but you will all know who I’m talking about.

In response to this, a lot of people have been drawing comparisons between the Syrian crisis and the plight of Christians and Jewish people throughout history.  An appropriate comparison, and something that should be further explored.  Our unconscious biases should naturally be constantly challenged.

Now, while Energy Ramblings is not intended to be a platform for religious discussion (at all!), I wanted to take a moment to draw another comparison, as it relates to resource consumption and thus energy matters.  And this is the relentless expansion of consumer based Christian holidays around the world.

Christmas is alive and well in Vietnam.  I have seen more snowmen and snowflakes in this tropical country than I have seen cumulatively over the course of my life.  There are Christmas trees everywhere and I am yet to go into a coffee shop or restaurant without hearing Christmas carols.  (I honestly used to like Last Christmas.) It is relentless.  Merciless.  And totally out of place in a country where Christians makes up about 8% of the population.

Why is this important to me?  Besides being unbelievably irritating, because of this:
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Christmas as a holiday is being used to sell EVERYTHING.

I have spoken to a few locals here about what Christmas means, and the consensus seems to be that it is a day that is looked forward to by everyone, because you get to spend it with your friends.  Presents are not a big component of the holiday, and you’re not expected to buy people gifts (yet) but there is a definite message coming through that Christmas is mandatory in your business during the season to sell your services, and the streets are packed with cheap, disposable Christmas related junk that will be thrown out two weeks after Christmas is done.

My point is that the western world may express xenophobic sentiments, relating to race or religion, but it should not be forgotten that the impact of western colonisation and religious expansion is seen in many ways around the world; and that this is not necessarily slowing down.  While this may not be manifesting in more bums on seats in church, it is lending its hand to thoughtless consumerism and the production of cheaply made goods, with a very short shelf-life; designed for landfill.  And a very short road to people here being influenced into adding Christmas presents to the holiday season.  With this amount of pressure it’s inevitable.

This, I would argue, is incredibly concerning. And a terrible legacy.  It deserves some acknowledgement and introspection from those who are worried about other people’s cultures affecting them.

[edit – I know that the consumer based habits have shifted from the religious intent of Christmas.  This does not change my point – that these are holidays perpetuating consumer habits, stemming from western cultures and practices, and are largely based on what began as Christian celebrations – the same kind of trends are seen with Easter and St Valentine’s day]

Applying IT community practices to the energy sector

My husband is a software developer.  He has been working in the industry for years; he started up a consultancy in South Africa and is now building apps as we travel.  Last night he gave a presentation at a Saigon meetup and he’ll probably be attending another one next week.  The co-working spaces we’ve been frequenting in our travels have rows of people coding, doing web-design, the works.  You can’t swing a charger without hitting a mac.

Coding

The world is setup to welcome developers and programmers with open arms.  There may not be many people speaking English, but they speak ruby or javascript, python or C++.  He has walked past people in cafes and started up conversations just because he’s seen white text on a black background.  There is a community that extends past borders, and it has me feeling insanely jealous.

We left South Africa in June with the aim of integrating ourselves (for short periods of time) with communities as we travelled and meeting people who shared our passions; learning, teaching, talking, listening.  And I think he’s finding his feet.  But in energy, as with many industries who will learn from and mimic the IT sector, we are a way behind (or we’re already there and I just don’t have the magic password).

The big advantage that the development world has is that they develop and understand the systems being used to network people.  Small meet-ups are a familiar concept, where likeminded people might want to get together and discuss an issue, a technology, a solution.  These people don’t have to come from the same country, but they should share the same interests, and be willing to give some of their time in order to receive some new insight.  It’s not a sales pitch, but an opportunity to share, and to learn.  Someone takes the time to prepare a short talk about a small topic.  And the topic is explored.  People walk away a little bit richer, and the community as a whole is enriched.

In the energy sector we have periodic energy conferences, which cost a fortune, bring suited and booted people with briefcases together for three days.  For a small business owner, interested in sharing knowledge and helping others to spread their news, they are typically prohibitively expensive, and often filled with middle management folk who are looking to sell something to some other middle management folk.  They are not conducive to finding people of passion; the speakers who show energy onstage are swamped by others as soon as they step off of it, and there’s often a sense of snobbery during the lunch breaks that can feel nearly painful.  They feel like a tax deductible handshake.

What is missing, and this is something I have felt acutely in my travels, is the existence of little energy networks.  Of small clusters or pockets of people who have nothing to sell, but who are driven by this desire to learn and to share.  A presentation by someone who has been working on energy modelling and has encountered some difficulties in benchmarking uncertainties.  This presentation is given to ten or twenty people, who’ve come across the talk on a publicly accessible site (like meetup.com), and have thought, “yes, that’s something I’ve been struggling with.”  Then the speaker speaks, and works through his thinking, and the audience becomes part of a workshop of ideas and they suggest things that could help or they just learn.  And out of that?  More people in the industry are technically stronger, the industry is more resilient, and as people learn they start testing new concepts and ideas.

And maybe two people meet each other and decide that it would be good to do some work together in the future, but this is not the aim of the group.

Maybe this exists.  Maybe I’m travelling through the wrong countries for this.  But I know that I can’t think of this type of thing in South Africa.  Sure, industry associations and companies put on sponsored networking events where someone talks about a project for half an hour, and then there are ten questions from the audience of 200.  But where are the quick chats over coffee, the cheeky drink after work?  The call for people who do not have to have a membership in some organisation or association to be involved and engaged.

This is something I can look for while I travel, but I cannot set them up in the two weeks or month that I’m spending here or there.  It needs committed people who are based somewhere to help to establish a working culture shift, away from companies looking inwards, to individuals looking outward.  This absence of information or details on approachable people that I’m feeling makes me know that wherever I settle at the end of this trip it’s something I’ll be making an effort to establish.  Come and talk to me there, tell me about what’s frustrating you in your energy project and let’s see what looney ideas we can come up with to solve them.  Let’s see if there’s someone that someone knows who may have struggled with this too.  Let’s welcome foreigners who may be passing through; take them for all they have up in their brain attic.  Let’s share our stories and spread our good news.  Let’s support each other through the frustrations and help to inspire each other and keep our energy levels up.

Let’s speak the language of energy, wherever we are.  We need energy solutions way more than we need a new Twitter.  We should be showing them how it’s done.