Justice needs diversity – A Gendered Perspective on the Energy Transition

The average member of energy transition initiatives in Europe is highly educated, middle class, and male. Diversifying the energy transition is important to achieve a successful and just transition, writes Anne Kantel from Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research and project GRETA. 

On average, women have invested less in and own smaller shares of renewable energy cooperatives than men. Women are underrepresented as both members and on the boards of energy communities in Europe. Correspondingly, actors who are credited most for active participation in energy community initiatives identify and are read as male. 

This has the probably unintended but nevertheless self-reinforcing effect that it discourages the active participation of more women in energy initiatives, who are missing their role models and do not feel represented. 

At the same time, women are disproportionately often affected by energy poverty, meaning they have unequal access to and often lack the financial means to afford reliable energy services. This blog post does not seek to dismiss or discourage the participation of well-educated, middle-class men. Its aim is to call for and encourage more just energy transition efforts in Europe and beyond. And justice requires diversity. 

Who has their voices heard in the energy transition

A gendered lens can help to achieve just transition practices by not only emphasising the (missing) role women are playing in transition initiatives but by also highlighting how the current patriarchist system produces and perpetuates practices and norms that favour groups fitting the bill – so to speak – simply by being educated, middle class, white, and male. Gender as a form of socially constructed difference traditionally translates into assessing inequalities and hierarchies between women and men. 

However, a gendered perspective in the energy transition needs to address justice and diversity beyond simply counting men and women. Who has their voices heard and can participate in energy transition processes is influenced by a range of often intersecting characteristics that include socially (re-)produced categories such as race, class, age, geography, education, and migratory backgrounds in addition to gender. These characteristics are met by an economic, political, and social system that is highly skewed toward maintaining the status quo.

Diversifying the energy transition is important to achieve a successful and just transition. While it is true that women are slightly better represented in the renewable energy sector than in carbon-based companies and industries, there still remains a significant gap among genders. And this is to say nothing of the (lack of) representation of non-white, lower-educated, and lower-income groups in renewable energy initiatives across Europe.

Industry and politics need to prioritise diversity

Moving toward a zero-carbon, renewable energy-based system does not automatically translate into a world that is more just, diverse, and socially inclusive than the one based on fossil fuels. To change social, political, and economic practices and to achieve the goal of a just energy transition, we require both energy citizenship on the ground and real policy changes from the top. 

It is noteworthy that women are more likely to actively participate in other pro-environmental behaviour than men. And in many parts of the world, indigenous people are at the forefront of environmental activism. The lack of diversity in the energy transition is not the result of a lack of interest and motivation. It is unequal access to resources in a system that still favours established voices resulting in an unbalanced representation of the European population in both decision-making processes and policy outcomes. 

If industry and politics do not prioritise diversity now, the renewable energy transition is more likely to perpetuate and deepen inequality and perceptions of injustice than reduce them. It is not too late to change this. If we act now, we can appropriately include and practice diversity in the energy transition. 

Read more from our latest vision document on energy citizen-based energy union

Anne Kantel is a Senior Researcher at Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research. In project GRETA, Kantel and her colleagues from Fraunhofer ISI focus on applied research to achieve efficient energy use and sustainable energy behaviour.

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