The energy sector continues to be one of the least gender-equitable. That is true of geothermal energy projects as well. Experience has shown that when these projects are made inclusive and designed with gender considerations, they can bring social benefits and economic opportunities to women as well as men, help improve energy security, and lead to a successful clean energy transition.
As with other large-scale energy infrastructure, some of these projects can expose local communities to economic, environmental, and social risks, many of which can affect men and women differently. While there are some ongoing efforts to promote gender equality in projects in countries such as Kenya, Iceland and New Zealand, a systematic effort to address gender gaps is still absent across the board.
Part of the problem is lack of gender-disaggregated data and inadequate documentation of successful approaches. A new report, “Gender Equality in the Geothermal Energy Sector: Road to Sustainability, aims to change that by outlining potential risks and opportunities for women and providing examples of how geothermal projects around the world have addressed gender issues successfully.
As a first step, the report highlights the importance of assessing how geothermal projects can impact the environment and people’s health, affect land and natural resource use, as well as employment patterns – and understanding how men and women are affected by these changes.
For example, projects may be situated in areas with land tenure and titling issues unfavorable to women because of cultural norms or legal barriers. Geothermal land and resources may also have spiritual significance for communities.
Addressing these concerns can lead to success, as seen from Indonesia’s experience, where Pertamina Geothermal Energy (PGE), the implementing agency for the World Bank–supported Geothermal Clean Energy Investment Project, has put in place a resettlement framework to relocate operations if landowners do not wish to sell their property. PGE has also promoted the inclusion of women on land acquisition committees to give women the opportunity to raise specific concerns.
Another risk is the potential environmental and health impacts of some projects, including pollution and degradation. For example, resource contamination can affect men and women differently. If local water is affected by geothermal operations, women could spend their incomes purchasing clean water or walk longer distances to fetch it, which can expose them to dangers. Also, the influx of predominantly male construction workers into the local community could increase the risk of violence against women and human trafficking.
Geothermal projects can also affect livelihoods and job patterns. While there is little empirical data on women’s employment in the sector, qualitative assessments point to significant gender gaps. Women who pursue professional careers in geothermal energy often face several barriers along the way, such as social expectations about their roles and abilities and a lack of an inclusive workplace environment.
LaGeo, El Salvador’s state-owned energy company addressed these barriers by putting in place progressive recruiting, training, and human resource policies, and establishing daycare facilities. As a result, women now hold 35 percent of jobs in the company and represent 32 percent of locally hired and trained staff. Similarly, Iceland’s Reykjavik Energy closed gender gaps entirely by tackling salary disparities and providing flexible work hours for caregivers.
Opportunities to Improve Gender Equality
Clearly, important lessons have started to emerge from past geothermal development across countries.
First, the report affirms that engaging communities early on is critical and can affect a project’s success. Research shows that developers who approach communities as partners and are open to making collaborative decisions are more likely to build trust, minimize social risks, and ensure good outcomes. For example, in Kenya’s Olkaria geothermal area, creating dialogue with women, men and youth in the project-affected villages helped form a beneficial partnership for everyone.
Second, project developers can take actions early on to address gender disparities. For example, they could signal intolerance for harassment and gender-based violence through amending existing human resource policies to include codes of conduct and a mechanism to address grievances.
Progress on this front is being made by the Ethiopian Electric Utility (EEU) which is taking steps to address sexual harassment issues in the workplace and by Ethiopian Electric Power (EEP) through mapping risk factors related to the World Bank–supported Ethiopia Geothermal Sector Development Project, such as possible labor-influx in communities during project implementation.
To enhance women’s opportunities as employees in projects, developers can set targets for women’s representation in both technical and non-technical roles to enhance economic opportunities as was done in the Sarulla Geothermal Power Project in Indonesia financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In terms of upskilling female employees, the Geothermal Training Programme of the United Nations University (UNU-GTP) has been vital to increasing women’s participation in geothermal development.
Other actions may include promoting inclusive procurement practices by tracking how many bidders and awardees are women-headed firms and providing support for women majority–owned firms and small businesses to build the skills necessary to prepare and submit bids.
Other factors to consider throughout these interventions include data collection to help guide decisions and measure progress to close gender gaps. Qualitative data on family and household norms can be collected at the community level and community relationships to geothermal surface resources can be captured during project design.
In Kalinga, Philippines, for example, lack of data on indigenous women’s beliefs and demands blocked development of a geothermal energy project in Western Uma. Women’s, grievances included disregard for cultural beliefs linked to the resource and loss of tiger grass, an important cash crop for women. Quantitative data can be collected through surveys and human resources data which can provide information on educational attainment, number of women employed and salary discrepancies.
Geothermal energy is a clean and reliable source of heat and electric power supply. Around 40 countries in around the world have sizeable geothermal resources that can help them meet their energy needs. Empowering women in this sector not only ensures success of projects themselves but also yields many social and economic benefits for all.
The Gender Equality in the Geothermal Energy Sector: Road to Sustainability report was developed by the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) in partnership with the Government of Iceland and other organizations. It includes toolkits, selected global case studies, and other resources to help project teams, governments, and developers to design more equitable geothermal projects. Click here for the full report.