Technology and STEM fields often have a reputation for being a boys’ club, and green hydrogen is no exception to the rule. However, if we are going to develop and implement the clean technologies we need to solve the climate challenges facing society, we cannot afford to overlook the critical perspectives offered by women and all diverse voices. That was the motivation behind the launch of Women in Green Hydrogen, a network that aims to boost the visibility of women in the green hydrogen sector. By connecting and empowering professionals worldwide, it is poised to become a tremendous force for inclusive change in green hydrogen and clean technology. We met with its three co-founders to learn more about the purpose, operation and goals of Women in Green Hydrogen.
Vaitea Cowan is a Co-Founder specializing in Marketing & Communications at Enapter, an international company fighting climate change by making AEM electrolyzers for cost-effective on-site green hydrogen production.
Charlotte Hussy is an Advisor for Power Fuels and Power-to-X at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationalle Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a German development agency. GIZ provides services in the field of international cooperation for sustainable development and international education work. Charlotte is also the initiator of Women in Green Hydrogen (WiGH).
Brittany Westlake is a Sr. Technical Leader working on Hydrogen Electrolysis in the Low-Carbon Resources Initiative at the Electric Power Research Institute, a US-based company that conducts research and development relating to the generation, delivery and use of electricity for the benefit of the public.
All three of you are part of the founding team of Women in Green Hydrogen (WiGH). Why and how was this initiative born?
"I got excited at our first meeting because it wasn’t just people developing the technology, it was people looking into policy and the larger picture around getting hydrogen out as a technology resource." Brittany Westlake
CH: I had the initial idea around a year ago, when I was going to a lot of conferences and noticed that many had only male speakers or perhaps just one or two women. I already knew a lot of great women working in green hydrogen, so I was surprised not to see them on the conference panels. I came up with the idea of creating a pool to inform conference organizers that there are more women in the field that they can contact. With this idea in mind, I reached out to Vaitea, Brittany and a few other women in the sector, and that’s how Women in Green Hydrogen was born.
BW: When we started out, having an entire meeting with other women who look like me, as a physical chemist working in a male-dominated field, was just awesome. I got excited at our first meeting because it wasn’t just people developing the technology, it was people looking into policy and the larger picture around getting hydrogen out as a technology resource, beyond just the hardware in the lab. I think WiGH bodes well because you can’t just do this with technology, you have to look at the bigger parts of society and listen to women and all diverse participants as we look towards our energy future.
What are the group’s objectives, assets and next steps in terms of development?
"There are so many women behind the scenes in this industry who you don’t realize are there. So, our mission is to connect, empower and inform these professionals all over the world." Vaitea Cowan
"We are looking into developing more partnerships, because we’ve gotten so much positive feedback from nearly every woman in the industry seeking a way to get involved." Charlotte Hussy
VC: There are so many women behind the scenes in this industry who you don’t realize are there. So, our mission is to connect, empower and inform these professionals all over the world. For now, we have our expert database, where you can scroll through inspiring women working across the entire ecosystem of hydrogen. We also have our LinkedIn group, which is our communication platform where women can post about their research, speaking opportunities or job openings. Finally, we host networking sessions to bring all these women together and watch ideas come to life. Our next step is to organize more networking events, but also improve our structure so we can have our own WiGH events and encourage independent local chapters to emerge within the WiGH network.
CH: We are looking into developing more partnerships, because we’ve gotten so much positive feedback from nearly every woman in the industry seeking a way to get involved, including grad students and CEOs of companies worldwide. We’re very new, but we are in contact with different organizations ranging from other women’s networks to conference organizers who want to partner with us. We are also considering more strategic alliances such as media partnerships to see how we can bring the whole topic forward.
In what ways can communications around hydrogen encourage more women to join the field?
BW: Representation matters. It’s important to look at conferences and see who is there and whose voices are being heard. There is so much value in seeing a role model you can identify with, which is what drives people to this space and helps build talent together. We need a wealth of people from all backgrounds in this space. If these were easy technology challenges we would have solved them already. It’s going to take lots of creative thinking and lots of hard work to move hydrogen and the energy industry forward.
CH: On our Twitter and LinkedIn pages, we spotlight a woman from our expert database every week, so people are reminded of the diverse experience and expertise amongst us today. I think that’s a great communication tool.
VC: It’s a way to tell other women: I hear you, I see you and I’m there for you. I think that’s one of the ways women in other fields can get inspired by green hydrogen and join us.
How do you explain the limited visibility of women in the hydrogen sector?
CH: There is a multiplier effect: whenever a conference organizer is setting up a new event, they look at who spoke at the last conference, and so they invite the same people over and over again. Hydrogen is a field where there are new startups coming along, but it’s also a “melting pot” of conservative sectors (such as energy, transport, heavy industry) that all need a lot of change right now. All these sectors used to be very male-dominated. People already know each other from the past, and therefore you have this multiplier effect of people inviting the same speakers to every conference.
BW: There are some common challenges women face in technology fields, where we always have to be better and prove ourselves in every conversation. Later in my career and with a Ph. D, I still have men saying to me, “Wow, you really know your stuff!” I wonder if men get that same reaction. I think there are challenges around whose opinions we value in meetings.
To what extent could a tool such as the Expert Database remedy that issue?
"We already have 40 countries represented in the expert database and we’re not stopping there. […] We also have the full range of fields in the database." Charlotte Hussy
"The WiGH initiative makes it easier for women to expand their networks and for everyone to see all of the talent working in the hydrogen space." Brittany Westlake
VC: I think it’s a game-changer because now no one has an excuse not to include a woman. You can filter women based on their expertise and location. Whomever you’re looking for, you can find them. There’s no way around it now. Manels are no longer allowed in 2021.
CH: We already have 40 countries represented in the expert database and we’re not stopping there. We’re looking into creating spearhead organizations in Latin America, Africa and Asia. We also have the full range of fields in the database: researchers, professors, policymakers, CEOs, startups and big companies in everything along the green hydrogen value chain.
BW: If you have a male conference organizer, they’re going to reach out to who they know. Sometimes they need to be challenged to reach out to a broader community. The WiGH initiative makes it easier for women to expand their networks and for everyone to see all of the talent working in the hydrogen space and bring them in for conferences, boards and speaking opportunities. It’s a valuable resource for fixing that issue.
How has the integration of women in the hydrogen sector evolved in the last few years?
"2021 will be a year of change in terms of the representation we see in the discussions and conversations. There’s some progress, but we’re not there yet." Charlotte Hussy
VC: I think there is only now a conscious decision to look for diversity, which I did not feel was a priority until this year, so I think 2021 will be a year of change in terms of the representation we see in the discussions and conversations. There’s some progress, but we’re not there yet. I think we’ll be there once women are also on the decision-making panels, not just the conference panels.
CH: We are getting more entrants who are women, so I really believe in the next generation. Studies have shown that the more sustainability and meaning there is in the work we do, the more women are also represented. I’m positive that with the developments we’re seeing currently, more and more women will come and join this movement.
What do you think is the most important factor for getting more women into hydrogen?
"I think role models are very important to getting more women involved in the field. We need the visibility of what women are already doing." Charlotte Hussy
BW: Giving them opportunity, giving them the chance. Making sure that when we’re hiring, we’re taking bias out of the decision-making process, whether it’s for a conference panel, advisory committee or project team. Once women have that first opportunity, it leads to the second and builds stronger teams.
CH: I think role models are very important to getting more women involved in the field. We need the visibility of what women are already doing.
VC: I would also add having a woman decision-maker who is also visible, so that when young women are looking to join a team, they see that there is a woman there and will apply. I strongly believe that it increases the probability of women joining a team when they see that there is already a woman there making decisions, too.
On a more personal level, which women have inspired you in your career choice? Are there women who inspire today?
VC: Sheryl Sandberg was my inspiration. I came out of business school and I read Lean In, and it really inspired me to know that women have a place at the table. It comes with a whole different set of perceptions and responsibilities, but you own it and hold your ground.
CH: Currently, I get a lot of inspiration from the women in the WiGH network.
BW: I‘ve seen many good examples of women who are doing well at work, driving things in the industry, and also raising children, which is important for me as a mom with two young kids. I cannot underscore enough the value of having role models, so that women can look up or sideways and see someone who reminds them of themselves and inspires them to do more and reach their goals.
Does WiGH have any plans for International Women’s Day?
CH: This year, Women’s Day motto is “Choose to Challenge”, so for us it’s important that we continue to challenge all decision-making committees to get more women on board and every conference organizer to use our expert database. We will take that motto of International Women’s Day very seriously throughout 2021.