Web exclusive: bringing women and the social sciences into the energy transition

24th March 2023


Dr Rihab Khalid, Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, tells Chris Seekings why women and the social sciences must play a far greater role in the energy transition.

The global transition to net-zero emissions has primarily been driven by men working in technical disciplines, with women representing just 14.5% of UK engineers in 2021.

In response, the government-funded UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has been working to bring a wider range of voices into the discussion, as part of its Energy SHINES project.

The project has been facilitating partnerships between women researchers working in the social sciences and humanities (SSH), and organisations like the NHS, the UK government, the RIBA and Yorkshire Water, which are all aiming for net zero.

Dr Rihab Khalid, Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, is co-lead on the project, and believes that a successful energy transition requires far more insights and expertise from women working in the social sciences. Here, she explains why.

How did you become interested in the social aspects of the energy transition?

I have a background in architectural engineering, and know that the way houses and spaces are used has a substantial impact on energy consumption. Research shows that the behaviours, lifestyles and practices of occupants can result in a two to six times variation in energy consumption in similar buildings. I started looking at occupant behaviour during my PhD, and was introduced to this idea of socio-technical perspectives, looking at how technology and society are mutually dependent. When we think about the energy transition, we have this misconception that it's a very technical or infrastructural project, but in reality, it is as much a social, economic and political challenge.

How can SSH aid the transition?

The STEM disciplines are at the centre of the discussion, but questions about how technology gets used, how certain technologies are promoted, how demand for energy evolves, and also questions about equity, can only be understood from a social science perspective. Different policies need to be designed to cater to specific needs that are socially applicable and culturally relevant, and SSH can put society and people at the centre of the discussion, and help us to problematise certain normative assumptions about energy supply and demand. They raise important questions about equity, justice, accountability, ethics, inclusion and participation in democracy. These are all important questions that are integral to a truly sustainable energy future.

Countries in the Global South could learn from some of the mistakes of the Global North. Instead of following in the footsteps of exploitation and unsustainable extraction in the name of development and progress, developing economies should reflect on and respect their own heritages of production and indigenous practices, which have historically had much smaller carbon footprints, and that are more in tune with nature and their own cultural context. Above all, we need to start accounting for differences and diversities in energy access and needs. We can begin by understanding how people use energy in different social groups, in terms of income and class differences, gender differences, geographical differences and so on. SSH has a lot to say about how we can bring about a sustainable energy transition successfully, for example in shedding light on various modes of governance, and also how we measure progress, development, prosperity, happiness and well-being. It also provides insights for more democratic and participatory approaches, such as bottom-up approaches involving citizens, which can result in much more positive action and results.

Why is it important for women to play a greater role in the energy transition?

If we want to tackle some of the critical global climate and energy challenges we face today in terms of equity, justice, and sustainability, then we must face the fact that just like class and income disparities, energy systems also have gendered implications. This is because men and women access, consume, benefit from, and use energy is different ways, and so their differential access and needs must be accounted for in future energy transitions.

Women remain grossly under-represented within the energy sector, and this can be seen across the energy supply chain. Thankfully, there is now substantial research to show that the focus on women, or on gender more broadly, is critical to the energy transition. Of course women represent half the population as end-users and their specific needs and challenges in access to energy must be understood. But also, women play a key role as strategic change-agents as they are generally more responsible for energy use and efficiency within the home because of the gendered division of labour that still prevails in most societies around the world today. Moreover, recent studies also show that more diverse, gender-equal employment is actually good for business, and that women in corporate management and leadership roles generally show a better track record of corporate social responsibility and greener initiatives with more sustainable company policies. Women’s participation needs to improve across the energy supply chain. This includes better understanding of women as energy end-users, for example through improved gender-disaggregated data, as well as women’s greater representation in decision-making and policy.

What can be done to ensure women play a greater role in the energy transition?

Its not enough to set gender quotes, its equally important to ensure that such quotas are met by dismantling the gender disparities within existing systems and structures. For example, implementing anti-harassment laws, hiring gender specialists to identify gaps in organisational policies; and providing equal maternity and paternity leaves. Consideration should also be given to providing adequate infrastructure and facilities for women to enable their workplace employment such as daycare centres; flexible working patterns; separate washrooms, and separate prayer rooms, among other things. It can be very simple practical things like providing uniforms and safety equipment that fit both men and women, and travel facilities that ensure women are able to commute safely.

You were seconded to the UK’s former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), as part of the Energy-PIECES project – a forerunner to the Energy-SHINES project. What did you learn while there?

I had the opportunity of working with their Energy Social Research Unit, which was a brilliant experience. It was a fantastic group of social scientists who provided SSH input for policy development. Based on my overall experience from the project, though, I found that, while there is a growing interest and understanding for the need for SSH research in energy policy, its scope is still very limited. Energy policy is still very much dominated by techno-economic framings, often set within wider geopolitical agendas, in which SSH research is sidelined. It is often seen as a way to lead the public through a predetermined transition smoothly with minimal disruption, with the focus being on tackling and ensuring public acceptability; whereas limited focus is given to large scale, long-term social-technical transitions, because incremental short-term goals are seen as easier to set and achieve by politicians. The breadth of SSH perspectives, and its theoretical and methodological approaches, can not only help reframe the challenge so that we begin asking the right questions, but can also help widen the scope of intervention in developing new modes of governance, improved participation, democratic innovation, reinventing municipalities, and of course, challenging the underlying norms and assumptions about energy consumption, disrupting the status quo and business as usual.

The Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) from Anglia Ruskin University has played a leading role in the Energy SHINES project. How important has this been?

The GSI has been one of the leading institutions in bringing together these multi-stakeholder collaborations and projects in the energy sector; connecting academia with industry and policy teams, NGOs, the private sector and so on, which, a lot of times within academia, is very difficult. It's only through such partnerships that we can engage with industry and policy, show them the work we are doing, why it matters, and really begin to develop impact for the work that we do. The GSI has been able to do that well because it's a multi-disciplinary institute, allowing it to overcome some of the departmental and disciplinary compartmentalisation that often takes place within academia. It has led some fantastic international projects like SHAPE-ENERGY, and Energy-SHIFTS that have been seminal in highlighting and promoting SSH-related research in EU energy policy. Our Energy-SHINES project is currently underway. As part of this UKERC-funded project, the GSI in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, conducted a workshop last February on creating women-focused spaces for engaging SSH-research in energy policy. This summer, we are offering six placements for women PhDs working within energy-related SSH in the UK to work at leading organisations with net-zero targets, to help them in tackling their energy-related challenges by bringing society and people into the debate.

Workshop on creating women-focused spaces for SSH-research in energy policy

You can find Dr Rihab Khalid on Twitter here, and on LinkedIn here

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