Women, energy, and economic empowerment Applying a gender lens to amplify the impact of energy access

18 August 2015

Research shows that one of the leading predictors of the stability of a country is not its GDP or its resources; it’s the way its women are treated. And one way to empower women is through access to energy. Kathleen O’Dell talks to Tanya Ott about the link between gender inequality and the energy sector, making a case for looking at energy projects through a gender lens.


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TANYA OTT: This is The Press Room, Deloitte University Press’s podcast on the issues and ideas that matter to your business today. I’m Tanya Ott, and today I want you to think about your daily routine. You wake up in the morning—either naturally, or with a little help.


You shower, dress and maybe eat some breakfast—maybe a liquid breakfast….


You get in your car or take public transit…


You get to work and you get stuff done!


For eight or ten hours—maybe more—you’re productive. Then reverse the entire process…


And go to bed.


I bet you don’t give a single thought to one of the key things that make everything you do possible. But Kathleen O’Dell thinks about it each and every day. O’Dell had been working in international development—mostly economic growth and private development—for more than a decade when she had an aha moment. She was in Jordan, working as an advisor on a project that was looking at key sectors Jordan could focus on to drive economic growth. Jordan is a small country. Just under eight million residents. And it’s got very few natural resources. No gas. No oil—at least none they’ve found yet. They import almost all of their fuel supply.

KATHLEEN O’DELL: For a long time they had a very stable supply of cheap gas coming through Egypt and this was primarily how everything was fueled. And then in 2010 when the Arab Spring occurred, it started becoming very unstable because of Egypt being very unstable and also because the pipeline through Sinai was continually under attack. And essentially the supply was cut off and so it put Jordan in a very precarious position in terms of how to run their power plants and they had to turn to very expensive fuel oil, and so it was that kind of scenario that really drew my attention.

TANYA OTT: She started thinking a lot about energy and how crucial it is to economic development. Jordan isn’t alone. Lots of countries struggle with energy issues. Take Tanzania on the eastern coast of Africa. Less than 20 percent of the country’s residents have access to reliable energy.

KATHLEEN O’DELL: So in the urban settings there is electricity, but they do have load shedding issues, meaning there are brownouts. That is not uncommon at all. But there are a lot of rural areas where there is no access. And there’s a huge potential opportunity there, frankly. One, to bring that access; and two, to bring that access in a way that’s potentially cleaner or perhaps leapfrog over traditional infrastructure.

TANYA OTT: What she’s talking about is a well-accepted narrative—that access to reliable energy prompts economic advancement. But, Kathleen O’Dell argues, there’s another factor companies should consider: gender. In her article “Women, Energy and Economic Empowerment” she argues that gender inequality is directly linked to poverty and instability.

KATHLEEN O’DELL: We see gender inequality all around the world in various ways, including in the United States and Western Europe and so on. But often in a developing country environment there’s a more extreme or exacerbated version of that. And so that can be everything from gender-based violence issues to the role of women in society, the political participation, decision making power, maternal health and well-being, lots of various things in addition to job opportunities and so on.

TANYA OTT: O’Dell says that the link between poverty and gender inequality was very clear in the research she and her colleagues did. They scoured databases and reports filled with economic and social data for countries around the world. They analyzed the data down to a microeconomic level.

KATHLEEN O’DELL: You know, one of the leading predictors of the stability of a country is not its GDP or its resources of anything like that; it’s the way its women are treated.

TANYA OTT: Everything from whether they can enter into contracts—such as owning land—to whether they had the same legal protections as men in their countries. But the idea that really fascinated Kathleen O’Dell was the link between gender inequality and the energy sector. So she and her colleagues also interviewed women around the world about how their lives are affected by power. The actual kind—not the metaphor.

KATHLEEN O’DELL: Any energy access program is ultimately looking to provide more productivity in a community, in a society, in a country. And so when you do that, if you do that without considering the gender lens then you’re missing out on potential opportunities for expanded economic productivity.

TANYA OTT: Tell me what you mean by the gender lens. Because obviously if you’re going to increase access to reliable power in a community, that’s for everyone, right?


TANYA OTT: So, when you’re saying, view it through the gender lens, what do you mean?

KATHLEEN O’DELL: So, for example. Let’s say there’s a community that doesn’t have access to power right now. And the utility is considering bringing distribution lines out to that community. And when they do that, they consider where to put those lines. They consider how long they’re supposed to be. They consider the impact on the community. Of course how many connections there will be from that community and so on. And typically there is some kind of a consultative process that goes on in the community when that happens. Some households will need to be relocated and so on. And so the traditional way of doing that would be to pull together like a small town hall or community meeting with maybe the community’s leaders and so on and talk that through and then roll out their project. And what we would say, to apply a gender lens would mean perhaps you could have a couple of different stakeholders meetings where you might have one that’s all women and you actually get to ask them their opinion on what would having access to electricity mean to them? Do they even understand how they could use it? And what that could mean? And what they might look like or change in their household or their ability to start a small business or what. You might discover in that process that there’s certain support trainings that would need to be provided or possibly services that could actually help women in the community to become an entrepreneur, start up a business, something like this. And by not asking their opinion from the beginning you potentially miss out on some of those answers if you only ask the “leaders” of the community, which invariably will be male.

TANYA OTT: What might be the kinds of things that you would hear specifically from women that you wouldn’t have heard from those male leaders in a community meeting?

KATHLEEN O’DELL: The most obvious difference is that women use energy for cooking. And men don’t consider that need. And so when you’re looking at the way you’re bringing energy to a community, whether it’s through a transmission line or whether it’s through solar lanterns or, you know, something very not that traditional infrastructure, it’s the specific needs and the role a woman plays in the community that may not be considered. So cooking would be one. Lighting for the household, particularly for children to be able to study in the evenings, and for a woman to be able to basically extend the productivity of her day in the household… those kinds of things, perhaps a man who goes to work each day is not thinking about. And so it’s more about tailoring your project, your solution, your offering, to meet the needs of the community so that they can have the maximum impact. It could also be something around refrigeration that could be related to health needs. Is there any kind of a health center in the community? What about the school? Is the school provided with those things? You know, again, it’s about having different views so you can consider all of them. It’s not that a woman’s perspective is better or should only be considered. It’s just that it should also be considered.

TANYA OTT: So, underlying this, sort of the thread that pulls through this is that if you can provide more reliable power at home to make home tasks more efficient it’s going to free up time for women to be thinking about entrepreneurship, starting a new business, or working outside the home. Of course that doesn’t always translate to empowering women if they end up working outside the home in an environment where they’re underemployed, underpaid, they’re in a work environment that is not a good work environment. So there’s not a direct, “If this happens, then empowered.”

KATHLEEN O’DELL: No, you can’t say that it’s automatic, but what you can say is that it’s an option where it may not have been before. Because if you automatically have a lifestyle where you spend a set number of hours each day collecting water, collecting firewood or other fuel sources for cooking and then using that also for lighting needs, those hours cannot be used for something else. So if you provide some source of energy that will make those tasks less time-burdensome, there is now an option. And that is where, what we talk in our paper, to actually take advantage of having that option now is where you can make a difference if you’re planning a project in a community. Stepping in and understanding through, again, talking about community and doing your needs assessment to ensure that those women have the ability to start their own business if they want to. To do some productive activity in their household in the evening if they’d like to. What kinds of skills do they need that they may not have right now? Do they need access to a very small amount of capital that they can access that would help them to purchase an appliance? For example, there’s an interesting program in Tanzania—I just returned from there—where they lease appliances for women to start a small business. And it could be as small as a hair dryer or something like that. It’s looking at what kinds of things need to be added to the mix, along with that energy, that will then allow those economic opportunities to flourish.

TANYA OTT: I’m trying to figure out how you pull all of those threads together, because who’s the person who looks holistically or what is the organization that looks holistically at energy and micro-lending and all of those things as one big ecosystem rather than simply, you know, a utility company that’s going to come in and lay a line (Kathleen: Right), and an NGO that’s going to be working with women in Tanzania in developing small business. I mean those seem like completely sort of disparate groups.

KATHLEEN O’DELL: That’s the trick! (laughs) So, I think there are actually quite a few actors that are very interested in the holistic view. And these, often they’re committed to very specific development objectives in either certain geographies or certain sectors. And when they do that they often do want to make sure that their impact is as strong as possible. And so it’s very challenging sometimes to corral all the players in a certain country or a certain sector, but that, I think, is what is happening increasingly. That coordination, more and more. And that’s where you have the ability to tie those things in.

TANYA OTT: Why is it important to tie those things together? As an example, take this case from Brazil:

KATHLEEN O’DELL: We found very interesting things like girls that were in rural areas with access to electricity were about 60 percent more likely to complete their primary education than girls who didn’t [have electricity]. And we also looked at income levels of women in communities and those would increase by upwards of 100 percent or even up to 300 percent for those with access to electricity versus those that did not. So it was those kinds of findings that I think really epitomized the kind of impacts this can have. And again it’s not the answer. It’s not the end-all, be-all. But when you provide that, can it open up an additional ability to contribute to the economy. So it’s a win-win-win at all levels for households, for communities, and for countries.

TANYA OTT: Kathleen O’Dell says it’s hard not to be moved by the stories of the women she and her team interviewed.

KATHLEEN O’DELL: I did not conduct the one in Afghanistan, but when I read the transcript of the interview I cried. And you know that kind of situation, the role of women and the lack of energy, and what that interviewee goes through. She’s a professor in a university and the way she describes how marginalized she was and how, from her perspective, it was hard for her to even think about things like renewable energy or these such things because they are just in complete survival mode. That was very heart-wrenching. On the other side of the spectrum, one of the interviews I did conduct was in Jordan and I really loved that because in that interview—it was Ruba Al-Zu’bi—she, at the time, was working with the government of Jordan with their Development Zone Commission. And I loved her perspective on it. She really saw women as change agents in communities because the role they have is so influential because of their influence on children and their upbringing of children and how if you can really get to women and have them be your voices, that the multiplication effect would just be tremendous.

TANYA OTT: Read more powerful stories about that multiplication affect and learn how many companies are using a gender Lens to think about their operations around the world. Kathleen O’Dell’s article “Women, Energy and Economic Empowerment” is available at dupress.com.

I’m Tanya Ott for the PressRoom, a production of Deloitte University Press. Hey—thanks for listening! We post new podcasts the first and third Mondays of the month. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss anything. And you can check out our archive at dupress.com where we recently asked the question: Will a robot take your job?

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