With a commitment to 50:50 gender split on panels, RenewableUK's sister organisation NIRIG has set itself an ambitious target. In this blog, our outgoing NIRIG Manager, Meabh Cormacain, discusses the importance of diversity and challenges she faced in meeting this target whilst organising the Smart Energy NI event in April.
The energy transition will require creative, responsive and imaginative planning to deliver decarbonisation right across our homes and industry. Until now, delivering renewable energy has taken hard work and coordination, but has not required active consumer engagement to a major extent. The next phase of the transition, however, will mean changes in the very fabric of our homes and ways we travel.
This level of change needs as many perspectives as possible to ensure that innovation and problem-solving are central to the process of transition.
Diversity in the workforce is therefore crucial in order to find creative and multidimensional solutions to complex issues and this has been recognised in the energy sector by initiatives such as Switch, POWERful Women, EWiRE and Pride in Energy.
NIRIG aims to ensure diversity and representation at our public events and has committed to a 50:50 gender split on panels at our Smart Energy conferences. The most recent conference, held in Belfast in April, successfully achieved a balanced speaker list, and we were delighted to deliver another forward-thinking event on energy and the low-carbon transition. Speakers from the planning, utility, transport and government sectors all contributed to a diverse and comprehensive discussion of energy strategy issues.
However, the full story isn’t quite so straightforward. Quite simply, in order to have a 50:50 gender split, we had to invite more than twice as many women as men. The first draft programme had 5 men and 5 women. Responses from the first 4 women included 2 non-acceptances. The following 4 invitations had a further 3 non-acceptances, for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, of the 6 men invited to speak, 5 accepted. Not only that, but 2 other men got in touch to request speaking slots. All in all, it took three months of phone calls and emails to reach an equitable balance.
It hasn’t been possible to delve deeper into these numbers, and this post cannot answer the questions of why more than 50% of women were unable to attend: we neither want to blame nor criticise. Nevertheless, it may be that it can shine a light on the everyday challenges of diversity, and perhaps throw up a few questions: if NIRIG hadn’t committed to balanced panels, would we have tried quite so hard to find those women representatives? If we had been satisfied with a list of familiar names, would we have had as wide a range of experiences and insight?
It’s also fair to say that women hold a number of important energy and renewables roles in Northern Ireland,* and I’m sure our metrics of diversity deserve to be a little more sophisticated. We have decided to take these steps towards better representation, however small, but we would also welcome understanding of what difference we might be making. Our commitment to a low-carbon energy sector needs diversity in ideas and approaches and our journey will continue to explore how best to ensure this.
Some specific reflections:
The earlier invitations go out, the better. Whether it’s holidays, childcare or work commitments, people need lots of notice
Asking colleagues who move in different circles will throw up new ideas for speakers
When issuing invitations, specifically refer to the intention to have balanced or diverse panels. If invitees cannot attend, ask for a recommendation that reflects this approach
Making use of resources such as the Switch list is a simple way of widening the field of potential speakers
*Jenny Pyper has been Chief Executive of NIAUR since 2013, Jo Aston has recently taken up the role of Managing Director of SONI and Tanya Hedley is a Director at NIAUR. Sam McCloskey is Director of The Centre for Advanced Sustainable Energy at QUB and the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Energy Institute - Clare McAllister and Nicola Murphy – are both female, as are NIRIG’s Chair and Manager. Inna Vorushylo at Ulster University is heading a women-led project on heat decarbonisation.