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Q&A with Women in Renewable Energy — WiRE

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Joanna Osawe

Joanna Osawe

President & CEO, WiRE

Julia Cushing

Julia Cushing

Executive Board Member

Aisha Bukhari

Aisha Bukhari

Vice-President, Executive Board Member


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What inspired you to start WiRE?

Joanna Osawe: I was in the energy sector building commercial wind farms for about 10 years and everywhere I went it was always a majority of men and very few women. Whether it was on the construction sites, in board rooms, in permitting meetings, open houses, and if there were women it would always be on the administrative, marketing and communications side; never at the executive level.

Upon my return from building a commercial wind farm in the United States, I discussed this issue with my husband. He has been a huge champion and thanks to his support, WiRE started. It all goes back to having champions, coming together to work toward a vision and out of that support, this organization was realized.

WiRE’s mission is to advance the role and recognition of women in the energy sector. I am a big believer that your network is your net worth and I think getting together with like-minded women is extremely important. This was really the basis for  WiRE.

Since starting WiRE, we have grown several programs nationally and internationally;  we continue to grow and dream even bigger. There are a variety of activities happening within WiRE to support women in the energy sector.

Julia Cushing: Joanna has brought so many women together with WiRE. I joined WiRE in 2014 and I was really inspired and eager to get involved in the organization.  I went to my first networking meeting with WiRE earlier in my career and I was looking to grow my network and I was looking for professional development opportunities. The moment I walked into this room there was Joanna and the other women who were warm, welcoming and eager to support me.

From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a part of an organization that worked to support other women and strives to help women to achieve their career goals. It was such a supportive environment that it was impossible not to get involved.

Aisha Bukhari: I met Joanna Osawe, right after I finished making a presentation on energy storage at an industry conference.  It was my first time presenting at a big conference, and I wasn’t sure how it had gone. Joanna came up to me and provided positive feedback. It was a delight to hear this feedback and we got talking. By the end of our conversation, I’d signed up to join WiRE! WiRE provided a platform for me to not only figure out a way to address the challenges I was facing but also provided an opportunity to create systemic change so we can enable women across Canada and globally to proactively deal with barriers and take ownership of their careers. This is the reason why I love working with WiRE. We have created an engaged community, that we support through various programming, and the community members also support and empower each other.

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What challenges have you faced as a woman in trades?

JO: When we started WiRE, we weren’t taken seriously.  I’ve received hate mail that was extremely derogatory. Some people were upset at us and thought we were trying to separate men and women in the industry but really, we were looking for men to join the conversation. Conversation on how to address the challenges that women are facing and how we can work together to solve these challenges. These were difficult conversations that we needed in order to move the dial. It is unfortunate that in 2021 the need to have these conversations is ongoing.   

I’ve faced numerous challenges on a personal level that include industry stakeholders making assumptions about my technical knowledge, my level of ambition as well as my capabilities. This has resulted in me having to spend my valuable time and energy in managing these stakeholders when ideally I would love to spend this time instead on getting it done!

JC: Early in my career I think the main challenge that I faced was not seeing someone like myself at the top of an organization, I was really looking for role models to show me how to grow my career. It’s really important to be able to seek out female mentors and the reason I specify female mentors is that in my experience, you can have a different level of relatability with a woman. I’ve had incredible male champions throughout my career and I am very grateful for them, but there is just a different level of conversation you might have with a female mentor than you would with a male.

Not seeing someone like me at the top of an organization and not really knowing how to create the path to navigate my career and to advance was my biggest challenge. That is a huge benefit of WiRE –  there are incredibly successful women within this organization, not only on the board of directors but through networking with WiRE you are now exposed to this massive network of successful women who are affiliated in different ways with the organization.

AB: A key challenge, especially early on in my career, was a lack of a robust network with trusted colleagues in the sector. I particularly found this difficult as a teetotaller, because a lot of networking events were in environments that I found were not conducive to form meaningful relationships. I eventually found ways that worked for me. This is another reason why at WiRE, we are very mindful to design networking events that are inclusive and cater to people of varying backgrounds and preferences.

Another key challenge that I continue to face is being excluded – from invitations for casual lunches to career-advancing opportunities and everything in between. If you don’t fit a certain profile – that is expected by the industry – the pull model where you are attracting opportunities simply because of merit doesn’t work. You have to create your own opportunities. WiRE’s aim with its programming is to create these opportunities and make them more accessible.

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What are the barriers that you see as the largest impediments to more women working in the trades?

JO: I think it’s the outreach and retaining women. I think there is something to be said about job descriptions and the way they are worded. Many job descriptions are tailored toward men, and one struggle women have is that they have a tendency to think they need to check every single box of a job requirement in order to apply.

Back when I became a wind developer, I was applying for jobs for which I had no business applying. I am not an engineer, and yet every single job I have held the job description specified you must be an engineer; I do not have a P.Eng. Men tend to apply to jobs even if they don’t check every box on the job description, women need to do the same.   

JC: I think there is a general lack of exposure. A lot of young people don’t really know what career options are out there. I think for a long time a certain type of career was promoted or highlighted and other careers were not.

I do think that is starting to change and we are getting to a place where we recognize the value, importance and how successful you can be in different types of careers such as skilled trades.

I think for a lot of young women – and young men – there is just a general lack of knowledge about the various types of career options that are out there and the benefits of those careers as well.

AB: I think the biggest impediment for women is organizational culture – there are a lot of barriers that start at the hiring stage and span all way to retention. Not being inclusive in outreach at the hiring stage prevents women from accessing these opportunities. Then once in an organization, women are continuously forced to make trade-offs between home commitments and career-advancing opportunities. Trade-offs that they shouldn’t have to make. Trade-offs that are solvable via a variety of solutions such as flexible hours, more inclusive ways for women to return to work after maternity leaves etc. The pandemic has further exacerbated these inequalities.

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Why is diversity so important in the skilled trades, and how does WiRE help to support women in the industry?

JO: WiRE has many programs which support women in the industry. We have a lot of great programs in Canada including awards recognition in which we highlight women and focus on celebrating leaders in the industry. We also provide speed mentoring in which students or emerging professionals are paired with C-suite level professionals and have the opportunity to ask questions and seek career advice.

Some of our other Canadian programs include speed interviewing with different companies, spotlights/blogs on our website, webinars, workshops, and WiRE student chapters. We are also growing our organization internationally and we recognize some of our programs applicable in the Canadian market may not be applicable in different jurisdictions– so the terminology ‘Glocal’ is important – Be global, act local.

Our ambition is to continue to grow out our programs. We are passionate about making sure our platform is there to support women in the industry.

JC: When there is a general lack of diversity, you are missing out on massive portions of talent that is available. We’ve seen over and over the benefits that diversity brings to organizations. It’s also important for the individual, to bring women and different minorities into different work environments and to help them grow and succeed. When individuals succeed, the collective succeeds.

AB: Diversity translates into creating equal opportunities and ensuring they are accessible to everyone regardless of their identity. It is not only morally the right thing to do it is also good for business. WiRE supports employers in hiring diverse candidates, creates opportunities for women to have a voice at the table, and creates opportunities for women to expand their network. 

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How can companies better support their female employees?

JO: I think it’s really about making sure women are getting promoted, and that there are people in the industry that are supporting and championing women. I think mentorship is different than sponsorship – having a sponsor within the industry will be extremely helpful because that individual will take you to the next level, provide you with recommendations and champion you through your career.

JC: Awareness is so important. If an organization is aware of where they are currently with diversity and where they need to go, they can put measures in place to make sure they get there. They can structure initiatives to make sure they are reaching out to the right individuals and they can put programs and support in place to make sure they are achieving their organization’s goals.

AB: A lot of organizations are now finally catching up to the idea that gender equality is important and having diverse candidates within their organization is good for business. However, I see the biggest gap where the concept of intersectionality is really not well-understood. Acknowledging for example that the barriers a woman of colour faces are much more amplified than a white woman. Then creating solutions to specifically address those barriers is critical if organizations truly want to build an inclusive culture. Setting targets and measuring the impact of solutions is also vital to make progress and for continuous improvement. 

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Is there anything else you would like to add or would like to share with our readers?

JO: It is really important to acknowledge the amazing partners we have formed, international and national. We want to make sure we are always highlighting the D&I.

Our partnerships, whether with non-profit industry partners, Indigenous groups, women in power groups solidify and aligns our messaging and helps us achieve our collective goals. We continue to grow together to make sure not only from a diversity perspective but from skilled trades, energy, and educational perspectives that we are moving forward and making a difference.

I also want to acknowledge our leadership team, WiRE’s board of directors and advisory committee including Aisha Bukari and Julia Cushing – without their support, passion, empowerment and inspiration WiRE would not be where it is today.

JC: We’ve achieved so much in WiRE because we have so much support not only from our partners but also from the grassroots level with our volunteers and the people who come out to our networking events. What I find so continuously inspiring and what makes me so hopeful that change is happening is all of the offers of support we get from so many different people.

Diversity is something that gets people really excited and people want to see a change, and WiRE is providing an opportunity for people to be a part of that change. We are so grateful for all the people who reach out and want to be a part of it.

AB: Climate change is one of the biggest and most urgent challenges that we will face in our lifetimes. We need all of us – people of all gender, colour, race, religion, etc. – to help solve this problem. The transition to net zero is not only an opportunity for us to make this world a more habitable place, but also a more inclusive and peaceful place. All of us, regardless of our roles have an opportunity to step up and play our part in making this happen.

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