The Power of Diversity: Necessity of Gender Equality in Science and Engineering for Effective Energy Transition

Erika Niino-Esser

To this day, gender inequality and the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering remains an ongoing discussion worldwide. We want to shed light on and raise awareness of this topic by highlighting relevant key facts and sharing the story of one of our top technical specialists, Erika Niino-Esser.

Analyses by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) have shown that the proportion of women in the energy sector worldwide is below the average of 46% in the economy.1

To this end, the renewable energy sector, with a 32% share of women, performs better than the oil and gas industry (22%). According to the IEA, around less than five percent of leadership positions and less than 14% of senior management positions in the energy sector are held by women. Reasons for this underrepresentation include gender-specific stereotypes and gender imbalances in STEM subjects, among others.2

Fun fact: In the 20th century, computer programming was widely regarded as a woman’s job. But as the influence and importance of the profession grew, knowledge in this field was increasingly seen as ‘male’ and women were pushed out of the profession.

Erika Niino-Esser, Technical Specialist Hydrogen & Green Chemicals, has first-hand experiences with this issue. Here is her story of becoming an engineer, the challenges she faced as a woman in the field, as well as some of the programs and initiatives that are already in place to foster a more inclusive environment. As a WiSER3 pioneer and COP28 panelist, Erika hopes to inspire other young female scientists and engineers to follow their path and believe in their abilities.

2009: My decision for STEM and the first experiences

I clearly remember my first internship. It was at a locksmith’s shop, and I was wearing a boiler suit. Accompanying my (male) colleagues to the construction sites, I had never attracted so much attention in my life: people were staring at me, whispering, making comments.

 

This internship was a prerequisite for entering engineering studies. When I heard about the “environmental technology” (“Umwelttechnik & Ressourcenmanagement”, in short UTRM) program at Ruhr University in Bochum (Germany), I knew right away that this was my calling. Ever since I was a child, I felt the urgent need to act against climate change as my schooling provided crucial insight into the human-induced causes of this crisis, fueling my determination to make a meaningful difference. And this university program would enable me to contribute towards a more sustainable world. Strong proficiency in mathematics and science further propelled me to pursue STEM studies after high school. In their first year, all students shared foundational courses after which they each chose a specialization (civil or mechanical engineering) from the 3rd semester onward.

 

The number of women and men was surprisingly similar. While only less than 10% of students in mechanical engineering were female, in our UTRM course around 40% of students were women. It was highly motivating to share a mutual vision for decarbonizing our world in such a diverse group.

2015: The doors of the industry are open to female engineers

Regularly hearing about female graduates facing challenges to get a job, I was concerned. Are industries, especially in the Ruhr area, conservative when it comes to hiring female engineers? What is the best approach and how will I know whether employer and employee are a good match for each other?

 

Having these doubts in mind, I came across an initiative called CrossING, which was launched at my university. CrossING offers a two-day workshop for female master students in engineering and IT gathering from three different universities in the Ruhr region. Primary objectives of the initiative are to:

 

  • Prepare future female graduates for the job application process.
  • Provide a platform with potential employers. They also send female role models from companies who share their personal stories and experiences in lectures.
  • Facilitate networking opportunities with female students (STEM background).

 

I truly enjoyed this experience. The highlight was undoubtedly the female role models sharing their daily experiences as engineers, regardless of whether they worked for mid-sized or global companies, specializing in technical sales, hands-on activities, and more. This boosted my self-confidence, and the engagement with potential employers showed me that companies were eager to hire talented female graduates. While CrossING has evolved, now including both male and female participants, it remains a popular initiative.

Erika Niino-Esser
Erika Niino-Esser

Around 10 years later in 2019: Supervisor of water electrolysis test plant

As a development engineer, supervising a water electrolysis test plant with a capacity of 2 megawatts (MW) within the research project Carbon2Chem, I found myself in boiler suits again. Nowadays, boiler suits are also available in female sizes, but the shape is still strange. Safety necessitates these suits for various hands-on activities, some of which are still regarded as “masculine”: conducting and evaluating experiments, supervising and performing cell assemblies, coordinating maintenance activities, and providing troubleshooting support – these tasks became part of my daily routine. It was a dream come true for a young process engineer fresh out of university!

 

Nevertheless, self-doubt naturally crept in sometimes: “Is this person underestimating me or not taking me seriously simply because I am a woman?” or “why did they not follow my advice and instead do the opposite?” In these moments, sharing my experiences with other, likeminded female professionals was crucial.

 

And I was grateful to receive encouragement from male colleagues, too. One of them once told me: “My mother brought me up alone, managing work, household, and childcare responsibilities. I believe women are highly skilled and efficient, and I have great respect for them!” Statements like these give me optimism for the further promotion of gender equality in all aspects of society. In our R&D group, led by managers who actively hire female colleagues, we have maintained a reasonable share of one-third of female to male team members. With substantial growth, we now stand at around 20% – and are still actively seeking talented female experts!

2023: There is no energy transition without diversity

Upon relocating as a Business Developer, still engaged in R&D, to the Middle East, I encountered a similar openness towards female professionals. While the share of female professionals in the chemical and energy sector might be low, there are strong ambitions for female empowerment and leadership.

 

One of the visionary initiatives is the WiSER Pioneers Program, which was established by Masdar, UAE’s leading project developer for renewable energy and green hydrogen. WiSER stands for Women in Sustainability, Environment and Renewable Energies, and aspires to position women and girls as future sustainability leaders. In this one-year program, women aged 25 to 35 receive educational workshops, mentorship, networking and speaking opportunities. Upskilling female talents not only amplifies their voices but also brings diversity into workplace collaboration, crucial for achieving the energy transition as soon as possible.

 

Participating as a panelist in “Women in Future Energies” during the Green Hydrogen Summit Oman and at COP28 marked significant highlights for me. Being part of a panel with exclusively female speakers filled me with enthusiasm for the future. At both panels I have witnessed highly motivated female STEM students and graduates in the audience, emphasizing a strong movement within our society.

2024: International Day of Women and Girls in Science

I must confess I wasn’t aware of this special day coexisting with International Women’s Day in March, making it an immense honor for me to be able to share my personal story. This article is dedicated to everyone who believes in a diverse team. Our shared vision of creating a sustainable world transcends gender, race, or background. Together, let’s amplify the voices of all individuals in STEM, breaking down barriers and fostering an inclusive environment. As we celebrate the accomplishments of women in science, may we continue to champion diversity and equality, ensuring that every aspiring scientist and engineer finds a welcoming and supportive path forward for achieving the energy transition.

For more equality and diversity in the energy sector

The 2023 report “For more gender equality and diversity in the energy sector” by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) emphasizes that “gender equality is a prerequisite for a resilient and inclusive society”. Especially in the context of the energy transition, raising awareness of gender issues is vital for achieving a fair, renewable energy system as diverse expertise and perspectives are key drivers of innovative solutions. Fortunately, initiatives to tackle gender imbalances exist and are increasingly gaining momentum – as Erika’s story shows.

Sources:
1 IRENA Online Solar PV Survey (2021).
2 „Für mehr Geschlechtergerechtigkeit und Diversität im Energiesektor” (BMWK, 2023): https://www.bmwk.de/Redaktion/DE/Schlaglichter-der-Wirtschaftspolitik/2023/04/05-fuer-mehr-geschlechtergerechtigkeit-und-diversitaet-im-energiesektor.html.
3 WiSER = Women in Sustainability, Environment and Renewable Energies.