WRISE Opens New Doors for Women in Solar and Wind

Kristen Graf says more women in the field is key

November 6, 2018

Adapted from an interview with Kristin Graf by Wendy Becktold.

Growing up, I was a math and science nerd who loved being outdoors. I had great teachers who encouraged me to explore engineering as a path for doing environmental work, and I got excited about renewable energy as a technological solution to climate change. So I went to Cornell to get an engineering degree.

Once there, I was stunned by how few women were in the engineering program. In high school, there were tons of women in my calculus and science classes, and I just assumed that would continue through college. I got involved with the Society of Women Engineers, and promoting women in science and technology became a side passion of mine.

I also went in thinking I was going to create some amazing new technology that would solve renewable energy issues. What I learned was that while there's always room to improve, the technology was way farther along than I had thought. This made me wonder, if the technology is not what's holding us back, then what is?

After I graduated, I got a job with the Union of Concerned Scientists, working on renewable energy policy. There, too, I couldn't help but notice that when it comes to government energy committees or the public regulatory commissions, there just weren't that many women at the table. Great women were in the mix, but to my mind we were lacking a lot of the voices that could help us move forward.

In 2006, at the annual American Wind Energy Association Windpower Conference, I ran into a friend from college on the exhibit-hall floor. She said, "You should come with me to this lunch for women in the wind industry, because I think you would love it." That was my first-ever Women of Wind Energy event. I connected with a small local chapter in Boston, where I was based at the time.

When the group's job description for executive director came out, I shopped around the idea of going for it to my friends and family. They all said, "Why haven't you applied already?" I was hired at the end of 2009. In 2017, we changed our name to Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy, or WRISE.

Our national nonprofit is focused on the education, professional development, and advancement of women. We see it as key to the success of renewable energy across the country and around the world. A big part of our work is recruitment, including everything from K-through-12 programs and fellowships for recent graduates to job boards. Another is working to retain and advance women already in the sector. WRISE does a lot of webinars on industry trends and professional development. We have a big leadership forum, and we partner with companies to help them retain and advance women. We also offer a mentorship program.

WRISE has everyone from technicians on the manufacturing floor up through C-suite executives. We have a lot of folks in wind but are expanding more and more into solar and energy storage. We're starting to see women from electric vehicles, green building, and energy efficiency get involved. There are women in finance and law, marketing and communications, and administration. So it's really a little bit of everything.

Across both wind and solar, women make up just under 30 percent of the workforce. The percentage of women in admin and paralegal roles is around 90 percent, but it's rare to see more than one female wind technician on any given site.

Obstacles exist all along the way. There's outright sexism, but there's also what I categorize as unconscious bias or institutional status quo—whether it's the pay gap or the way we look at feedback and performance or the way we hire and promote.

Research shows that companies with more diverse teams often perform better—that's diverse in all sorts of ways, including gender. Climate change is a huge, complex problem. Renewable energy offers a massive piece of the solution, but we need as many great minds and talents and backgrounds as possible so that we're getting the best solutions and ideas that we can.

This article appeared in the November/December 2018 edition with the headline "Wind Beneath Her Wings."

This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Gender, Equity, and Environment program (sc.org/gender).