Remarks at Women and Foreign Policy: The Supply and Demand of Women and Energy

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
George Washington University
Washington, DC
May 24, 2016

Before we get started, I have two housekeeping notes. First, the event is being live streamed—so thanks to everyone who has tuned in to join us. And second, if you’re tweeting about today’s discussion, please use #ThinkGender.

This is our fourth Women and Foreign Policy event. We started this series to take a deeper look at some of the issues we work on—from early and forced marriage, to women and elections, to sexual violence in conflict.

Today, we’re focused on exploring the relationship between two very important issues: access to sustainable energy and women’s economic empowerment.

Both of these topics are key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and broader U.S. foreign policy objectives—that’s something governments, the private sector, and civil society understand well.

The question for today is how these issues relate to each other. As we’ve seen in the United States, access to energy is critical to women’s economic participation.

Only 80 years ago—and by the way, that’s not so long ago—fewer than 1 in 5 American farms had access to electricity. Women on those farms performed backbreaking labors – from hauling water to stoking hot fires – that kept them and their children from fully participating in the labor market or going to school.

Still, people weren’t convinced that access to energy was worth the investment. Skeptics in the energy industry and in Washington said connecting those farms to the grid would be a waste of money. Even rural farmers were unpersuaded.

But the women in these areas organized to demand electricity. In Sheridan County, a rural community in Montana, a woman named Anna Dahl founded an electricity cooperative in 1941 to connect her community to the grid. She attracted a following of women who wanted to improve their lives through energy access, and by 1948, the power was on in Sheridan.

Several other women followed in Anna Dahl’s footsteps to demand electricity access across the country. And when they were successful, the entire country saw that women’s access to energy was a powerful catalyst—for families, their farms, and the American economy. In the words of one rural Mississippi woman after her community gained electricity access, “We have just now begun to live.”

But access is only one piece of the puzzle. There’s a second component that’s just as important. We need to look at this issue through the lens of both supply and demand. Any commodity needs to have both—a demand for the product, and a seller who supplies it.

We have seen what’s possible when we meet women’s demand for energy—from education to economic growth. That demand will be better met when women are on the supply side of the equation as well.

When decisions are made about what types of energy a community should use, how to source or produce that energy, and how energy is distributed, women should be consulted. And when they are, those decisions will be better and smarter.

Let me give you an example. A woman named Joanne Cummings served as the first refugee coordinator in Iraq in 2004. As part of her job, she met with Iraqis who had been displaced by the conflict. And one group of men she met with asked her for a generator.

But when Joanne later met with women from the same group, they asked for a water tank. Apparently their daughters were being attacked walking to the nearest water source, which was miles away from their village. When Joanne pointed out that the men had asked for a generator, the women laughed and told her the men wanted to watch TV.

This story boils down to a basic truth: women are not charity seekers looking for a handout. They are change-agents who have important contributions to make. The more we can empower them to participate, the more successful our efforts will be.

How can we do that? First, we need gender data to help drive decisions. We need to take gender into account when we do research and analysis. That way, we can understand the full range of experiences and make sure gender-specific needs are adequately met. For example, a recent study at Princeton found that providing electricity in rural South Africa increased women’s labor force participation by nearly 10 percent in just five years.

The second critical consideration is workforce representation. Like many fields, the energy and utilities sector is dominated by men. In power and utilities companies around the world, women occupy just 5 percent of executive positions and only 13 percent of senior management roles. In the oil and gas industry, women’s representation is even lower.

And yet, we know that gender diversity makes good business sense – including for energy companies. Look at the 20 power and utilities companies around the world with the highest levels of gender diversity in management. These companies are more profitable than the 20 companies with the lowest gender diversity in management.

By increasing women’s representation in energy and the STEM fields—whether they are technicians, engineers, entrepreneurs, or corporate executives—we can improve the sector’s ability to innovate. We can find clean-energy solutions. And we can meet the demands of both women and men.

The bottom line is that from both angles of supply and demand, we can advance our common goals when we advance women and energy.

We can free women and girls from making long journeys to collect fuel—a change that would combat gender-based violence and increase women’s participation in the economy.

We can turn the lights on for women and their families—a change that would allow girls and boys to spend more time on their school work, and for women to increase their hours of productivity.

We can train women to sell off-grid energy technologies and encourage them to join a utility company— a change that would advance women’s participation in the formal economy.

And we can replace dirty fuels with sustainable energy sources that are better for both people and the planet—a change that would help address deforestation, environmental degradation, and climate change.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges in making the most of these opportunities. Both gender and energy can be quite technical, and we have a long way to go in building understanding between these two areas. But by working together, and sharing resources, we can shape each other’s efforts to be more successful.

We have a tremendous panel today that will help us better understand these two issues. My State Department colleague Melanie Nakagawa]—who is one of three women serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Energy Resources—will moderate the panel.

But first, we have a short video that illustrates some of the challenges and opportunities in this area. Then, Helene Carlsson Rex will share more about the World Bank project featured in the video. And after that, Melanie will come up and introduce the panel.

Thanks again for coming—we’re looking forward to a great discussion.