Solar Foundation Survey shows record-setting diversity leadership in solar

You wouldn’t believe it from the headlines, but a recent industry survey from The Solar Foundation revealed substantial diversity leadership within solar power industry. Contrary to Think Progress’s assessment “The solar industry is booming, but rewards only go to white men” or PV Magazine’s “Good Old White Boys Club Runs the Solar Industry”, or even the tone of the report itself, the data shows tremendous diversity and welcoming for minority groups and women seeking employment in solar power.

You can download the survey here.

First off, I have tremendous respect for trade groups like Women of Reneweble and Sustainable Energy. They deserve some victory laps while continuing their tremendous efforts in making solar more accessible to women, rather than being bummed out about the headlines mentioned above. So I hope they forgive me for “mansplaining” some faults in this diversity report (which focuses on women and minority issues in solar) as I think the underlying data is very, well, sunny.

The primary fault of the Solar Industry Diversity Study 2019 is insufficient data sampling for the sweeping conclusions drawn – this is a solar industry fault at large and we can do better. Only 0.005% of the industry participated in the survey, split evenly between employers and employees. At the same time, increased participation is likely to paint a more accurate, yet bleaker diversity picture as compared to the current survey sample. This is why I feel it important to provide a different context to frame the diversity data, so here goes;

Let’s begin by challenging the premise “to the white men go the spoils”. As the survey points out, “According to McKinsey & Company, only 22% of C-suite leaders [in all workforces] are women”. C-suite leaders are the most important executives within a company. But the solar industry maintains these levels of executive leadership at 20% (keep in mind the survey gives an error range of 5%).

But the study also states that women in solar comprise about 25% of the workforce, whereas the national average is closer to 50%. So this implies women are twice as likely to be C-suite leaders in solar as compared to the average national workforce, despite their minority status in solar. Furthermore, the study reveals that “about 6% of both men and women fell into the wage range of $75/hour or more”. So on top of the promotion success, the survey implies that the gender wage gap vanishes at the top of the solar corporate ladder.

Now, there are some statistics further down that ladder which sound alarming. “The median level wage for men was $29.19, while the median level wage for women was only $21.62.” is explained to be far below the national wage gap average. Likewise, “Despite earning more undergraduate and postbaccalaureate degrees than men, women are still underrepresented at higher level positions in the solar industry.”

Women and minorities deserve equal pay for equal work, absolutely. But let’s examine this a bit further to see if there are other reasons aside from gender which may explain both the wage gap and the over-qualification/underpaid phenomenon.

The study breaks 100% of solar jobs into two categories “mid-level positions” and “Manager Director President” positions. Don’t get confused by the acronym MDP in this case. Mid-level positions are not MDP positions. Mid-level positions include “engineers, human resources professionals, solar electricians, and solar installers”. MDP positions include “managers, directors, vice presidents, executives, vice president of operations, or construction manager”.

If you are confused as why women might complain about having more mid-level positions than men, it may be because the survey seems to group entry level positions in with mid-level positions. So the graphic would state most men have MDP level positions whereas most women have lower positions.

But is this really the case? As we know that at the very top, women are reflected at c-suite levels similar to the national average (despite their gross under-representation when compared to the national average). So somehow, women in solar are skipping over MDP-level positions in representation from from mid-level positions into senior-executive positions. Maybe this is where those undergraduate and postbaccalaureate degrees are in fact benefiting women, a benefit rather than a complaint.

But I think it has more to do with the survey sample. Despite the instinct of everyone to draw broad sweeping conclusions about the survey, we get an ominous warning “It is important to note that this respondent profile is not representative of the overall solar industry demographics; it is simply the demographics of those who responded to the survey.

Well, let’s take a look at the respondent profile.

Almost a super-majority of survey respondents were from small solar companies, with can have as few as one employee. I’ll call this group “white guy with a truck”.

Inherently, a “white guy with a truck” is an MDP position and perhaps counted a senior executive position. After all, if you file a $14 DBA, you are the Owner/Founder/CEO. But its laughable to compare someone like myself (white guy with truck) with the roles, responsibilities, and success of someone like Lynn Jurich, the CEO of the USA’s largest solar installation company. Still, it begs the question how much “white guy with a truck” is impacting the industry survey results.

But what we know about “white guy with a truck” is that despite having an MDP or even senior-executive position, the “white guy with a truck” doesn’t make very much money – despite the headlines. The survey itself states this. “The median hourly wage for Hispanic or Latino respondents was $30… for African American respondents was $33.26, for white respondents it was $26.51, and for All Others was $24.66”.

So the typical white worker in solar is making less money than minority groups, despite being ruled by a majority white male senior executives. That doesn’t sound like a good old boys club to me.

Lastly, let’s explore a reason males could be holding more $30-$74/hour jobs than females, which is the same reason why females may hold more <$30/hour job, and the same reason why a most respondents are working for small firms, as the same reason why why women entering solar with undergraduate or advanced degrees might earn less than a man entering solar without a college degree to speak of.

Solar work is electrical construction work. And the 2009 US Census found that 99% of electricians are male. Furthermore, electricians are high paid, skilled workers without undergraduate or advanced graduate degrees. It makes sense that anyone involved in solar power with electrical experience is going to start an entry or mid-level position at a higher pay grade than those without said experience, regardless of any outside-the-industry advanced degrees. And so it makes more sense that the gender wage gap for non-executive positions has everything to do with a field electrician being the MVP on a job-site, even bumping into the $30-$74/hour category, whereas entry-level office jobs would have substantially lower starting pay.

Given so many electricians are male, the fact that women are represented in solar to a 26% margin is respectable. But moving beyond construction, solar work is also technology work. The survey states that the technology workforce is 22% women and 7% African American, numbers which are substantially higher in the solar industry at 26% and 12% respectively. So women are 20% better represented and African Americans are a whopping 70% better represented in solar than in other technology fields. That’s a very welcoming message.

Maybe the solution to the wage gap for the workforce is as simple as more encouraging women in solar to attend electrician training instead of pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees that do not result in c-suite positions.

There are other gaps in the survey report. Rather than detailing them all, I’ll simply highlight that the survey respondents are a skewed industry representation, with 31% of respondents working in manufacturing (14% in reality) 28% in installation (64% in reality) and 25% in “other” categories (5% in reality). Distribution and operation management are accurately reflected in the sample.

Yet adjusting the survey to present a more accurate slice of industry workers will likely increase the prominence of “white males with truck” within said workforce. Which is why it is important to compare diversity data against technology and construction sectors, rather than simply to compare it to all job sectors like education or retail.

Compared to its peers, the solar industry is smashing the glass ceiling for women and minorities. But expecting an industry strongly rooted in electrical construction, a 99% male industry, to have gender diversity comparable to the national workforce at large is missing the forest for the trees. Next year’s study, with broader participation, may paint a less diverse picture than in 2019. But the solar industry should be proud of setting diversity records among its peer industries, which should encourage women and minorities thinking about solar employment to jump in.

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