As stories of sexual harassment, intimidation and assault across Hollywood, business and wider society continue to drive the latest push for gender equality, encapsulated in the Me Too movement, the women who work in power finance have spoken to PFR reporter Shravan Bhat about their experiences, from the pay gap to female representation in leadership positions and their treatment in the workplace.
The consensus from leading bankers, lawyers, regulators and developers is that while progress has been made in the past twenty years, major challenges remain.
The most ground has been made in general workplace treatment, say senior women, while more work needs to be done on pay equality and representation in leadership roles.
“I have spoken to women early in their careers who haven’t experienced the kinds of challenges I faced so it is getting better now,” says Alicia Barton, president and ceo at NYSERDA. “There’s been more attention paid to the issue and that’s improved the culture. But that doesn’t mean we’ve solved the problem by any stretch.”
“It was a “boys' club” in the old days. I remember being told I couldn’t cover a private equity client because I didn’t play golf,” says a project finance banker. “There was no thought paid to meetings at bars that were actually gentlemen’s clubs.”
Business dinners at strip clubs may be largely a thing of the past, but women still often complain of poor behavior in the industry.
One female executive with over 20 years’ finance experience at an independent power producer and developer, who asked to remain anonymous, said she had been “mauled” in the back of a taxi by a male banker she had just closed a deal with. “How do you handle that? I knew the guy’s girlfriend!”
And in some corners of project development, women are considered an outright liability.
A contractor in the wind industry told a PFR source that he would “never hire a woman” because of the sexual harassment risk it would pose on-site at a remote location.
By risk, he meant the cost to his company if it were sued by a female employee who was harassed at work, rather than the risk of harassment to the employee.
But it is not just at remote wind farm construction sites that such views prevail.
“Even as young lawyers, my female colleagues and I would be treated in a way that undermined our confidence,” remembers NYSERDA's Barton, who has worked as an attorney in private practice and in-house. “Senior partners would comment about younger women potentially going on maternity leave and therefore being bad candidates for projects because they may be unavailable.”
“Human resource departments are there to protect the company, not the workers,” quipped another industry figure, adding that women who complain about harassment are unofficially blacklisted.
In terms of pay, project finance bankers and attorneys agree that the implementation of salary bands at most large banks and law firms means that, at junior levels, female analysts and associates are generally paid on par with their male counterparts.
At developers and engineering firms however, where pay packages are more open to negotiation, women who do not pitch as aggressively as men are not rewarded with the same compensation.
“Women are bad negotiators in general and developers will pay them what they think they can get away with,” said the female IPP official. (Others may disagree with the generalization).
Women tend to think they will be rewarded by doing good work, she says, whereas it is those who “complain” that get the raise.
Barton points to New York state legislation—advanced this year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo—that would ban employers, whether public or private, from asking job candidates for their salary history, as a step in the right direction.
“The pay gap can be a mix of things, beginning with low entry-level salary that’s hard to make up and then getting widened due to factors like race,” says Kristen Graf, executive director at industry body Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy. “Women not being selected for specific projects or clients can impact the gap at senior levels.”
More than one woman noted that being overlooked because of their gender for special projects or clients, which often lead to large bonuses, also reduced their chances of being promoted to leadership positions.
Gender-based pay disparity at regulatory bodies tends to be lower owing to public scrutiny of salaries and the absence of the discretionary bonuses that are common in the private sector. Many of the women interviewed by PFR said that more transparency around compensation would help employers to retain the most talented women.
And in the Me Too era, corporations are more eager than ever to portray themselves as being ahead of the curve when it comes to gender equality. In June, residential solar installer Sunrun announced that it had achieved “100% gender pay parity”.
Sunrun explained that it had achieved pay parity for its “employees, regardless of gender, who perform similar work in similar locations across the United States.”
Lynn Jurich, Sunrun’s co-founder and ceo, was unavailable to comment further on the methodology behind the salary audit as she is on maternity leave.
CLIMBING THE PYRAMID
The need for female representation in senior management roles was a recurring theme in PFR's conversations with power sector leaders.
“There are definitely more senior women at the director and managing director level at banks than when I started 18 years ago," says Ravina Advani, managing director for power, infrastructure and project finance in North America at BNP Paribas. "We are certainly moving in the right direction but still have a ways to go. I would like to see more senior women assume group head and senior management positions.”
Only 23 of A Word About Wind’s 2018 “Top 100 Power People” were women, with MUFG’s Americas project finance managing director Beth Waters the highest-ranked, in 17th place.
The small proportion of women in the list can partly be explained by the lack of women in the power sector as a whole, which can make them feel isolated. Women in energy finance often draw a direct link between being outnumbered by men and being treated differently.
“As a percentage of the workforce—even in the clean energy sector in New York and Massachusetts—you range from 20% to 30% women at most," says Barton. "Nationally, women are closer to 50% of entire workforce. The sector is lagging and I am far too frequently lonely as the only woman in a meeting or one of the few at a large gathering.”
“Being the only woman in the room can be intimidating,” says a project finance banker. “Even today, I often get asked, 'When is your boss coming?' or simply get talked over by men who are junior to me.”
Despite these challenges, female representation at senior levels is improving, in part because of deliberate efforts on the part of companies and institutions.
“Leaders like Invenergy’s Meghan Schultz have spoken about the importance of being 'intentional' as a company,” says WRISE's Graf. “It takes focus and diving into the data and not just assuming that because we all really want gender equality, that it will become pervasive through the system.”
Organizations like General Electric have begun to address the disparity at the entry level by announcing a plan to hire and retain 20,000 women in technical roles by 2020. GE’s Edison Engineering Program attracted a 50% female incoming class in 2017—a cohort which had the highest class GPA ever.
And pressure to change is also coming increasingly from the market, especially where publicly-traded companies are concerned. BlackRock says that diverse groups make better decisions and is asking companies it invests in that have few or no women on their boards to explain themselves, according to a Feb. 2 report from Bloomberg.
At Sunrun, which is listed on Nasdaq, women comprise 38% of the board, 50% of the management team, and 31% of the "organizational leadership".
“When I walk into board meetings today, I increasingly see more and more female executives and that’s inspiring to younger women coming out of college or entering the job market,” says Hannon Armstrong managing director Susan Nickey, who notes, as others do, that women are more attracted to the idea of working in renewable energy than in conventional power generation.
“The clean energy sector has attracted women of all ages, at all ranks, because women tend to care about making a difference in the mission of climate change,” she explains.
Even the unnamed project developer who was mauled in a taxi readily admits that things have improved in the last 25 years.
“I would be leading meetings in my 30s and people would ask me if I could get them a coffee," she says.
"Nobody asks me to get them coffee anymore.”