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9 September 2019
Women in Wind Q&A: Emma Pinchbeck (UK)
The Women in Wind Global Leadership Program sat down with Emma, one of this year’s Mentors, to chat about her pathway into renewable energy and the key issues facing women in the wind sector.
Emma is Deputy CEO and sits on the Board of RenewableUK. She is an expert in decarbonisation and a regular commentator on climate change and renewables. Emma strongly supports efforts to improve diversity in the energy sector. She holds several advisory positions, including with Imperial College and Innovate-UK. Previously, Emma was Head of the Climate Change team at WWF-UK and worked in private consulting. She has an MA from the University of Oxford. Outside of work, she ran her first Marathon in 2018 to raise money for WWF’s climate change work, is otherwise a keen competitive rower, and is passionate about sustainable living – even her wedding dress was from Oxfam!
How did you first become interested in renewable energy and joining the clean energy transition?
I grew up in a beautiful part of rural England, which I feel passionately attached to, and my interest in conservation in general I think must stem from living there; I was a Recycling Monitor in school and convinced my whole family to give up eating Cod when I was about 7 for sustainability reasons! When it comes to my career in energy, I was doing my graduate training contract in the financial services and had been involved in some large-scale renewables financing in that role, when David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet TV series aired. After watching the last episode, which focused on climate change, I decided I wanted to spend my life working on decarbonization, and with my business experience I think it was always going to be that I worked on the solutions and on economics.
I quit my job a few days later to move to a UK-based start-up that specialised in commercializing new, demand-side, energy technologies and on market design. From there I went to lead the climate change program at WWF-UK, and from there to RenewableUK. I’ve been lucky to work on the solutions to climate change from multiple perspectives, in very different kinds of organizations.
Tell us about your expertise and passion in the sector. For you, what is the next “space to watch” in renewable energy?
My expertise is on whole-system decarbonization, and particularly from understanding regulation, behavior change, and economics. I’m not a physicist or engineer, but I have spent my career working alongside them – so a bit of my expertise is also in how different decarbonization pathways and technology solutions might work together in the future grid. In terms of my skill set, most of my work is taking technical or commercial knowledge (climate science, economic modeling, engineering, technology or commercial data) to audiences that are not experts in it, but who are influential over the markets, governments, or public groups that we need to act in order to get decarbonization happening at scale. I’ve worked on the whole energy system, and on national and international climate change policy, which means I’ve got a wide rather than deep knowledge – I don’t specialize in renewables, per se, but in how they fit into decarbonization or the energy transition.
In my current role at RenewableUK, my main job is to help the British industry build a market here, and to export into emerging markets around the world, and the people I work with are usually thought leaders in business, government, academia, environmental NGOs, and the media. I also have (increasingly) an operational role in our business, making sure RenewableUK is working issues and offering services that are relevant to current and future members as the transition gathers pace, and that we’ve got an efficient, happy team of people working for us.
For me, renewables are now the unquestioned incumbent in the future electricity system – the price drops have seen to that. Therefore I think we need to watch out for three things: firstly, how energy market design will have to shift around the characteristics of renewables (rather than of thermal plant) to capture the values of flexibility and the electron; secondly, that rapid change on the demand side of energy and in other vectors is as likely to provide risks and opportunities for large-scale renewables as anything happening on the transmission system, and how we plan to take advantage of that as an industry; and lastly that as incumbents, our stakeholders will expect more of this aspirational industry than they did of our predecessors: on everything from providing skilled and highly paid jobs to a diverse workforce to environmental and safety standards, the bar will be set high.
What sort of challenges did you encounter in entering the sector? Can you tell us about an achievement wherein you overcame such a challenge?
Outside of gender, I think that the biggest challenge for new people coming into industry is that it can feel very technical and complex, and it’s changing rapidly so there’s always something new to know or understand. I’ve come to love that, but at first, I remember thinking I’d never be able to contribute substantively to the debate. For women, I think that problem of feeling outside of the club can be exacerbated by the fact that STEM education is still narrowly taught, and boys rather than girls are still taking it up more often in schools so you come into the industry with different skills or vocabulary; although I’ve also been struck that people with humanities backgrounds, or different educative histories often think more creatively about policy or technical problems – the diversity of knowledge is good!
On experiences more widely, I’m the first person in my family to get a degree, and to work in this kind of profession, and it makes me laugh in hindsight that I had so little idea of what working life would be like, or the skills I would need; I would have really valued from some good mentoring early on, on everything from how to present myself to the kinds of jobs I was qualified and suited for. On gender, I’ve had a couple of horrible things happen to me – one assault at an industry event, for example, and these days, doing a lot of public speaking and media means I get a bit of actual hate mail from climate skeptics, almost all of which mentions my gender at some point. But mainly I think it’s the smaller, business-led stuff that needs changing: a lack of visible role models to aspire to, feeling self-conscious because you’re the only woman at the event, being accused of being pushy when actually you said less than every other participant around the table, but everyone is more conscious of you because you look or sound different. These aren’t just problems from a gender point of view, but for everyone who looks and feels different in an industry which is still homogeneous in its workforce’s experience, especially in our leadership.
In terms of what you do about it: for the horrible stuff, your organization and your line managers should have appropriate and supportive processes in place for reporting and managing incidents – people should be able to speak up, as I was able to, and to be supported, as I was and am. On diversity, we should be expecting the leaders in organizations to look at their working practice and company culture to make sure that we are maximizing and retaining the biggest talent pool possible. At RenewableUK we have quotas for gender across our Event Speakers, and we ask our members to consider diversity when fielding candidates for our Working Groups and Board. We also try to make sure day-to-day working practices help people: from the way we advertise jobs, to offering flexible working and shared parental leave. It’s not possible to do this kind of thing in every role, obviously, but you can make it part of your overall company culture – and it makes a difference. Also, I’ve got what Meryl Streep called an “inclusion rider” in my contract: the Board at RUK agreed that I could spend a percentage of my time as Deputy CEO actually working on diversity as part of our leadership strategy, and I asked for that as part of my negotiations when I was hired!
If you had to pick one key issue facing women in the wind power sector, what would it be and why?
Recently we were hiring for our new graduate interns and there was no shortage of talented young women who wanted to come and work in the sector. At the same time, we were looking for speakers for our major event, and were struggling to find senior women. That suggests to me that we need to do more to keep and promote talented women – so things like talent identification, gender-blind recruitment practises, quotas on Board positions, and work/life balance ALL matter.
Otherwise, it slightly does my head in, having never had a Communications role in my life, that I often get assumed to work in communications as opposed to having a commercial, operational, or technical role. Weirdly, that’s never an assumption made by audiences outside of our industry (e.g. in the academic posts I hold, or when I’m speaking with Government) – it is fairly unique to our environment. I think that’s because there have been fewer women in those kinds of leadership roles, and I think that’s worth looking at – even if we have to broaden our expectation of what leadership looks like.
Finally, what do you hope to achieve as a mentor of Women in Wind Global Leadership Program? How will you contribute to the next generation of female leaders in the sector?
Firstly, I think I’m going to learn a lot from talking to my mentee. So far, I’ve enjoyed hearing about her international experience and how working in different markets has shaped her every-day job. The people in this industry are so interesting – it’s not really a hardship to have dedicated time to listen to one of them at the start of her career! Otherwise, when I left university in 2010, I was told in my early career that diversity was an issue that was taken seriously by employers. Nearly a decade on, and I look around and there aren’t that many of my female peers in positions like mine; yes, I could be exceptional, but I doubt it.
In any case – you shouldn’t have to be “exceptional” to progress. There are still institutional and cultural barriers to realizing a more diverse workforce, and I am determined in 10 years, as an employer, that when we say we take diversity seriously as an industry to young people starting out in the industry today, we will be able to show that we meant it. I am lucky enough to have a platform and the relative power to help change things, and it’s something I take extremely seriously. We’re the renewables industry and we need to do things differently: It’s not enough to build an aspirational new power sector; we need to make sure we do it with a diverse and aspirational workforce.
Let us know your reactions or thoughts on Emma’s interview at [email protected]!
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