Perspectives from 3 Attendees at CWEEL/WEEC Reception
By MIRIAM ACZEL, Leaders in Energy
On September 22, 2016, the Council on Women in Energy & Environmental Leadership (CWEEL) partnered with Leaders in Energy and the Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment (WCEE) to host a reception at the World Energy Engineering Congress (WEEC). The event brought together leaders and professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds in the energy and sustainability industry. Funds raised from this event are to be used for scholarships to help women interested in pursuing studies in the energy and environmental fields.
By way of background, CWEEL is a division of the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) that seeks to support women in environmental and energy industries and leadership. Leaders in Energy is building a community of leaders to catalyze clean energy and sustainability solutions. WCEE is a member-driven organization similarly focusing on women, energy, and environmental issues.
I had the pleasure of speaking with three inspiring women, who shared with me their career paths and motivations, the challenges in the environmental and energy sector, and the role of these organizations in professional development. Here is some of what they had to say.
Director, Independent Verifiers of Energy Efficiency Savings (IVEES)
London, United Kingdom
Q. How did you get involved with AEE, and what were some of the challenges you faced?
RN. Four years ago, I was vice president [of the United Kingdom Association of Energy Engineers – UKAEE], but the group never gained momentum, and we struggled in setting up meetings. A few years ago, I took over the role of president of the UKAEE branch, and while we’re still ironing out some of the details, we’ve doubled in size and now have 13 committee members and 650 members. When I first started, I was the only female director, but now, 3/5 of our directors are female.
Q. What does membership entail?
RN. We have a very diverse body of members, with all ages and levels of experience. Basically, if you have enthusiasm, then come and join me! It’s very different from the dynamics of previous years, where it was mostly male members, ages 40 +.
Q. What is the main mission of UKAEE, and what are your goals?
RN. Right now, our main focus is getting functionality. My goal is to transition so that if I happen to win the lottery, someone else could take over, and we would still have functionality. We’ve adopted the same mission as AEE and have aligned our interests with AEE, and we hope to gain and retain membership, and to be an active chapter.
The chapter is really only a few years old, and our aim is to have a functioning committee and plan the events we need to have. After obtaining a functioning committee, our next goal is to write a strategy document.
Q. What are some of the events you’ve held, and how did you decide on these events?
RN. Last year, we hosted a few events driven by what is going on in the EU because we felt there are gaps with events held by other ‘peers’, or similar groups. These ‘gap events’, such as the one on heat metering or transport energy audits, for example, were coming out of EU legislation.
The strategy for deciding what events to host involves first conducting member surveys to identify interests and gaps in events hosted by other similar groups, and then decide based on our survey results what events to host. For example, one of our next goals resulting from member surveys is to develop a guide on the ISO 50001, the energy management standards, as we feel those are the most important guidelines to develop.
The most important aspect for attracting members is the events we host. While membership is free, the events are important to sustain the chapter. One of our upcoming events is a tour of a CHP plant.
Smita Chandra Thomas
Principal/Owner, Energy Shrink, LLC, Specializing in high-performance buildings
Washington, DC Metro Area
Q. How did you first get into the field of green buildings? What was your career path?
ST. I would have to stay it started from childhood. I grew up in a beautiful place in the foothills of the Himalayas with an appreciation for nature, so when I started my architecture degree in India, I naturally tended to look at sustainability in design. In my first year [of school] I did a study of historical architecture in my home state to see how natives used natural, local materials—houses were so responsive to climate. It is a seismic zone, but they have special systems for construction, and these building have been standing for more than a hundred years.
Q. How did this impact your course?
ST. For my Bachelor’s degree thesis in Architecture, I looked at the sustainable redevelopment of a historic building and looked for ways to make the new design more responsive to climate and more sustainable. But when I started working as an architect in India, I was shocked by the complete disregard for the environment — using a lot of concrete and windows in a country like India, putting in lighting and air conditioning without being responsive to the climate — just didn’t make sense.
So I began to write letters (it was before the internet was available in India) asking U.S. universities if they had courses on climate responsive design, and after getting accepted to several universities, decided to pursue an M.Sc. in Building Science at UCLA, and then transferred to Berkeley for classes. I was really interested in solutions and getting the right guidance. And learning to use quantitative methods to quantify sustainability. That’s really important to me.
Q. How did you first start working in green buildings after your studies?
ST. When I started looking in the late 1990s, energy efficiency was not a hot topic, and there were very few jobs available. Through a network of contacts, I was directed to Steven Winter Associates, really the only substantial green buildings consulting company at that time. Steve was a pioneer in the green buildings field. I worked there for 6 years. Around that time LEED was introduced, and sustainable design started taking off, and by 2005 many firms were claiming to be ‘green’ building firms.
Q. How did you make the jump to starting your own company?
ST. I had been working at various consulting firms, and then my husband got posted to China. I worked as an independent consultant while in China, and that introduced me to the idea that perhaps I could work as an independent [consultant] when I got back to the U.S. also. Initially [when I got back to the U.S. last year], I was searching for jobs while tentatively exploring the possibility of starting my own practice. I was fortunate that some ex-colleagues encouraged me at the right time. The external reinforcement was critical. One of my ex-colleagues is serving as my mentor, I speak with her every few months.
Q. One of the programs CWEEL currently has is a mentoring scheme. Do you feel mentoring plays an important role in your career?
ST. I would say it’s impossible to have career progression without mentoring! I have been involved with Girls in Technology as a mentor in the past. I would say mentoring is key. I envy people who are very self-assured, but many of us are not. Particularly because we women tend to doubt ourselves, it is really important to have an external voice to guide your potential and encourage you to do things you’re not sure you could.
Sustainable Development and Environmental Management Consultant
Washington, DC Metro Area
Q. What do you do, and how did you get into your field?
ID. I started with a bachelor’s in Biological Sciences and then studied Environment and Resource Management at the VU University of Amsterdam. After that, I worked as a policy advisor for a sustainability-focused political party in Amsterdam. I wrote policy proposals to turn Amsterdam into a more sustainable, environmentally friendly and economically robust place.
For example, one proposal I wrote sought to make Amsterdam more climate-resilient by implementing green streets and buildings in order to adapt to negative impacts of climate change, such as peak rains and flooding. We demonstrated that rather than investing in expensive storm drain expansion, the water could be diverted through green infrastructure. Then I obtained a second master’s degree in Environmental Management from the University of Cambridge and worked for an international development consultancy on projects related to energy security and agricultural livelihoods.
I recently moved to the DC area and I am looking to work in the sustainability/environmental consulting sector on advising companies on how to integrate sustainability into their business strategies and decision-making in order to enhance their business performance.
Q. What are you enjoying most about the CWEEL event?
ID. The CWEEL event provides a good opportunity to make connections and talk about issues that matter, such as gender issues in the workplace, as well as energy security.
Q. What are some of the challenges ahead in the environmental field, particularly for women?
ID. One of the biggest environmental challenges is the water-food-energy nexus in relation to climate change. One of the greatest challenges for women is the subconscious gender stereotyping that exists both within men and women, resulting in unnoticeable barriers that hold women back in their [professional] development.
It’s interesting to hear these stories, all three from different backgrounds – all of them from different countries and stages in their careers. They talked about challenges they have faced – Rajvant in growing the UKAEE chapter and the need for strong leadership to make the group a solid, functioning organization; Smita with regard to the need for mentors based on her own experience stepping out on her own; and Iris in bringing up the subconscious biases that women face in the workplace and in the energy field. Forums like the CWEEL/Leaders in Energy/WCEE reception are important spaces to bring women (and men) together to share experiences, learn from each other, and network.
Miriam Aczel is a Ph.D. candidate in Energy Science and Policy at Imperial College London. Her research interests include the environmental and health impacts of shale gas in the U.S., UK, and EU. She is based in London, Paris, and Washington, DC.