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Powering equality – Q&A with Barbara Botos, Hungary’s Deputy State Secretary for Climate Policy

Energy revolution cannot happen without women. This interview is published as part of a campaign launched by the Women in Energy Association (WONY).

Barbara Botos – Hungary’s Deputy State Secretary responsible for Climate Policy at the Ministry for Innovation and Technology and member of the Women in Energy Association – says that the pandemic could be a unique opportunity for decisive action towards a greener and more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet. She also explains why it is crucial that women play an active role already in the design phase of technologies and policies such as clean energy projects.

Climate change is a defining challenge of our time, which requires an unprecedented effort from all sectors of society. What are the big challenges and opportunities that you see ahead?

Throughout the last years, climate change has become the focus of attention. Recognising the threats that climate change imposes on our world and the need for urgent action, as a leading example, the European Union has set the 2050 climate neutrality goal and in 2020 December EU leaders have agreed to new emission reduction targets under the European Green Deal of at least 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990. Following the EU, several countries have announced their 2050 climate neutrality target, such as the UK, Japan, South-Korea and the US, while China aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The Hungarian Government has also adopted a domestic 2050 climate neutrality target, which was first set in our draft long-term strategy (draft National Clean Development Strategy) and later enshrined in law. To achieve the targets, the actions during the next decade will be crucial.

The attitude and behaviour of society are already changing. Hungary conducted a survey in late 2019 where we got the result that the general public is very much interested in climate issues and over 90 per cent of the respondents would personally be open to change their lifestyle choices in order to protect the climate. This clearly shows the emerging behavioural change and it was an important sign towards the political decision-makers, that our society wants to be engaged in climate action.

The change of the behaviour and preferences of the society and the changes in government policy accelerate the transition of the business sector as well.

The biggest challenge of the fight against climate change is that the transition requires financial resources, therefore, the mobilisation of private capital is crucial in order to provide the necessary finance to countries for their adaptation and mitigation measures. Inclusivity and the leaving no-one behind approach need to be emphasised and should become the centre of the economic transition. Combatting climate change requires joint action from all stakeholders and the governments.

How has the COVID crisis impacted the ongoing energy transition? Can we expect long-term effects that will stay with us even after the end of the pandemic?

The current COVID-19 pandemic should be considered as a unique opportunity for decisive action towards a greener and more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet. The COVID-19 recovery plans shall be used to accelerate towards climate neutrality. Putting the energy transition at the top of our agenda as part of the recovery plans will contribute to the approach of building back better. To achieve the ambitious climate targets, decarbonisation of the energy sector is a key aspect.

To accelerate the transition, in line with the Hungarian National Energy and Climate Plan our last remaining coal-fired power plant, the Mátra Power Plant will phase out lignite-fired blocks by 2030. Thus, electricity production in Hungary will be 90 per cent carbon-neutral by 2030 – which implies a lot of renewable energy job openings in the coming years in Hungary as well. 

The share of women working in the renewable energy sector is higher than in the overall energy sector. Do you think that the ongoing energy transition offers a chance for women to play a bigger role in shaping the future of the sector?

Renewable energy employs about 32 per cent of women, compared to 22 per cent in the overall energy sector. I’d like to add, that still, according to IRENA, within renewables, women’s participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs is far lower (28 per cent) than in administrative jobs (45 per cent).

I do think that energy transition is a huge opportunity and both a responsibility for women to step up and reshape the future of the energy sector. From the book Invisible women we learn that this is a man’s world because it was designed by men, who did not take biological differences into account. Some telling examples from the book:

  • Most offices are five degrees too cold for women because the formula to determine their temperature was developed in the 1960s based on the metabolic resting rate of a 40-year-old, 70kg man. Women’s metabolisms are slower;
  • Women in Britain are 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack: heart failure trials generally use male participants;
  • Cars are designed around the body of a “Reference Man”, so although men are more likely to crash, women involved in collisions are nearly 50 per cent more likely to be seriously hurt.

As illustrated with such examples, mainstreaming these in the design and implementation of clean energy projects is critical to attain the equal treatment of men and women and to improve the positive impacts of the projects. If women are missing from the design phase of technologies and policies, the outcome will not equally serve about 50 per cent of the population of the planet, which is a significant half.

Equality boosts the industry and ultimately the planet. Women have a great potential that is needed to accelerate the development of the sector which is also recognised by company managements.

Do you think that the energy industry has become more inclusive to women in the past years?

It is clear that the emerging green energy sector is already more inclusive than the conventional energy sectors.

As we are shifting away from the traditional energy use towards clean energy, the male-dominated sector is turning into a more inclusive, less discriminative one, where stereotypical biases are less prevalent, providing an opportunity for women to step up.

Of course, there is room for improvement. As said before women represent 32 per cent of the employees of the renewables sector today, this is still very far from 50 per cent.

Women are still underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Partly because “girls and women are systematically tracked away from science and math throughout their educations, limiting their training and options to go into these fields as adults” and partly because those women who engage in these fields later are twice as likely to leave it behind, for different reasons: discrimination, unsupportive work environment and working conditions.

What advice would you give to women who are thinking about starting a career in the energy industry?

My advice is “don’t step back!”. You have everything you need to have a successful career in the energy field.

Others, a few decades ago, had a lot harder time succeeding in the energy field, therefore, I encourage everyone to watch the movie “Hidden figures” if you have not done so, inspired by the life and work of mathematician Katherine Johnson at NASA during the Space Race.

Now for us, the challenge still remains, nevertheless it is much easier to cope with and with every woman stepping up the way it will be a lot easier for those who will be following us.

Plus it is the “perfect time” to join the sector. Renewable jobs are estimated to increase threefold by 2050. Not to mention that engaging in STEM work as a woman also helps to build down the pay gap, as STEM jobs pay 2-3 times more than jobs in other fields.

I would encourage every woman who is thinking about a career in the energy industry not to be afraid that the sector is currently dominated by men and be confident to acquire a job in the energy industry. The energy sector is changing and women’s knowledge and skillset is needed in the clean energy transition to reach climate neutrality.

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