This piece originally appeared in the Sun Sentinel.
By Doreen Hemlock Sun Sentinel
Rising concern over the limited role of women in tech industries has spilled into another fast-growing field: solar energy.
The new Florida chapter of nonprofit Women in Solar Energy hosted its first meeting Tuesday night in Fort Lauderdale, joining groups in 14 other cities nationwide to discuss ways to boost participation of women in all aspects of solar, from training to engineering and finance.
Civil engineer Raina Russo of Delray Beach, who for years has fostered social-media talks under the banner #solarchat, helped organize the local event, together with Alissa Jean Schafer, marketing and media director for US Solar, the Fort Lauderdale firm known for training and installation.
Women make up 19 percent of the workforce in the solar industry nationwide, compared with 47 percent of the U.S. workforce overall, according to a 2013 annual jobs survey by the independent nonprofit Solar Foundation.
What’s more, some women in the solar industry drop out out to seek more supportive career environments elsewhere, a trend common in other tech-related fields, according to solar professional Kristen Nicole, who founded nonprofit WISE partly to stem that outflow.
Limited jobs for women hurts the solar business, Russo said, because women are the key main decision-makers in whether to install solar panels on homes. And the approach in male-dominated solar now tends to be more technical — “more Home Depot” — than many female buyers would like, Russo said.
“Solar is new granite,” joked Russo, referring to solar as the next upgrade for homes after granite countertops. Solar often appeals to women concerned about long-term costs for families and the effect of climate change. “We need to raise the number of women in the industry and, by doing so, change the conversation.”
US Solar’s Schafer said she’s keen on women in solar in Florida now because the industry is starting to pick up pace in the state. Florida ranks No. 3 among U.S. states for solar potential but stood at No. 13 in total installed solar capacity in 2013, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
“We’re the Sunshine State, and through some of the efforts going on, we’re trying to live up to that name,” said Schafer, referring partly to a push to let Florida consumers buy electricity from entities other than utilities. “I’d loved to see more women trained in solar and involved in the growth.”
The events Tuesday came amid attention to low female participation in the tech industry and at top tech companies such as Google, where men outnumber women by at least 2 to 1. Some women have been leaving jobs in tech too, citing an unsupportive environment.
About half a dozen women and two men attended Tuesday’s event in Fort Lauderdale, including a snowbird from Illinois who runs her own solar firm and a communications director for a global company in Miami.
Engineer and project manager Russo said that when she was building her solar business, some in the industry dubbed her “Solar Mom,” a term that she initially found limiting and later embraced. A mother “is something the industry lacks,” Russo said, especially at its less developed stage in Florida.