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Women in Energy | Policy makers called upon to leverage technology

A citizen of the world, Ana Victoria Rojas is challenging the status quo by taking an interest in different cultural backgrounds and designing context-appropriate solutions for achieving social and environmental change.

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 5, 2018. You can read the magazine’s articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy. Women in Energy regular feature proudly sponsored by Lucy Electric

Originally from Costa Rica and a lawyer by trade, Ana entered the energy sector purely by chance and now sports experience working in the Americas, Europe, Asia and most recently Africa. Backed with strategic expertise in climate change, forest and mitigation policies she has for the past 13 years built a career supporting advocacy and networking activities on gender and energy.

ESI Africa caught up with Ana who is now a senior gender consultant at Nedworc Foundation, a Dutch NGO that renders support services to independent consultants working in the international development cooperation field.

Ana, in view of your role, what is the importance of gender in the energy sector? Are we asking the right questions and what energy sector changes are needed so that the issue of gender becomes irrelevant?

Gender, in terms of the social rules, biases and expectations we have of women and men as members of a society, does matter. It matters so much that in order for it to become irrelevant, as you propose, we require efforts both within and outside of the energy sector.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows that gender stereotyping is so strong during childhood that girls will lose their confidence to engage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related subjects as early as six or seven years old. The messaging that STEM subjects are not for girls, together with the lack of access to female role models, discourages their interest in subjects required to later on join technical careers. By the time these girls become young adults, they encounter strong biases again – and sometimes harassment – during their studies that may discourage the continuation of these career paths.

When women join the energy sector, they find themselves in an environment that is male dominated, where again biases continue. The women may be perceived as not committed enough or not ‘hungry’ enough to climb the leadership ladder. Unconscious biases and networking patterns – such as after work events and engaging in field visits – may affect women’s opportunities to access training and to be promoted on merit, as they may not join these activities due to family commitments or social rules, and therefore will not be as visible as their male counterparts.

The good news is that these biases can be counterbalanced. Evidence, also in the energy sector, suggests that the design and implementation of gender-responsive human resources policies can increase recruitment, retaining and professional growth of women in the energy sector. Moreover, introducing such policies has shown to be beneficial to both women and men in companies, as they entail norms to regulate family leave and introduction of flexible working hours.

The Engendering Utilities programme, a USAID-supported initiative, recently presented results of its first round of support to utilities, also in Africa. The programme included liaising with education centres to ensure women and girls learn about the possibilities of working in the energy sector in the future. Other practices include organising school trips or ‘bring your daughter to work’ days to feed the curiosity of girls and encourage STEM-related career choices.

Moreover, women associations, such as Women in African Power (WiAP) supported by Power Africa, or the Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition (GWNET) are providing a much needed space for women to connect and receive support to boost their careers in the power sector.

You’ve quite a complex task ahead of you. What has motivated you to stay committed to your current role?

Remaining in the energy sector is a result of personal experience from field trips where energy poverty and gender inequalities struck a chord with me. According to the World Bank database, my home country Costa Rica has reached 100% access to electricity where generation is mainly based on renewables. The country recently hit a 300 day mark running only on renewables.

Personally I recall power blackouts in the 80s – studying or having dinner lighted by camping gas lamps – and early in my career the occasional field visit to unelectrified locations in my country.  However, none of my experiences could have prepared me for the reality of energy poverty, where billions of people still rely on rudimentary and hazardous sources for providing the most basic cooking, heating and lighting needs. The fact that we live in the 21st century and still have these practices is a contradiction I cannot come to terms with.

I come from a family of strong women. My maternal grandma was among the first female accountants and my aunt was for decades the only female optometrist in the country. From this foundation, I could not – and still can’t – accept the fact that energy poverty cripples women’s development prospects, from their childhood years. This reduces their opportunities to access health care and education, and later on makes their daily lives more burdensome, exposing them to hazards that run from health impacts – as a result of smoke inhalation or carrying heavy weights – to violence and attacks when collecting firewood, or limiting their productive opportunities.

This reality is a level of injustice that I feel compelled to overcome; it is my constant motivation to assist women in accessing the tools or means to enjoy their lives and develop unrestricted.

That is a strong motivational driver that must have equally strong mentors to keep you inspired.

Yes, I have had different mentors and role models supporting me at home and in my professional life. There have been many but I can narrow the list in my career to three strong women who are household names working on gender equality. Soma Dutta, an independent consultant and senior advisor at ENERGIA International is the first who comes to mind; she’s always been eager to share her knowledge and guided me by offering a combination of advice and space to act, which made it possible to develop my own work and path.

She has taught me that no matter how brilliant a professional you are, you can remain humble and share your wealth – your knowledge and skills – with others. Her leadership and guidance is one I try to emulate. Until today, her advice is one that I may seek when hitting rough patches along the way, and that is what I think makes her my mentor. My other two mentors, or role models, are Sheila Oparaocha and Lorena Aguilar.

Fieldwork in Laos in March 2016. Ana is pictured seated, facing camera. Credit: SNV RETA 7914

Sheila, a charismatic Zambian national and an authority on gender and energy worldwide, has shown me the importance of remaining true to your roots and embrace – even draw strength from – your ethnicity in every setting. From her I learnt the meaning of sisterhood in the African context, which is a strong element of familiarity and belonging that is hard to express in words. In her I find a constant example of how migrant women from developing countries can succeed in different settings.

From Lorena, a fellow Costa Rican and now Vice Chancellor of the country, I have learned the importance of opening doors to others, exposing them to new settings and challenges. This is important because women tend to only take an opportunity when we feel 100% ready for a new step. She encouraged me to take risks and face circumstances that challenge me, which is the only way to grow. Lorena is also an example of how one person’s commitment can change lives, as her close to 30 years’ dedication to women’s equality and empowerment has left an indelible mark in all major environmental agreements, which are now making their way into implementation.

Mentoring is a figure or relationship that works as a sounding board; a mentor is someone who you can bounce ideas with and get feedback from. I’ve found this to be key when mentoring or designing mentoring programmes myself. It is a two-way street process where the relationship works best if one is able to pose questions and the other is open to providing guidance. In my experience, some people think that by asking a more senior person to be their mentor, all problems will be solved and their career development questions addressed. However, it is not naming someone as a mentor that will work; it is feeling comfortable enough to ask for guidance when needed and then reflect and act on the reflections of that person whose opinion you value.

I personally believe mentoring is important in someone’s professional life; however, it has to be organic, in the sense that it is a relationship you nurture and see grow – it’s not one I think can be imposed. My advice to those seeking a mentor is not to ‘put a name’ on the conversation but rather engage in posting questions and going into this with an open mind for taking advice and acting on it. There are several mentoring programmes specifically designed to support women in the energy sector.

What is your leadership style and how do you go about overcoming challenges in the work environment?

This is one of those questions I’ve never asked myself. So, let me see. I consider myself to be a loyal and helpful person, and strongly believe in supporting others to grow and exposing them to opportunities. This could mean allowing them to take over a new research piece or attend a meeting. Horizontal work structures work best where I can encourage others to think along, propose ideas and make projects their own.

It’s important to me to ensure that praise goes to the right person. Leadership is about taking responsibility and managing the best outcome when things don’t work out instead of publicly admonishing team members. As the leader, my role is clear: to support the team in understanding what went wrong, and how to improve or what needs to change to resolve the issue.

There is much talk about the 3Ds: decarbonisation, digitalisation and decentralisation. What is your take on this trending topic and how strongly is it guiding energy policy?

It’s an exciting time for developing countries because it is my view that technology-wise we are seeing a great opportunity to achieve all of these 3D elements. Particularly with regard to decarbonisation as renewable energy technologies continue to drop in price, being competitive with fossil fuels. Investments in renewables also continue to grow on a yearly basis, although this trend seems to favour utility-scale generation over decentralised energy projects. Much is needed to accelerate the move to decentralisation of power.

The challenge for policy makers is to keep up with the technological developments, while making sure their decisions guide sustainable development. This means understanding the energy needs of different social sectors, and ensuring that investments in utility-scale generation can also benefit the lowest quintiles in their countries. On this note, decentralisation and digitalisation will play an important role, particularly as we also move to the democratisation of energy generation, where private individuals are increasing their willingness to invest in renewables; solar-water heaters and rooftop solar PV in particular.

Investment in large-scale energy infrastructure can also have important social and gender impacts on the affected and surrounding communities, which need to be addressed in policy processes and guide investments. The ECOWAS region is a clear frontrunner in this regard. The validation of the Regional Directive for Gender Assessments in Energy Projects in 2017 seeks to support the inclusion of vulnerable and marginalised populations as beneficiaries and participants of energy infrastructure.

The challenge for policy makers is not only to achieve the 3Ds but to do this while leaving no one behind. This also means ensuring cooking and heating energy needs are not forgotten in the development of future energy policies.

Ana Rojas speaking at the SEforALL Forum

What are your top predictions for the energy market in the next five years? How is Africa’s energy development following these predictions?

I am wary of making predictions. However, the African region has both an important challenge and opportunity ahead. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), only 43% of households in Africa have access to electricity; with the rapid population growth, the Bank also expects energy demand will increase 93% by 2035. Their projection is that electrification rates will reach 70% of the population by 2040. I certainly trust that policy makers will take this opportunity to continue developing strong policies in the energy sector, to ensure generation is compatible with national decarbonisation targets.

Moreover, the 2017 Energising Equality report by IUCN shows that the sub-Saharan region is a policy leader in terms of mainstreaming gender into energy policies. My hope in the continent is that they will continue to guide the path on equality, and ensure new regulations will address the needs of women both as beneficiaries and as key economic actors and members of the energy sector labour force. We owe it to future generations to ensure a just transition: in terms of access both to reliable and clean energy sources and to equal development opportunities. ESI

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 5, 2018. You can read the magazine’s articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

Feature proudly sponsored by Lucy Electric

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
As the Editor of ESI Africa, my passion is on sustainability and placing African countries on the international stage. I take a keen interest in the trends shaping the power & water utility market along with the projects and local innovations making headline news. Watch my short weekly video on our YouTube channel ESIAfricaTV and speak with me on what has your attention.