Including women in the workforce is ostensibly on the agenda of many private companies and public institutions nowadays. But despite all the talk about gender equity, promoting women remains, in many cases, a vague target meant to adorn public relations campaigns and make corporate social responsibility agendas look good.
The wider Europe region performs surprisingly well in some aspects related to gender parity in the workforce, such as the percentage of women on management boards in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). According to a 2015 survey by Grant Thornton, seven of the top ten best ranking countries when it came to the representation of women on management boards were in CEE; Russia ranked the highest, with women making up 40% of senior management.
But away from boardrooms, the reality of women in the workforce in some of the countries in the region continues to be dire, and their access to employment or financing for businesses patchy. Turkey and Egypt remain at the bottom of the global ranking on women's participation in the workforce. Only three in ten Turkish women of working age were economically active in 2016, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO); little over two in ten Egyptian women were.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has long sought concrete solutions to promote women-led businesses in the wider Europe region. Through its Women in Business programme, the lender has been extending financing and consultancy services to women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in 26 countries.
Reflecting the importance of the topic to the EBRD's strategy, the bank kicked off its annual meeting in Cyprus this year with a panel on how to make green growth, the overarching theme of the meeting, work for women. Acknowledging that both 'the green economy' and 'gender parity in the workforce' are concepts on which more clarity and concrete action is needed, the four speakers on the panel made a compelling case for training women in science and technology in order for them to have access to the green job market, in particular in renewable energy.
"The business imperative to narrow the gender gap in the work place is that, if you do not do that, there will not be an adequate supply of labour to enable companies and governments to succeed in the digital age," Mark Elborne, CEO at GE UK and Ireland said, adding that, at any given time, GE UK and Ireland has some 400-500 technical positions that it cannot fill because it cannot find qualified employees.
Renewable energy, as a sector, has been more successful at creating opportunities for women, Bipasha Baruah, professor at the Western University in Canada, noted. "Studies show that up to 30% of the jobs in the sector are occupied by women, compared to some 6% in the fossil fuel industry,” she said. Baruah conceded that traditional factors that have contributed to lower participation of women in the energy sector, like family commitments, are important contributors to the discrepancy in employment figures. But so is the fact that "by and large, women tend to be undervalued across the sector, even when they have the same qualifications as men".
Baruah, who has studied patterns of women's education and employment in technology-related jobs across the world, found that in the former Soviet Union, the ratio of women engineers as a percentage of the total number of engineers has fallen from a high of 58% in 1980 to 43% in 1998 and 40% by 2002. "In the Baltics and Russia, the ratio of women engineers continues to be much higher than in other parts of the world. However, the numbers have been declining. This is not to say that centrally-planned economies are a prerequisite for including women in the workplace, but it is to say that policies that promote women's employment do work. The Soviet state provided more social support for women in the workplace. Not to mention the fact that you were guaranteed a job when you graduated," she added.
Getting the message across
Meanwhile, in OECD countries, the community of engineers has failed to communicate that engineering offers the prospect of a socially impactful, high-status and high-paying job, Baruah adds, which means that the degree of women's employment in engineering jobs is much lower. Changing that pattern requires intervention at as early as 11 years of age, Baruah and Elborne argue, to attract young people to science and technology. "It does not help that the portrayal of women scientists in popular culture is almost invariably the stereotypical nerd," she says.
Elborne, in the meantime, called for concerted strategies by the private sector and governments to train youth, including girls, in science and technology. "Unless a system of incentives is put in place, we will not break these barriers," he said, adding that GE hires 14,000 women in technical roles at the moment, out of a workforce of some 330,000. Elborne conceded that "traditional prejudices" against women continue to exist in the energy sector as a whole, but that digitisation and innovation are quickly changing the energy job market and represent opportunities for women to access the new jobs. "Many of the roles in industry are changing because digitisation is driving the overhaul of skill sets across the whole sector. But I don't think that a lot of the industry has gotten that message yet," he added.
Meanwhile, Baruah advocated for concerted programmes that target the promotion of women's employment in particular, because programmes that lump women together with other disadvantaged groups tend not to work. "The Canadian government had employment programmes for disadvantaged groups like immigrants and native Canadians. But what happens is that the majority of those who participate in such programme end up being male," she said. Furthermore, attempts to reform fossil industries - like coal mining - by retraining workers into renewable energy technologies, while positive, are perpetrating the existing gender discrepancies in the energy sector, she concluded.