Power Points

Why feminine leadership is essential for the clean energy transition

Sarah Shanley Hope, Climate March 2014
Sarah Golden
Sarah Shanley Hope, pregnant with her second child, during the 2014 Climate March in New York.

Feminine leadership is essential to solving society’s largest, intractable challenges, according to Sarah Shanley Hope, executive director of the Solutions Project. 

The Solutions Project is a small but mighty organization. It popularized "100% clean energy" as a unifying slogan for climate action, thanks to its strategic approach and powerful star power. The founders include actor Mark Ruffalo and academic Mark Jacobson, who have leveraged their rarefied connections, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Don Cheadle. 

Behind those household names is Shanley Hope, whose leadership has helped keep the organization focused and innovative. After the success of the 100% campaign, The Solutions Project launched 100% Commitment to Justice to empower equity organizations and elevate the need for solutions that serve marginalized communities. 

A new report from the organization suggests that female representation in clean energy media coverage is on the rise: It notes that articles quoting women doubled in 2019, jumping to 42 percent, up from 21 percent in 2018. 

The gender gap in renewable energy has a lot of room for improvement, with women comprising less than a third of the clean energy workforce, so the report’s data is encouraging. But Shanley Hope also believes the clean energy transition can benefit from leaders who embrace and harness feminine characteristics — whatever their gender. That includes traits such as collaboration, empathy, flexibility, intuition, humility and passion. 

Whatever your gender, here are three feminine traits leaders should embrace to more effectively address climate change and the energy transition. 

1. Flexibility is required for unprecedented transformation

Our largest unpredictable problems — such as addressing climate change, transitioning to 100 percent clean energy or addressing a virus pandemic — require the capacity to navigate change and unexpected nonlinear situations. 

The ability to identify new inputs, change strategies and trust intuition are all iconically feminine traits.

"We figure out how to make it work," Shanley Hope said. "You look at the resources you have, and you figure out how to make it work within those constraints."

While these traits are not limited to female-bodied people, Shanley Hope recognizes that women and people of color have more on-the-job training when it comes to limited resources because of structural sexism and racism that lead to gaps in pay and access to education globally. 

And as the proverb goes, necessity is the mother of invention. In a resource- and climate-constrained world, the ability to make it work is a trait every leader should embrace. 

Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio, 2014 Climate March, 100% campaign
Sarah Golden
Mark Ruffalo, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio, right, en route to the 2014 Climate March in New York City in the early days of the 100% Campaign.

2. Innovation comes from diverse perspectives 

Logically, a diversity of people will lead to a diversity of ideas at a time when we urgently need more tools in our toolbox to address climate change.

The Solutions Project provides grants to grassroots organizations across the county focused on making clean energy access to all communities. Shanley Hope says that the majority of grantees are led by women of color in low- and moderate-income communities who understand the unique local challenges and what solutions would work for their communities. 

There’s a business case here. A growing body of research shows when companies have feminine leaders, they perform better and employees are happier.

"We’re in an era where having a diverse set of tools in your toolbox as a leader is so important," Shanley Hope said. "That includes for male-identified leaders to tap into the characteristics that prioritize relationship building, listening, co-creation, comfort with ambiguity and nonlinear growth."

Cassie Bowe, vice president at Energy Impact Partners, a strategic investment firm that supports utilities in navigating the transition to clean energy, compared the transition to female leadership to the transition to clean energy on the podcast Climate Champions.

"As an industry, where we are trying to challenge the status quo, and telling an industry to change that has never changed, if we can’t look internally in our own companies and change how we’re powering ourselves, I don’t know how we’ll be able to make that argument," said Bowe in regards to the pressure on utilities and incumbent energy producers to transition to clean energy.

3. Collaboration leads to stronger solutions

The clean energy transition and bending the emissions curve require coordinated and intentional collaboration across nations, communities, sectors and industries. 

Christiana Figueres, former secretariat of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change and chief negotiator of the Paris Climate accord, summed this up well in an interview with CNN

"I think most women are more collaborative than most men, and this is about radical collaboration," Figueres said. "I think women tend to think more long-term. I also think that we come at the role of stewardship much easier than men. I think for all of those reasons, that's why we see so many young women coming forward as young, fantastic leaders that are mobilizing youth."

Shanley Hope sees this lead to stronger organizations. 

"It is a business benefit to have a much more relational approach to problem-solving," she said. "It’s not about thinking you’re the lone wolf to save the day, it’s about tapping into different and diverse expertise to problem-solve a complex context."

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's newsletter Energy Weekly, running Thursdays. Subscribe here.