Baruah and Gaudet: Confronting the gender gap in Canada’s green transition

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

Women are a minority in the energy sector everywhere in the world – and Canada is no exception.

Concerns about climate change and fossil fuel insecurity have ensured significant interest in Canada in the technologies and financing for transitioning to clean energy, but far too little attention paid to the employment equity implications of such a transition. Despite growing awareness that renewables like wind, solar and bio-energy generate a much larger volume of employment than fossil fuels, even organizations committed to advocating for social justice in debates about environmental sustainability in Canada have never specifically mentioned gender inequity.

Reports from around the world warn of a looming skills gap as both industrialized and emerging economies retool their existing industries and seek out new opportunities for creating employment. In virtually all areas of energy development, there are skills shortages and calls for additional training. These shortages cover a wide range of different occupations, from engineers and architects to skilled trades, equipment operators, technicians and construction labourers. Skills shortages also vary, regionally and by energy sector.

Although the skill shortages present challenges for labour supply, they also represent an opportunity to train and recruit women, visible minorities, Aboriginal Peoples, new immigrants and others who have historically been marginalized in the energy sector in Canada. A few promising initiatives aimed at training and employing First Nations and inner-city workers in installing clean-energy systems and building retrofits have emerged recently from collaborations between provincial governments, publicly owned utilities and social enterprises.

However, such initiatives remain rare and the possibilities for replication in other settings are unclear.

The conversation about gender equity and social justice (more broadly) in Canada’s green economy is at best incipient and tokenistic. Raising awareness about equity issues is therefore urgent and critical.

Employment-related reports on the green economy in Canada often do not mention gender equity at all. The rare report that does highlight opportunities to underrepresented groups, including women, stops short of calling for the kinds of policy approaches and concrete action required to ensure greater equity. Most future green job creation in Canada will be in occupations in which women are currently underrepresented, such as engineering and the skilled trades.

A Statistics Canada study found, in 2007, women only accounted for 1-2 per cent of completions in apprenticeship training in major trade groups. Another report published by Statistics Canada showed, in 2011, women comprised just 23 per cent of engineering graduates aged 25-34. Since workers are likely to transition from jobs in the ‘brown’ economy (heavily male dominated) to the green, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy women will also be underrepresented in green jobs unless gender equity in employment is planned and implemented proactively.

Recent media reports confirm this trend, indicating laid-off oil and gas workers in Alberta are beginning to find employment in the clean energy sector.

Emerging research in the United States that evaluates initiatives specifically aimed at training women for entry-level positions in the green economy report low levels of success in ensuring women’s long-term employment in the occupations for which they were trained. Comparable assessments of gender-sensitive green job initiatives in the Canadian context have not been conducted – presumably due to the absence, to begin with, of gender-equity based initiatives in the clean energy sector. Past attempts to train women on social assistance in Canada in the skilled trades showed limited success in securing the long-term employment of women in their respective trades. They confirm the need not only for proactive equity policy, but also for policies that support work/life balance, such as affordable, universal child care and flexible working arrangements, as well as broader changes to workplace culture in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Women can gain optimal traction from clean energy initiatives only if there are wider socially progressive policies in place. Since women’s ability to take advantage of new energy-related employment options is, to begin with, often constrained by social barriers that limit their access to certain types of education and training, employment, credit and childcare, for example, it is crucial social policies go beyond energy sector planning to optimize economic opportunities for women.

Bipasha Baruah is the Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues. Crystal Gaudet is a PhD Candidate in Women’s Studies and Feminist Research at Western. This piece originally appeared at The Hill Times on Aug. 15.