Progress in Mid-Level Positions, but US Solar Industry’s Top Jobs Remain Dominated by White Men

Senior executives at U.S. solar companies are 80 percent male and nearly 90 percent white, according to a new analysis of the industry from nonprofit advocate the Solar Foundation and the industry’s top trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).  As the solar industry grows, those it employs remain unrepresentative of the U.S. at large, particularly at the upper levels, according to a 2019 solar industry diversity study prepared by the two groups.  Women are more likely than their male counterparts to hold midlevel positions at solar companies, as are black workers compared to their white counterparts. But white workers and men are much more likely to be represented at the highest rungs of solar organizations.

A steep climb to the top.

A steep climb to the top. Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Senior executives at U.S. solar companies are 80 percent male and nearly 90 percent white, according to a new analysis of the industry from nonprofit advocate the Solar Foundation and the industry’s top trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

As the solar industry grows, those it employs remain unrepresentative of the U.S. at large, particularly at the upper levels, according to a 2019 solar industry diversity study prepared by the two groups.

For the industry overall, including installation jobs, the proportion of Hispanic and Latino workers is comparable to the overall workforce. But the representation of women and African Americans is markedly lower across the industry, at 26 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively, compared to the overall workforce’s figures of 47 percent and 12.1 percent.

Women are more likely than their male counterparts to hold midlevel positions at solar companies, as are black workers compared to their white counterparts. But white workers and men are much more likely to be represented at the highest rungs of solar organizations.

What’s more, only 36 percent of solar companies formally track employee demographics.

The report builds on an earlier version published in 2017. It found similarly low representation numbers among solar companies, though at that time only 27 percent of solar companies tracked worker demographics.

“The first step”

The organizations that wrote the report and those who support its findings say understanding and defining the industry’s representation problems are integral to making it more diverse and inclusive.

“You can’t change what you can’t see,” Erica Mackie, CEO and co-founder of Grid Alternatives, said in a statement. “Accounting for gender and racial inequities within the solar industry with a study like this is the first step.”

Melanie Santiago-Mosier, Vote Solar’s senior director of access and equity, said “a more diverse solar industry will be a more successful solar industry.” That affirms findings from organizations like Boston Consulting Group, which reported that innovation-tied revenue was 19 percent higher for companies with above-average diversity among leadership.

Notably, this year’s solar diversity report also includes a chapter on the experiences of women of color in the solar industry, which differ substantially from those of white women. Based on respondent interviews, the report authors noted that women of color “often feel they are required to provide more evidence of their competence compared to their peers” and said the solar industry relies too much on established networks to fill positions.

Using those networks to locate applicants disproportionately favors white candidates. According to the report, 44 percent of white and 49 percent of non-Hispanic employees (the survey used racial and ethnicity questions) found a job through employee referral or “word-of-mouth.” Comparatively, just 28 percent of Hispanic or Latino respondents found a job that way, with the same percentage of black respondents finding a position in that manner.

Of the top five methods that solar companies use to recruit new employees, three rely on networks: employee referrals, word of mouth and referrals from nonemployees.

While the number of companies developing methods to combat that bias has increased since the 2017 survey, only 24 percent of companies have a strategy to recruit more women. Only 22 percent have a strategy to increase representation of people of color in their organization.

Male respondents are more likely to feel satisfied with moves up the career ladder. Over half of men feel they’ve successfully moved up, compared to 37 percent of women (a number that’s dropped by 10 percent since the 2017 survey, when 47 percent of women felt they had moved up).

This year’s results seem especially significant in the context of the national conversation about a Green New Deal and a just transition to a cleaner energy system. Andrea Luecke, president and executive director at the Solar Foundation, said the solar industry should be serving as an example as the greater energy industry looks toward a cleaner mix.

“Given the importance of the solar industry in building the energy infrastructure that is needed to confront the challenge of climate change, the solar industry has a tremendous opportunity to serve as a diversity and inclusion workforce model for the wider economy,” said Luecke in a statement.

According to SEIA president and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper, the report should serve as a measuring point for change.

“We have a responsibility to create cultural change and address the systemic forces that have allowed discrimination to fester,” said Ross Hopper in a statement. “It’s imperative that we take proactive steps to advance these issues, because it isn’t going to happen on its own.”

Melanie from Vote Solar will join us on stage at Solar Summit next week in Scottsdale. Solar Summit remains the premier conference for defining the latest industry needs for installers, developers, system manufacturers, financiers and regulators. We’ll cover the latest developments in global solar markets, module technology, how the ITC stepdown will impact project finance, distributed solar emerging markets and much more. Learn more here.