February 8, 2023

‘Where’s the Women?’

SEAC leaders discuss ways to increase female representation in sustainable energy codes and standards

Rebekah Hren does not mince words about the gender imbalance in her codes and standards network.

“It’s pretty abysmal,” says Hren, a SEAC member who is a principal on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Code-Making Panel 4 for the National Electrical Code and a member of the UL 3741 Standards Technical Panel.

While ratios vary by industry segment, Hren says women may account for roughly 10 percent of renewable energy jobs requiring technical skills, such as engineering jobs.

Among professionals contributing to codes and standards—including those for renewable energy and fossil fuel generation—women probably represent 1 to 2 percent, Hren says.

To put those figures in context, here is women’s representation in the workforce in 2022 for some relevant occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Construction and extraction occupations: 4.2 percent
  • Installation, maintenance and repair occupations: 4.2 percent
  • Electrical and electronics engineers: 8.1 percent
  • Architecture and engineering occupations: 16.1 percent

In the solar industry overall—including technical roles but also sales, operations, finance, management, and customer service—women make up just under 30 percent of the workforce, according to the latest National Solar Jobs Census data.

For this post, we interviewed three SEAC members who have blazed the path to make codes and standards more inclusive for everyone, especially women.

First, we will address the importance of gender diversity at the code council, the building department, and everywhere people are talking about codes and standards.

Then we’ll describe barriers to entry that may be limiting access for women and strategies for developing the next generation of female industry leaders.

“There is definitely a lack of women’s representation in the segment,” says Evelyn Butler, Solar Energy Industry Association’s vice president of technical services. “And I tend to be that person who’s not shy about just blurting out, ‘where’s the women?’” 

From bottleneck to facilitator

Evelyn Butler, vice chair of SEAC's Qualified Professionals working group
Evelyn Butler serves as vice chair of SEAC’s Qualified Professionals working group.

Coming out of college with a background in business and law, Butler didn’t exactly have renewable energy codes and standards on the radar. But at the product certification company UL, now known as UL Solutions, new opportunities would present themselves every few years.

Butler became UL’s first hire in marketing and business development, and then regional sales. In hindsight, the opportunity to learn about codes and standards was “a happy accident,” Butler says.

“What wrapped it all together from my perspective was the role of codes and standards and product certification in commercialization and the evolution of certifiers being a bottleneck to a facilitator in a very competitive market situation,” she says.

You can make the case that work on diversity, equity, and inclusion is also a matter of clearing bottlenecks and facilitating a seat at the table for all comers.

For Butler and each of the SEAC leaders we spoke to, making space for women in codes and standards also means welcoming different cultural perspectives and contributors young and old.

After all, the application of codes and standards can vary a great deal from one circumstance to another depending on who’s standing in front of you.

Joanne Kurz, a SEAC member and retired building official, strove to maintain authority while avoiding conflict during her time in charge of the Woodside, California building department. Kurz viewed herself as a source of information and guidance for property owners, aware that many people just find it more comfortable to speak with a woman.

While contractors have a business to run, Kurz could offer unfettered advice to anyone who came calling.

“There were men that were a little condescending,” Kurz says, noting a time someone told her to “listen sweetheart.”

“But the way I would talk with them changed their perspective,” she says.

Barriers for women entering codes and standards

Rebekah Hren is a an instructor and curriculum developer at Solar Energy International (SEI) and a technical advisor and co-founder at SEI Professional Services.

If the pace of progress seems slow, consider this. About 10 years ago, Hren says there were just a handful of individuals driving the development of sustainable energy codes and standards, notably Ward Bower, Bill Brooks, and John Wiles.

A licensed electrical contractor, Hren had grown interested in the evolution of National Electrical Code (NEC) Article 690 on solar photovoltaic (PV) systems along with related codes and standards. Hren started writing articles about code changes in SolarPro and joined the PV Industry Forum with experts including Brooks, who was serving on Code-Making Panel 4 (CMP 4).

“Bill called one day and said, ‘I need women on this panel,’” Hren says.

The application process and timelines can be unclear for newcomers. “I don’t think I would have known about it or done it if Bill hadn’t pushed me,” Hren says.

In subsequent code cycles, Hren has recruited CMP-4 applications from a few other women  in sustainable energy, though none has joined. However, Justine Sanchez and Karo Fernandez, both curriculum developers and trainers at Solar Energy International, are now principals on NEC CMP-13. 

Advice for new leaders 

Joanne Kurz serves on the SEAC Steering Committee and the SEAC Assembly.

The codes and standards community is going to need an influx of talent as consumers adopt new solar, energy storage, and electric vehicle charging technologies in the years to come. Here are some ways that women can fill new leadership roles.

These days, when Butler asks, “where’s the women?” she answers the question for speaking opportunities or participation positions for more women and diverse colleagues by searching the WRISE Speaker’s Bureau hosted by Women in Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy. Everyone should use the WRISE Speaker’s Bureau to find qualified speakers, add your voice to the database, or take part in a speaker training program.

Butler says it will be important to raise awareness about opportunities in codes and standards and communicate the dynamic role of codes and standards to prepare us for the future of energy. “There’s an opportunity to be part of that wave of innovation,” she says.

SEIA also holds women’s networking meet-ups at RE+ and the regional RE+ events and encourages women to attend.

For early-career professionals with an eye towards getting a master’s degree, there’s a tendency to overlook the importance of field experience and the mentorship opportunities that can come with it.

Kurz recommends getting hands-on experience as early as possible. “A lot of building departments will allow people to shadow the building inspector,” she says. “It depends if the jurisdiction’s insurance policy allows it.”

The International Code Council has local chapters all over the country. Kurz says joining ICC monthly meetings is a great way to connect and meet people, such as a group Kurz belongs to that is known casually as the FBI, the Female Building Inspectors.

Hren calls her work with task force groups “an alternative mentorship opportunity.” To be effective, you have to put in the time and you cannot upset people. With some big personalities in the group, keeping the peace can be easier said than done. “The NFPA has some extremely talented task group chairs.”

Seeing how those task group chairs get work done is preparing Hren for the next step in her leadership journey.

Is Hren planning to serve as a task group chair in a future code cycle?

“Oh yeah, definitely,” she says.