Energy sector faces struggle to find the female engineers of the future
The woman in charge of UK’s largest power station admits they must do more to change attitudes
While the lack of female chief executives in the UK is a problem, the lack of female engineers is an even bigger concern, as Dorothy Thompson, chief executive of Drax group, knows only too well. The head of the UK’s largest power station is grappling with the question of how to attract more women into the energy sector.
Thompson says the six places available on the Drax apprenticeship scheme this year attracted just two female applicants compared with 76 men. The education is partly to blame, she says, but energy companies also need to do much more to change girls’ perceptions.
Thompson has overseen Drax’s conversion of its coal-fired boilers to biomass to secure the future of the plant near Selby in North Yorkshire as environmental rules bite. She is one of a tiny pool of women running big UK companies, and an even smaller number at the top of the energy industry. The proportion of women on the boards of energy companies was 9% in 2014, and exactly the same two years later. The gender imbalance is not much better further down the management chain.
“We would like to have more female apprentices, more female engineers. We believe in diversity,” she says. “But it is challenging. In our current [recruitment] process, there’s a real paucity of female candidates. We struggle to get sufficient candidates to increase the percentage [of women].”
She says that while schools should do more to encourage girls to study science and subjects that could equip them for a career in energy, much of the responsibility in addressing the imbalance lies with the industry.
“Part of it is in education but part of it is perception. We as an industry need to be more proactive in explaining how interesting an opportunity we are [to young women],” she says.
Thompson is far from alone in recognising the imbalance or trying to do something about it.
“This is a huge cultural issue for the industry,” says Joan MacNaughton, who is on the board of Powerful Women, a group helping females advance their career in the sector. “There are expectations of women that I don’t think are 21st century. It’s a very, very male culture.”
MacNaughton, who spent five years at French company Alstom’s energy division and sits on the board of Energy Academy Europe, says even energy companies that like to think of themselves as progressive have a problem.
“They’re not Jeremy Clarkson [the men]; they’re cultured, well-mannered people. But the assumption in senior circles is that you can all have a conversation about your yachts. As a woman there who doesn’t have a yacht, you just have to walk away.”
EDF, which is building Britain’s first new nuclear power station in two decades, has been running a cinema ad campaign as part of its drive to encourage girls and young women to study disciplines that could lead to energy jobs.
“To recruit the numbers needed to fulfil demand for the future, we need more girls to study science subjects at school, further education and higher education,” says the French company’s boss, Vincent de Rivaz, in a foreword to a recent EDF jobs report.
Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers agrees: “Often women don’t see heavy industry as a likely future career. Maybe it’s because of the way we talk about engineering and the way it’s shown on TV and talked about in schools.” The root of the problem is not just in education but society more widely, she adds. “When you’re a teenager you want to fit in, and society doesn’t say to girls, ‘yay, go out and build power plants’.”
Sara Bell, founder of technology company Tempus Energy, says while it is still vital to encourage girls to study Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the industry has to look at how it presents itself.
“I used to work in financial markets, which is a pretty testosterone-fuelled environment. The energy sector makes finance look like an equal opportunities employer,” she says. “A lot of 15-year-old girls will look at the role models – middle-aged men, predominantly white – and not see anything they can relate to.”
Drax’s Thompson agrees that the lack of role models is an issue. “It is unfortunate that there are not more senior women in energy, because it would make it appear more accessible to women. I think it’s unfortunate because the industry is in fact perfectly accessible.”
Alice Gill should know. As a schoolgirl she was taken on a tour of the power station and now, at 22, after taking biology, maths, chemistry and physics A-levels, she has just completed a four-year apprenticeship scheme with Drax.
“A lot of women are, like, girly girls, aren’t they?” she says. “I can’t imagine them coming in in overalls with no makeup on, and getting their hands dirty. It’s not necessarily a problem with the industry [the lack of women]; I think the problem is that people just aren’t interested.”
The solution, she thinks, is to expose more women to the sector at young age: “Just educate more people about it.”
Other remedies proposed for addressing the energy industry’s gender imbalance include better transparency on promotions inside companies, and much closer scrutiny of hiring practices.
“Everyone should have to monitor the [gender] figures, the intake and promotion figures into middle management, and from middle management into board,” says MacNaughton. “When you get the transparency, then people start to see the problem and fix it. There will never be a single bullet for such a complex problem.
The Drax dilemma
Three of Drax’s coal-fired generators have been converted to burn wood pellets, mostly from North American forests. But the company suffered a setback in 2014 when the government ruled that a fourth unit would not be eligible for subsidies, and another in 2015, when the Treasury ended its carbon tax exemption. Drax is lobbying for a rethink, arguing that the UK needs stable low-carbon power to complement increasing amounts of wind and solar energy, but the prospect of a further subsidy is unlikely.
The company signalled a new strategy last year with its acquisition of business energy supplier Opus Energy and four gas power stations, and is also looking to buy more wood pellet plants in the US.
“It’s all about diversifying our earnings, strengthening their stability, and using our areas of expertise and our commercial position to make us stronger and more sustainable - in every sense of the word,” Thompson told the Observer.
But some analysts are sceptical of how profitable this will be. “Drax’s acquisition of Opus Energy heralded the start of a new strategy focusing on securing earnings beyond 2027,” investment bank Jefferies said in a recent note. “We feel optimism regarding the new strategy is overdone and we continue to believe that long-term power prices will remain low.”