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The case for gender equality in male-dominated industries

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Despite years of attention to the gender gap in employment, and many years of women entering and graduating from college at higher rates than men, disparities remain. While many organizations have eliminated blatant discrimination, fewer actively devote resources to uncovering and overcoming the unconscious and unintentional biases in perceptions and practices that perpetuate inequities. This reality is often even harsher in the developing world, particularly in traditionally male-dominated industries.

The global energy sector is a case in point. Worldwide, men hold roughly three-quarters of energy sector jobs, even though women may represent as much as half of a country’s eligible workforce. This underrepresentation of women in critical roles such as power generation, transmission and distribution is not only an issue of equity or fairness. It’s also a squandered economic opportunity.

When women participate fully in an economy, they form resilient businesses and enable achievement of economic and development goals. The benefits of investing in women expand beyond their immediate families to their communities and countries, as well.

Plus, the power companies themselves may be sacrificing performance gains. Studies show that private companies benefit from having women as employees and leaders. One study of Fortune 500 companies found that firms with higher gender diversity in management had 35 percent better return on equity than firms with poor gender equity.

Research reported by the International Finance Corporation highlights the benefits of hiring women across a range of diverse industries around the world: 

  • Access to the best available talent
  • Improvements in productivity and innovation
  • Strengthening team dynamics
  • Reduced staff turnover

Even in the face of such evidence, implementation of best practices for gender equality in male-dominated industries has lagged. But recent initiatives led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are promoting gender equality in electricity utilities around the world.

Georgetown is proud to partner with USAID on the Engendering Utilities program, which supports the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP) launched by the White House earlier this year. As Ivanka Trump wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “This new initiative will for the first time coordinate America’s commitment to one of the most undervalued resources in the developing world – the talent, ambition and genius of women.”

The W-GDP Initiative has an explicit goal of helping 50 million women across the developing world realize their economic potential. The focus of this initiative resonates deeply with Georgetown’s Catholic, Jesuit values.

Using the results of local research on gender disparities within specific electric power distribution companies in emerging nations, we identified opportunities to improve practices for gender equality and to prioritize changes within each utility’s corporate structure. The research found wide variation in employment practices and outcomes at the utilities, and suggested that women were excluded from the majority of jobs. There were also significant differences in the way utilities operated that impacted women’s ability to fully participate in the energy sector. Working with the utilities, we developed tailored action plans to incorporate gender equity into core business practices. 

The results are clear: All seven utilities saw an increase in the number of female employees. Most utilities also saw an increase in the number of women participating in employee training programs, and some saw an increase in the number of women trainees hired, the number of women interviewed, and the number of women participating in internship programs.

Most strikingly, from 2015 to 2016, the number of women participating in Nigeria’s Eko Electricity Distribution Company (EKEDC)’s training programs jumped from 69 to 467— a 557 percent increase. There was growth at the personal level as well. For example, Seham Al-Zoubi, the Head of Training and Development at IDECO (Jordan) noted, “I have become more confident in my own abilities and the abilities of other women. It was so valuable to meet with professionals from other countries facing the same issues and to see the opportunities for growth. I am not on this journey alone.” 

These successes show that it is possible to achieve balance and advance opportunities for women in the male-dominated energy sector. They also show that many power companies are eager to champion the cause. Engendering Utilities is already  working with a second cohort of utilities to transform human resources (HR) policies and practices. From hiring and recruitment to retirement and succession planning, HR interventions represent significant opportunities to promote gender equality within the utility sector.

Making the workplace fairer benefits all parties. Equitable policies help companies attract, retain and promote the best talent. Given the distribution of ability across gender and race, inclusive organizations increase their level of talent and diversity, both of which increase their odds of producing superior business results. For energy utilities, opening opportunities for women can help keep the lights on and make life brighter for everyone.  

Brooks Holtom is professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and academic director of its Engendering Utilities program, offered in partnership with USAID.

Tags Eko Electricity Distribution Company Gender equality Gender pay gap Georgetown University Ivanka Trump Nigeria Social inequality

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