State of the Planet

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Bringing Women Back to the Table (and to the Power Plant)

MS in Sustainability Management student Alyssa Blumenthal

Alyssa Blumenthal is a specialist in Con Edison’s Energy Efficiency & Demand Management department, where she manages evaluation activities for many of the department’s residential and commercial energy efficiency programs. She has a B.S. in Sustainable & Renewable Energy Engineering from CUNY Macaulay Honors College and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Sustainability Management at Columbia University. Here, she explains why women need to be included in energy and sustainability discussions—and how we can make that happen.

For too long, women have been left out of the conversation. This is true in many arenas, but I recently learned how deeply this is true for urban design and policy. As Sarah Robinson eloquently points out in Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind, we “need to come to terms with the extent to which our environment, specifically our built environment, shapes our humanity.” Eva-Maria Simms, in a 2008 paper, similarly remarks that “urban places are not just bricks and mortar for providing shelter. The place we call home is inscribed into our bodies; the street we call ours is the setting for our communal longing and belonging.” In a world where many aspects of the built environment actively discourage women from participation, it is saddening and humbling to realize that many pieces of infrastructure that should be vehicles for opportunity—like transportation and education—instead limit women and confine them to traditional roles and familiar communities.

I work in public infrastructure—as an energy efficiency specialist at Con Edison—and while I would like to think that electric, gas, and steam services are distributed in an egalitarian fashion throughout New York City, I know this is not true in other cities and in other parts of the world. I also now realize and deeply appreciate that even when resources are distributed without gender discrimination, women and girls regularly experience the biggest improvements to their lifestyles and wellbeing once these assets arrive in a community.

In my work, access to electricity itself is less of a focus, but access to energy efficiency is very much at the forefront. This too has important implications for women and for gender equality, which frankly, I was blind to before taking Professor Susan Blaustein’s Women in Cities course in Spring 2018. Energy efficiency, by reducing the need for harmful combustibles, improves health in comparable ways to the arrival of electricity. As women are frequently the target audience for efficient and sustainable energy solutions—cleaner burning stoves being a prime example—female participation in the supply chain of these solutions can play a large part in increasing product adoption and in empowering women in the workforce. After all, with women as the end-users of these products, having a woman sales agent increases product credibility. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that female sales agents working in the sustainable energy field in Southern and East Africa frequently outperform their male counterparts. We shouldn’t need a “business case” for diversity and inclusion, but if this example and other evidence can help corporate and community leaders appreciate the value of women’s voices, I will lobby for the “business case” as much as I can.

Along those lines, then, how do we rework design and policy to allow infrastructure to serve its true goal? How do we ensure that women are on the frontlines in the field, disseminating information and shaping infrastructure? How do we ensure that they are also at the boardroom tables where executive decisions are made and passed down?

It starts with female education, because representation and leadership cannot happen until girls and women realize that they are as capable and as informed as their male counterparts. Along with education, there also must be sponsorship and outreach. I am a female engineer, but when I was considering engineering in college, I was one of only a handful of women in my courses. I decided to get back into the sciences a little late in my undergraduate studies, and at the time, I was worried that I had closed the door on an engineering career. I was struggling in my physics courses, and because I’d be completing my studies through a unique interdisciplinary program, I wouldn’t immediately qualify for Professional Engineering (PE) accreditation. It took another woman, a partner at an engineering firm in Manhattan, to reassure me that not having a PE license wouldn’t make me any less of an engineer. She also offered me the chance to shadow her employees, and ultimately to intern at the firm, where I realized that I could more than keep up with my male counterparts. I could contribute to designing New York City’s buildings, and because of her sponsorship and the mentorship and support of many other strong women in my life, I now help maintain one of the most intricate pieces of infrastructure in the world—New York City’s electric distribution system.

Organizations like Women In Non-Traditional Employment Roles and the Society of Women Engineers provide resources to women looking to break gender barriers in the workplace, such as in engineering and in construction fields, and we need to promote these organizations. We also need to expand them, with special programs to advance girls’ early education and targeted programs in communities where girls may not even realize that work outside of the home is possible. Even if girls who engage with these sorts of programs don’t grow up to become scientists or engineers, there is incredible value in their learning to think critically and independently, and in seeing women in leadership roles.

Following through with this narrative, women and men in leadership must actively advocate for individuals whose voices are not being heard. Women, of course, are regularly among those voices. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett noted in the New York Times, “No matter how fiercely you lean in, you still need someone with power to lean in with you,” so having advocates in the workplace is immeasurably valuable. We each have a responsibility to be aware of how our organizations—and more broadly, our societies —do or do not promote women and other minorities, and to advocate for inclusion whenever possible. This is particularly true for entry- and mid-level positions, where individuals gain expertise and confidence and are grappling with small but significant problems in real time. In the utility world, this translates to men and women literally making life or death decisions in trenches and in power plants. We need those women in power (plants).

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit the website to learn more.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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