After being named one of Asia's Most Influential Women in Renewable Energy, Enzen leader Dr. Uma Rajarathnam was invited to share her perspective in theWomen Influencers section of industry magazine Energetica. In the article, replicated in full below, Uma talks about her own journey and offers practical advice for women professionals considering a career in the sector.
Through my professional journey of 30 years, I’ve looked for ways to bring renewable energy to the forefront of the energy sector so we can create a better and brighter future for our planet. As part of my exploration, I’ve considered all sides, including the challenges and the environmental benefits associated with its adoption.
In the 1980s during my education in Tamil Nadu, environmental science was introduced as a separate subject for the first time. It was a nascent field, with few colleges offering the subject. Although it was considered very different from traditional branches of science, including the energy sector, I learned they were all interlinked.
For example, to care for the environment one has to look into the role of energy and understand the social and behavioural aspects related to it. Identifying this relationship helped me discover that renewable energy sources would be key in the future. This led me to shift my focus from purely environmental sciences to a broader spectrum. With the support of my mentor Dr. Kishore, I chose to focus my doctoral degree at the Centre for Energy Studies on understanding the connection between energy and the environment.
The role of women in the renewable energy sector
Traditionally, energy studies have been male-dominated, but I’ve seen a shift over the years. Today, in renewables in particular, there are a growing number of women in leadership positions, with many setting up their own businesses. To my mind, the disparity that existed has reduced to a large extent and there are opportunities available for qualified professionals irrespective of gender.
This shift is partially fuelled by larger participation from women as well as a recognition that we need more than just technical knowledge. It’s not enough to know how the technology works, but rather, to adopt an integrated approach that incorporates softer skills. For renewable energy projects to be successful in India, a strong understanding of social, policy and behavioural aspects is required to secure stakeholder buy-in.
Including design thinking in the mix can also accelerate how well we’re able to implement these projects. Essential to this is continued learning, formal and informal training programmes and field exposure. I believe that unless you’ve been in the field and gained a direct understanding of stakeholder issues, your learning is incomplete.
Combining these with a collaborative approach and a willingness to test, update and improve your ideas means you’re positioned for success. To my mind, once we achieve an optimal mix of technical know-how and these soft skills, the Indian renewable energy sector can become a formidable force in the global landscape.
"Traditionally, energy studies have been male-dominated, but I’ve seen a shift over the years. Today, in renewables in particular, there are a growing number of women in leadership positions, with many setting up their own businesses. To my mind, the disparity that existed has reduced to a large extent and there are opportunities available for qualified professionals irrespective of gender."
A sector with limitless opportunities
My message to women professionals considering a career in renewable energy is that it’s a great time to be here. Whether you’re working at an organisation or as an entrepreneur, opportunities for growth are tremendous. With decentralised distribution coming to the forefront, there is now an increased focus on renewable energy in India.
To bring these solutions to the market, we must look at the grassroots level and focus on the rural and semi-urban markets. While certain areas such as laying down the transmission lines and infrastructure may be more suitable for men on account of the physical and safety/security aspects of the job, women professionals have a large role to play when it comes to understanding local sentiments or policy issues. It’s important to recognise both men and women complement each other, and have distinct roles to play in the larger scheme of things within the renewable energy sector.
In India in particular, engaging with the local community and understanding on-the-ground challenges is important and women professionals inherently have an edge. This is because they are likely to have a better understanding of the local market and social and behavioural aspects of customers that drive decision-making. This is key to getting customer buy-in. This, combined with creativity, innovation and a collaborative mindset, can help the sector grow and create further opportunities for all women. My advice is to always stay curious and keep learning, perhaps by taking up a training programme which attracts the best and brightest from across the globe. Not only will this help improve your knowledge base, but the associated networking will help you stay connected with others.
Balancing commitments at home and work
I believe family plays a key role in the success of a working woman. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the backing of my husband, children, parents and in-laws as I studied and managed the demands of my job. What I’ve learnt is that bringing about a balance between one’s work and family life depends largely on how well the family communicates and understands each other, as well as your ability to wear different hats.
Throughout our life, we often find ourselves at a crossroads, having to make difficult decisions or face unique challenges. At such times, your family support system can be a saviour and source of strength for us. While we may typically rely on the support of our spouse or elders in the house, we forget to enlist the help of our children, thinking they may not understand. However, this is not true. My experience shows I’ve had more success each time I’ve involved my children in the decision-making process. They are more open and supportive than you anticipate.
"For some women, taking a mid-career break or sabbatical may be a good option. My advice would be to use this break to keep learning and building a strong network. This will be helpful once you’re ready to get back to the industry."
Creating an environment that encourages women to return to work
While not everyone may have the personal support of their parents and family when it comes to managing the home, there are other ways to achieve a balance. For some women, taking a mid-career break or sabbatical may be a good option. My advice would be to use this break to keep learning and building a strong network. This will be helpful once you’re ready to get back to the industry.
Keep an eye on companies that are launching programmes which bring women professionals back to the workforce. Traditionally, rejoining the workforce has been a challenge in India. Such initiatives can help women professionals overcome the barrier caused by a break in employment and also boost their confidence. While some industries are more open to such programmes, others such as the energy sector need to catch up. A change in mindset is required, where career gaps are treated as development opportunities and not signs of women losing interest in their careers.
Meanwhile, mentorship programmes and support groups are rapidly emerging. These can support women professionals with a mix of professional and personal challenges, helping them return to work faster. To my mind, all of us, especially those in the renewable energy sector, have a responsibility to help and uplift one another. In my experience, women who rejoin the workforce tend to work much harder and are willing to go the extra mile to succeed. This is beneficial to the individual, company and industry as a whole.
Looking to the future of the renewable energy sector in India
India has one of the most ambitious renewable energy goals in the world despite not having any stated commitment towards green energy. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed this progress for now and many projects are stalled or delayed.
The current situation has made us step back and take stock. We’ve realised the need to pay more attention to the environment and take affirmative action towards protecting it. One way to do this is to continue increasing our dependence on renewable energy and bringing about positive change.
As we hopefully emerge from the pandemic soon and the economy revives, I expect to see more projects being launched in the renewable energy sector. The focus will be on generating energy in India and supplying it locally as well as globally. Smaller companies are likely to emerge that will make components that have previously been imported. In addition, over the next few years there will be a larger focus on rural development which is expected to play a key role in the country’s economic growth.
India will require strong professionals to power its renewable energy ambitions over the next five years. With increased demand from various quarters on account of the AtmaNirbhar initiative, the sector will be a source of employment and opportunity for many Indians, irrespective of their gender. I strongly believe that is a great opportunity for women professionals in particular to do their bit towards building a more prosperous India.
Note: This article was published as an interview in the September 2020issue of Energetica magazine