THE BLOG
06/03/2010 05:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Oil Spill Day 43. Where Are the Women in Green Technology?

As we go through the 43rd day of what will potentially go down as the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States with no end in sight, and as sordid details of ignored warning signs and missed opportunities for corrective action emerge prompting a criminal inquiry, many are putting their hopes in renewed discussions about energy independence and the promise of a green tech revolution. So ask yourselves this: given where we find ourselves today, can our environmental future be left in the hands of men only?

Studies have shown that diversity of thought leads to better decisions and innovation. The reasoning is simple: multiple perspectives lead to better decisions - a more complex picture and thorough information in decision making is provided, more ideas are brought to the table, and more solutions to difficult problems emerge. One of the indicators of diversity of thought is educational background and life experiences; others include more obvious markers such as gender and race. Women represent half the population and more than half the workforce, and yet are sorely lagging in representation from positions of power in decision-making.

I can't help but wonder how BP is encompassing a wide array of perspectives in its approach to trying to clean up the biggest mess in environmental history, given that all of its executives are white males, except for one female HR leader.

BP aside, what worries me most isn't so much that so called old-energy companies that have an interest in preserving the status quo are dominated by white men, it's that female and underrepresented minority talent are largely absent from the supposed revolution that is to come from the green tech industry.

As a researcher, I like to engage in data collection exercises to verify my thoughts on an issue. I looked at the list of renewable energy companies listed on stock exchanges worldwide on Wikipedia. That's 70 companies. Of those, 19 are listed on a US Stock Exchange (27%). Most of these companies are in solar, wind, or biofuel technology. Note that not all of these companies are headquartered in the US - about half are headquartered in China. For those 19 companies, I coded the proportion of female executives based on their profile in Dun and Bradstreet's database of companies. When in doubt about whether a name was male or female, I went to the companies' websites to check the senior management executive bios (and pictures). Here is what I found:

  • 14 out of the 19 companies had all-male executive management . That's right. Zero women at the table in three quarters of the companies.
  • Four companies had between 10% and 15% women on their management team (which typically represents one or two women)
  • One company stood out with 25% women (3 out of 12 executives)

Lest you think that this is an East-West dichotomy, of the five companies that had women on their management teams, two were headquartered in China.

Granted, this is a small snapshot of the renewable energy industry piece of the Green Revolution. But I find it disturbing. Given where we are environmentally, I don't think it's best to only have half of the world's voices represented in creating renewable energy solutions.

Will we see a different picture in years to come, or are we doomed to repeat history? On the one hand, I see hopefully signs for more gender diversity. For instance, my twelve-year old daughter has the environment on the brain. She is a part of the generation whose future will be shaped by climate change. Once in a while, she talks to me about her ideas for green technology - a design for a car that would run on water, or drawings of human powered machines. I can see how the urgency of the problem could engage and motivate a new generation of diverse voices in green technology solutions. But I am concerned that should she choose to pursue her visions of a better future, she will end up facing the same barriers that women in technology are already facing: a lack of role models, unwelcoming cultures, isolation, and ongoing subtle bias. The way things are now, if she considers an environmental career and looks at companies, she will see a slew of middle-aged men in suits. Will she get the message that women are not a part of the green revolution?

I was inspired by Kristina Johnson, the Undersecretary for Energy, who won our Anita Borg Women of Vision Award for Leadership, as a role model that can turn this picture around for my daughter and other young women. Johnson, an Electrical Engineer, has spent her life designing technology across the boundaries of academia, industry, and government, always with an eye toward finding solutions to difficult social problems. Her vision for alternative energy is to accelerate the process through which environmental innovations are brought to market.

We need more role models like her to send the message that the brightest minds are needed to design the green technology that can get us out of this mess. We need all the role models we can get - the current picture just won't do. Who are women role models in green tech? Do you see a new generation of women entering this field?