Girl power fuelling change in Ireland's energy industry

Think roles for women in STEM are limited? Think again. As we mark International Women in Engineering Day this Saturday (23 June) five women working for SSE at the heart of Ireland's energy industry reveal why their work is exciting, challenging and crucial for the future.

Welcome to the energy industry: a grey, boring sector populated exclusively by middle-aged men. A place where jobs are only for the boys — so women need not apply. 

At least, that's the stereotype. Thankfully, the reality is rather different.

Take SSE, one of the new breed of energy companies encouraging women into its ranks — such as Sinead McGavigan (above) who operates the business's on-shore wind farms in Ireland, which power almost half a million homes daily.

McGavigan is keen to explode the myth about the industry being dull, particularly with its push towards cutting-edge green energy technology. The sector is actually challenging, vibrant and varied, she says; and being part of it makes her feel as though she's making a difference to the planet. “This is an important field,” she says, “especially as we need to decarbonise society into the future. So it's an exciting place to be working.”

McGavigan notes that there are now opportunities for career progression for everyone in her industry, whatever their background or gender. Currently, though, the variety of her current role gives her a tremendous buzz. “Every day is different,” she says. “It's not an office-based job and I always have to be out on site.”

Skills needed for problem-solving

It's the same for Eimear Lenehan (below) who develops the latest additions to SSE’s power generation fleet, which includes onshore and offshore wind farms and power stations. She's responsible for making sure that all projects consider the latest environmental regulations, and currently has a major focus on progressing plans for the Arklow Bank offshore wind farm in the Irish Sea.

Eimear Lenehan SSE

Numerous challenges arise in her day-to-day work, acknowledges Lenehan. Luckily, she's good at problem-solving. “When you start a new project it’s like a jigsaw,” she admits. “You have to take into account everything from archeology and ground water to soils, flora and fauna, and nearby properties. Different experts layer over each other to work out the impact on the environment and devise solutions, and it’s my job to coordinate all of that.”

No wonder a mixed bag of skills are needed for the job. Apart from being technically proficient, Lenehan needs to be good at relationship building because she comes into contact with everyone from landowners to council officials and with bodies including the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Broad range of abilities for a flexible career

If green power is a now big deal for the energy industry, it's also a big deal for those blue-chip multinationals based in Ireland which can't run their data centres without it. This is where Oonagh O'Grady (below) comes in. As a senior member of SSE's business energy team, she sells the energy generated at wind farms to world-leading companies. “A lot of multinationals have set their renewable targets to become 100 percent green,” she says. “I work with wind farm developers, financiers and companies to help them achieve their needs.”

SSE Oonagh Ogrady

O'Grady has wanted to pursue a career in STEM ever since she was a naturally curious child who was forever taking things apart to find out how they worked. Engineering (“the natural progression from that”) has been the passport to various jobs in various sectors. Indeed, her wide variety of skills have taken her down some unexpected paths. “It's been fantastic to be able to move across different industries,” she says. “I’ve worked on the Olympics in London, a tunnel feasibility study for the Forth of Firth and a motorway in Ireland. I enjoy being part of a team, coordinated to solve problems.”

Critical need for a diverse workforce

The energy industry isn't just investing in green tech. Keen to meet the changing needs of its customers, it's also investing in the latest data and analytics technology. This isn't, admittedly, an area of the business that has attracted scores of female staff in the past; although Noelle Doody, SSE Airtricity’s Head of Analytics (below right), thinks that needs to change.

Why? Well, for one reason, a diverse workforce is necessary to reflect the make-up of any company's customer base, she argues — because that includes women, after all. Plus, more diversity means a variety of viewpoints which, ultimately, means better decision-making. More women are also needed in the boardrooms. Recognising this, many large companies including SSE are signing up to the 30% club which sets goal of having a minimum of 30 percent of women on FTSE-100 boards. They are also ensuring that their recruiting managers undergo inclusivity training.

Doody was never put off by the 'male-dominated' perception of the energy workplace. “But I was fortunate,” she admits. “Maths and physics were available at my school — and when I studied mechanical engineering at University College, Dublin, there were a high proportion of girls. When I did business analytics there were a number of women; and though I was later the only female in a workshop of 30, I was aware of senior women and I could see them progressing.”

Agile and flexible working

That includes people like Klair Neenan, Head of IT for SSE in Ireland (below left). Neenan's rise through the ranks has been possible in part because the industry is changing to incorporate more agile and flexible ways of working. “After my maternity leave I didn’t need to be encouraged to come back,” she says, “but it's a challenge for women to balance childcare and work.” A 'gradual return to work' scheme was available from SSE which allowed Neenan to work 80 percent of her contracted hours but still receive full pay and benefits for six months. SSE is also increasing maternity, paternity and adoptive leave to help female (and male) employees juggle the demands of their busy lives.

Neenan agrees with Noelle Doody that a diverse workforce is the key that unlocks business potential. It's why she's involved in a workplace volunteer group to champion diversity across the company. “On International Women’s Day we hosted a panel of speakers, male and female, who discussed workplace evolution for women over the last few decades and shared personal stories,” she says. “They left enthusiastic and inspired about finding new ways to encourage further diversity in the company.”

An increasingly diverse workforce. Better working flexibility. An emphasis on inclusivity. More women in senior positions. 

It seems SSE is leaving behind the energy industry’s out-of-date image as a bastion of male domination. And, happily, there's no going back now.

SSE Klairnoelle Tech Bar 3

This article first appeared in a special Women in STEM supplement published in the Irish Independent and at http://www.businessnews.ie/ on 20 June 2018.