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Tina Casey headshot

What Business Can Learn about Gender Diversity from the U.S. Department of Energy

Gender diversity within the U.S. energy sector has scored huge potential with the swearing in of Jennifer Granholm as U.S. Secretary of Energy.
By Tina Casey
Gender Diversity

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Jennifer Granholm and the ways in which she has led, among them furthering gender diversity. As the first woman to serve as Energy Secretary for the U.S., Secretary Granholm will steer policy for a nation that leads the world in energy production as well as scientific research, through a network of 17 national laboratories and hundreds of partners.

The Department of Energy (DOE) also oversees the nation’s nuclear stockpile and is intimately entwined with national defense goals. Granholm’s leadership can make or break the U.S. as a superpower that holds the key to averting catastrophic climate change - and for the first time, many women seeking careers in energy will see a role model in the driver’s seat.

The significance of the U.S. Department of Energy

Granholm is best known for her efforts on behalf of electric vehicles and other issues related to the clean energy transition as the former Governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011.

The transitional aspect of her approach is the key. As Michigans governor, she recognized that Rust Belt states like Michigan had fallen behind in a period of great global transition, and she looked to the future for trends that could uplift the state’s economy.

In that regard, Granholm dovetails perfectly with President Joe Biden’s focus on climate action. However, it is important to recognize that the mission of the Department of Energy sprawls far beyond global decarbonization and the clean energy transition.

As articulated by the Obama administration, the departments involvement with the Department of Defense is a central part of its mission, such as in the area of nuclear-powered submarines for the U.S. Navy. DOE “contributes fundamental scientific discoveries and technological solutions that support the nations primacy in science and innovation,” and that includes “accelerating and expanding efforts to reduce the global threat posed by nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation and unsecured or excess nuclear materials.”

“As a result of the expertise developed to support these nuclear security missions, DOE laboratories also serve as strategic assets in support of broader national security missions,” the Obama administration noted.

The DOE is also tasked with leading “the largest cleanup effort in the world to remediate the environmental legacy of over six decades of nuclear weapons and nuclear research, development, and production,” with health and safety implications for staff as well as within local communities.

Women at the U.S. Department of Energy

DOE is a relatively young agency, having been formed by an act of Congress in 1977. The intent was to gather several defense responsibilities under one umbrella with a scattering of other federal energy-related programs.

Women have been instrumental within that history, considering that the agency’s defense work is rooted in the World War II nuclear weapons Manhattan Project, an achievement built on the work of the women scientists Marie Curie and Lisa Meitner, among many others.

Women scientists have continued to play leading roles in U.S. energy research and innovation through the years. Nevertheless, the legacy of gender diversity in the Manhattan Project did not carry forth to the next generation.

In 2019 Mary L. Hoover, Manager of the Laboratory Leadership Team at Sandia National Laboratories, took stock of gender diversity among the 17 national laboratories in a report titled, “Illuminating the Role of Women at the Department of Energy National Laboratories.” Compared to 50 percent female representation in the overall U.S. workforce, Hoover notes that representation at DOE only hit the 30 percent mark. The breakdown for technical and research positions is even more concerning.

“Women make up only about 18 percent of these ranks in contrast to the percentages of women in computer science (25 percent) and physical science (39 percent) in the U.S. workforce,” Hoover writes.

“These current statistics are not the desired state for the DOE National Labs and contrast sharply with the long history of accomplishments by women at the Labs. We believe the DOE National Labs should lead the charge on diversity and inclusion (D&I) and serve as a model enterprise for bringing women into our scientific and technical workforce,” she adds.

Is work/life balance overrated?

Hoover’s recommendations helped provide a roadmap for Secretary Granholm to recruit more women, and in many respects, they also apply to the private sector.

As noted by Hoover, the DOE has made some efforts to highlight the contributions of women throughout its history. However, based on her experience and that of her peers, Hoover recommends a more inclusive approach that acknowledges the different types of women who would be attracted to a career in the national laboratory network.

“We believe there is an opportunity for more sharply targeted recruiting so that we can attract a new generation of females to join the National Labs, retain the current workforce, and improve the representation of women at the Labs,” she writes.

“We identified that despite a popular belief that women interested in DOE National Labs careers are seeking work/life balance, our own motivations have been driven largely by the opportunity to work with outstanding people and contribute to important and big challenges - as only the DOE National Labs can offer,” she explains, adding that “We believe that highlighting the opportunity for women to perform impactful work and team with extraordinary people would be a compelling message to relay for attraction and retention purposes, in addition to sharing the message of work/life balance.”

A message for businesses seeking gender diversity

Hoover’s message is clear: different women have different home lives and expect different things from their work. As a matter of recruiting top talent, lumping all women into the work/life balance pool neglects to address the abilities and aspirations of those with the drive and energy to tip the scales in favor of work.

In other words, gender diversity should not be a catch-all for one kind of woman. Businesses seeking top talent need to address the full range of lifestyle, from women who center themselves around their personal and family lives to those for whom more fulfilling hours take place on the clock.

In the months and years to come, Secretary Granholm may provide some key guidance in that direction.

It is to be expected that Granholm will continue DOE’s ongoing efforts to recruit more women in STEM. She will demonstrate a real difference in leadership, though, by stepping up those efforts to lead the Energy Department in a gender diversity transition that focuses more resources on highlighting women’s achievements at DOE, and developing new recruitment strategies and networks that attract and retain women across the full range of work and life.

Image credit: Science in HD/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey