State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Jully Merino Carela: Making the Energy Sector More Inclusive and Welcoming for Women

This story is part of a series celebrating the work of women at the Earth Institute, in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021. Read more about the day and our related blog posts here.

jully headshot
Jully Merino Carela is the director of the Women in Energy program at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Jully Merino Carela joined Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) in 2016, while she was studying environmental policy and sustainability management at Columbia. She is now the program director of CGEP’s Women in Energy program, juggling work and grad school as she pursues a master’s degree in applied analytics.

The Women in Energy Program got its start a year after Jason Bordoff founded CGEP. The idea to start the program came up after one of Bordoff’s students, Cherry Ding, attended an energy conference. She observed that only a handful of women got the chance to attend the conference, and the conversation began on how they could fix this gender disparity in the energy field. Bordoff and Ding decided to do something about it, and piloted the Women in Energy Program. With the help of a generous grant from the Sloan Foundation, CGEP formalized the program and started organizing events, such as roundtables with women leaders in the energy sector, and got students involved in such networking events.

Merino Carela has been working hard to ensure that students, alumni, and all people facing gender-based oppression or bias in the energy sector have access to the networks and resources required for a successful career. In a conversation with the State of the Planet, she delves into how the Women in Energy Program and CGEP have been advocating for more women’s leadership in this male-dominated field.

Can you tell us about some of your initiatives and how they have benefited women students?

Sure. We have a number of events and programming for our members. We regularly invite women who are in leadership roles in the energy sector so they can talk about their career path, how they got to where they are, and then answer questions that our members have. The members get to learn more about technical subjects and also, the day-to-day work of the speakers, the soft and hard skills they recommend having, and how to achieve work-life balance. Unfortunately, women make up a small minority in the energy sector, and it is even less so for women of color. We aim to highlight and enhance their voices. So, we have been organizing public events that are not necessarily focused on our research areas, but still allow us to bring in others and that is what makes it worthwhile.

Our Women in Energy public events have covered a number of topics, including energy insecurity, the future of clean transportation technology, energy markets, policy, and  geopolitics. So, they are very varied.

women installing solar panels on a rooftop
Members of the Women in Energy program install solar panels on a rooftop in New York City. (Courtesy Jully Merino Carela)

Before COVID-19, we used to organize site visits for our members and introduced them to different energy players — whether it’s the Brookhaven National Lab, the Marcellus Shale formation, or power stations. We know that even though most of our student members want to work in the renewable energy sector, there is also a small percentage of them who still want to work in the oil and gas industry. And some want to work in energy finance and manufacturing operations management.

We offer student internship stipends every year to three or four students who obtained unpaid internships, in order to alleviate that barrier to entry into the sector. We have company overviews where we take students to different companies to learn about the hiring practices and meet with HR over lunch. It often becomes a roundtable discussion where the women in that organization talk about the career path.

We work with a certified career coach who offers several workshops on developing brand management, networking, and negotiating for better salaries. We also simultaneously work with companies and the senior executives (who are mostly men) to try to get them to start thinking about issues surrounding gender disparities in the energy sector. We work with them so they can implement diversity inclusion initiatives in their own organizations.

This year, we’re focusing on the investor community and the role of investing in an organization that also values diversity, and not just on the board of directors, but also in the organization as a whole.

panelists at a table
Panelists discuss energy, financial markets, and geopolitics at an April 2016 event hosted by the Women in Energy program. (Courtesy Jully Merino Carela)

What are some of the persistent challenges that women experience when trying to break into the energy industry?

The problem is not usually about getting your foot in the door. For example, women may account for around 50 percent of the people in the entry-level recruitment class. Slowly, as they start climbing the corporate ladder is when women start dropping off. And we need to fully understand what is happening there.

We need to look at the corporate culture and figure out if it is really inclusive. For instance, do they have 7am staff meetings regularly? For a working mother, attending those meetings can either be an impossible task or very difficult.

Women still bear the brunt of childrearing responsibilities. So then, the big question is, are they getting promoted? Are they getting the same high visibility projects and professional development? That is when you start seeing women leaving their jobs not only in the energy sector but in most fields.

This is also why we have the leadership and professional development events. We are also looking at seminars for our senior-level professional members and workshops to train them on board readiness and one-on-one meetings with companies’ board members so they can take their career to the next level.

What are some of the other factors that force women to leave the energy industry?

If the corporate culture is not inclusive, women are going to leave. Especially those who are high-potential employees. They know that they can get better offers, either within a different company in the energy sector or if they choose to leave this industry. This is common in the technology industry as well.

The societal issue of micro-aggressions is another major reason for this leaky pipeline. It is like death by a thousand paper cuts, if you will. It is important to change the corporate culture and mindset where a company is not just talking about it but also holding their managers accountable.

Not having an environment that is welcoming is a big issue. This is also one of the reasons why our students are more inclined towards working in the renewable energy sector. They perceive the oil and gas sector as “dirty” and “old school.” In the United States and around the world, the breakdown of women in solar and wind is around 32 percent. In oil and gas, about 22 percent of the workforce is women.

women participating in a workshop
In 2017, the Women in Energy program hosted an interactive workshop that helped members discover their own personal leadership brand. The workshop was led by Valia Glytsis, CEO and founder of The Paradox of Leadership. (Courtesy Jully Merino Carela)

The people who get promoted are the ones in technical positions who have done all the fieldwork in the Middle East and other parts of the world. But, women are more likely to work in desk jobs in the communications or HR departments of energy organizations. These roles are not considered to be “essential,” and the oil and gas industry is particularly cyclical and volatile. During layoffs, women are among the first to lose their jobs.

What are your plans for the Women in Energy Program?

Last semester, I worked on my five-year plan for the Women in Energy Program. We are currently focusing on becoming content creators and developers. This includes publishing more research papers, op-eds, and commentaries on women in energy. We are also launching a podcast. After piloting a group mentorship program last fall, we are in the process of trying to grow that as well.

Our community is not only within Columbia but also works with students from The New School and New York University. More recently, Tufts University and MIT have joined and we’re very excited to grow the Boston network. In the next five years, we plan on building out our collegial and professional network. We are thinking of schools in  Washington D.C., Texas, and California, to name a few.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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