By Bipina Sharma
This opinion piece was first published in the Republica.
IFC’s Powered by Women initiative is helping balance the gender scales in Nepal’s energy sector
Usha Khatiwada knows only too well the challenges and opportunities of aiming to rise through the ranks of a traditionally male-dominated industry.
"If you are not given a seat at the table, bring your own folding chair," Khatiwada said. "Diversity doesn't happen overnight, and conscious decisions have to be made by those in leadership positions."
Khatiwada should know. She is now seen as a role model in Nepal after working her way up to become CEO of NRN Infrastructure and Development.
Nepal aspires to be a middle-income country by 2030, with development largely driven by its energy sector. But despite evidence that increased participation of women in the power sector would benefit both women as well as companies, they continue to be underrepresented at all levels of the industry.
To help change this, in September 2020, IFC began working with a group of 19 private energy companies through its Powered by Women initiative. Almost a year and a half since it began, there have been noticeable changes. Businesses have started investing in leadership training for women and increased their representation in boardrooms. They are also creating new committees chaired by women—giving them more responsibilities. One company even decided to hire women only in its latest recruitment drive.
"Our partnership with the private companies is creating an impressive pathway to having not just more women in the power sector but in leadership positions," says Kate Lazarus, IFC's Lead for Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) Advisory in Asia. "These companies are not only meeting the milestones but exceeding them altogether."
Women make up more than half of Nepal’s population, but an IFC study revealed that they account for only 10 percent of all employees in the country’s hydropower sector.
“We recognize the need to make conscious efforts to increase the number of women in the power sector. Our organization has already taken a step forward by making women participation mandatory in the executive committee,” said Ashish Garg, Vice President of the Independent Power Producers Association of Nepal (IPPAN), an umbrella organization of private developers.
The IFC study was carried out in partnership with Australian Aid and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It identified several issues that have hindered the participation of women in the energy sector: gender stereotyping, remoteness of hydropower project sites, and a lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and math education. Concerns around initial investment costs and uncertainty over payoffs in the short to medium-term are also inhibiting factors.
One company making encouraging changes is Urja Developers. It has revamped its grievances handling policy to ensure a more respectful workplace environment. "We have been working on building the capacity of our female employees,” said the power company’s Environment and Social Associate, Jyotika Shah.
Sauravi Bhattarai, a site supervisor for Urja Developers, feels that non-conventional roles, while challenging, can be hugely rewarding. “Powered by Women is good for women involved in such non-traditional jobs,” she said “It provides participating companies with expertise and training to ensure that women have conducive environments for growth."
During COVID-19, the participating companies were supported through tailored webinars, online training, and roundtables. Many of these companies are promoting more women to senior management roles while putting together a gender-diverse recruitment panel for inclusive hiring. At the project level, two companies are revising their community engagement guidelines to include women. This helped boost confidence levels among women employees and executives. Several participants spoke of their newfound confidence in articulating their ideas and thoughts during team meetings.
Easing of the pathways for women to move up the ranks and sit on boards also comes with a clear economic benefit.
A recent research report in Sri Lanka, for instance, showed that companies with higher gender diversity perform better on financial metrics such as Return on Equity, Return on Total Assets and Price to Earnings Ratio.
"As more women participate in Nepal's energy sector, attitudes are likely to change in other male-dominated industries as well, which can help diversify and strengthen the workforce across businesses," said Babacar S. Faye, IFC's Resident Representative in Nepal.
"Beyond the economic and moral imperative of having more women in the workforce, their participation brings in diverse perspectives to the planning and execution of projects. This will result in more women-friendly products and services, along with more attention to ESG—and that's the aspiration in the long run."
Bipina Sharma is associated with IFC’s Hydro Environmental and Social Advisory program where she is currently working as the Coordinator of Nepal Powered by Women Initiative.