Diversity in Today’s Renewable Energy Industry
Kristen Graf is the Executive Director of Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE), a national nonprofit with a mission to promote the education, professional development, and advancement of women to achieve a strong diversified workforce and support a robust renewable energy economy.
Read our interview to hear Kristen’s thoughts on why workforce diversity is critical for the advancement of the renewable energy industry—and how trade shows can provide more opportunity and visibility to underrepresented talent.
Q. Can you share an overview of WRISE’s work?
WRISE’s work can be grouped into three parts: The first is recruiting more women to work in renewable energy. WRISE was founded around a fellowship program that brings students and recent graduates to the major industry trade shows. We also partner with organizations that do K-12 programming and connect our local chapters with students in the area to talk about career paths in the industry. Beyond that, we have a job board and frequently share updates on who’s hiring.
Secondly, WRISE is focused on retaining and advancing all the great women already in the renewable energy community. We have more than 35 local WRISE chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada that organize webinars, events, professional development opportunities, one-to-one peer mentoring, and more. We also want to make sure companies are doing everything they can to retain great women across the sector. We encourage companies to take a deep dive into what it takes to build a corporate culture that’s welcoming, encouraging, inclusive, and allows everybody the opportunity to thrive.
The third part of our work is connecting women and men across the network. We want to showcase the great work that women are doing and provide visible role models for the industry. We make connections to create opportunities for women to speak publicly in their local communities, share their expertise at conferences, take leadership roles on boards that need more representation, and more.
Q: What changes have you seen in the industry’s workforce since you joined WRISE?
This November will mark my 10th year at WRISE. I wish I could say I’ve seen this explosive growth of women in the industry’s workforce, but that hasn’t been the case. We’ve seen a small shift from 20-25% to more in the range of 25-30% of women in the workforce, but that’s not the dramatic change I’d like to see.
What I have witnessed, however, is a transformation in the conversation around the issue of representation in the workforce. And, having shifted as much as it has in the last 10 years, we’re at an exciting point. There is now widespread recognition of the importance of diversity, and that’s promising. We have a long way to go, but this shift provides hope for a path forward. I’m excited to see how that shift will continue to play out in terms of actual changes in the workforce.
Q: What skills will dominate job growth as the industry evolves over the next 10 years?
I think the overarching thing we need to recognize is that as we grow the workforce, the diversity of that workforce is really what matters for the industry. That means having a variety of people with a variety of skills, backgrounds, perspectives, toolkits, and talents. It’s critical to think beyond one particular skill set, person, or company. We need to think about how to create an intricate web of an industry that’s strong and resilient because it’s made up of a diverse mix of people. With a variety of ideas and backgrounds, we as an industry can make sure we’re uncovering all the opportunities and potential out there—and the ideas we need for the complex challenges ahead. For me, it’s not a single skill set we need to focus on. It’s the growth of the diversity of the industry as a whole.
Q. What is the “glass ceiling” for women in the renewable energy industry? Does this differ for women of color?
I worry about the idea of a “glass ceiling.” It allows us to focus too much on one job or person. One woman shattering a barrier is only part of the work we need to do. There’s data that companies with three or more women on their boards of directors significantly outperform companies with no women on their boards. How do we get enough women involved so a single woman doesn’t have to play a specific, tokenized role and feel a sense of isolation? I’m hopeful that we are moving past focusing on that one CEO role, and instead uplifting women into multiple CEO roles and recognizing we need to do this across all positions.
We also need to center the experiences of women of color who are trying to advance. There are a lot of amazing women of color around the industry, but we aren’t tracking the data very well. We track by race and by gender, but only a few studies have looked at the intersection and when they do, the statistics are pretty stark. If we can ensure that women of color have the tools they need to advance—and an organization and industry that is supportive of their advancement—we will be doing work and building tools that help everyone and the industry as a whole.
Q: What role do trade shows play in diversifying our workforce and propelling WRISE’s mission? What have you seen trade shows do well? Where could they improve?
Trade shows are a reflection of the industry. They are a space where the industry comes together and showcases the best of business. Because of that, there’s an opportunity for trade shows to publicly make the case for why we need to increase diversity. Trade shows can set the precedence for what the industry should be aiming for and what those opportunities look like.
What’s been exciting recently is that more trade shows are making an effort to ensure that there’s a diverse mix of speakers in their programs. We’ve also seen shows include more opportunities to spotlight the people who are doing the everyday work of the industry—not just the C-suites—and making sure those folks are getting more recognition and time on the main stage. There’s an incredible wealth of talent in the industry already and the more we can raise their visibility, the more opportunity we have to spark action. If all you see are panels with executive-level white men, this may convey to women or people of color that “this is not an industry for me,” and that’s a serious issue.
Trade shows can also be intentional with creating spaces so that everyone can be included, even working mothers or fathers. Can you provide childcare onsite? Lactation rooms for working mothers? There may need to be some accommodations for working moms or parents. There’s a lot of opportunity for trade shows to engage, create momentum, and keep it moving forward.
Q: What advice do you have for women currently in the renewable energy industry—and for women looking to enter it?
My advice is to build a really strong and supportive community around you. Sometimes it’s about building a net of supportive women specifically or finding your own champions within your company. Find the folks around you that both challenge you to do more and be more, but also have your back when you need it. That’s how you not only survive the day-to-day, but also get around the next corner.
Get involved! Explore WRISE’s history, find a local chapter, and more at http://wrisenergy.org/.