This year’s CEC Women in Renewables scholarship winner has seen the great work being done around the world – where the opportunities for women are sometimes better than at home.

The clean energy industry runs on a lot of positive energy, apart from one wee dark spot – there are a heck of a lot fewer women in it than men. That’s probably to be expected in an industry that’s so reliant on engineers and electricians, vocations favoured by guys, but there isn’t any good reason the genders shouldn’t be balanced at executive level.

The Clean Energy Council is keeping an eye on the problem and three years ago launched its Women in Renewables scholarship program to promote the concept of balanced boardrooms.

This year’s winner is Vanessa Ratard, senior project manager with engineering firm Ekistica, an Alice Springs-based indigenous-owned consultancy which is part of the Centre for Appropriate Technology.

Vanessa Ratard got interested in energy after working on a power plant project in New Caledonia.

The journey to central Australia and a job in energy has taken Ratard around the world. Maths was her strongest subject at school and when she left in the late 1990s with no idea what to do next she zeroed in on environmental engineering after looking through the job ads in a newspaper and deciding it looked “pretty interesting”.

After a start in civil and environmental engineering she moved to a structural engineering firm, where she was sent to work on a 50MW heavy fuel oil power plant in New Caledonia. “That got me interested in energy and mining,” she says. Next came a five-year stint at a UK-based mineral processing company that included work travel to Africa, Turkey and Peru. “I saw unsuccessful solar power on a mining camp in Mauritania and looked at wind [generation] up in the Andes and I guess it was something I saw that could be really exciting,” she says. “Renewables is constantly moving and it really piqued my interest.”

When the opportunity came up to move to the Northern Territory and focus on renewable energy she jumped at it.

Different but the same

Things aren’t always stacked your way in this industry when you’re a women, Ratard says, although a lot of it depends on where you end up. Working for a development agency that had a good balance of women in leadership roles offered “a different perspective,” she says. Other times it feels as though the engineering discipline you’re working in is the biggest indicator of attitude towards women. Of electrical, mechanical and environmental, she says electrical is the toughest.

“Sometimes it has felt that it would be easier if I was male,” she says. “It’s culturally ingrained. Sometimes as a woman you have to prove yourself first before you’re given responsibility whereas a male will sometimes be given responsibility instantly.”

To an extent it depends where you are in the world. Ratard says she has never felt any form of gender judgement in the Pacific, where she has also recently worked in Kiribati on solar-powered pump systems. (Solar-powered pumps are being used there to battle rising salinity in drinking water as sea levels rise.)

In other regions such as Africa, Eastern Europe or South America she admits it’s harder to say whether she has treated any better or worse than local women because all foreign workers sometimes operate in a cultural bubble, separated by their status as imported talent.

The toughest place to get the message across that you’re good at your job regardless of the fact you’re a woman is Australia, she reckons – although things are slowly improving. “Compared to 15 years ago, compared to five years ago, I think the landscape is changing. It’s a reflection of society in general that things are changing, and will always be changing.”

But young female engineers shouldn’t feel deterred, says Ratard, who led the development of the Hybrid Power Generation for Off-Grid Mines handbook for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. One of the perks of the job will always be the chance to go to remote places and solve other people’s problems. “There’s a lot to be learned in the cities but work can be so much more challenging out of the city and in terms of being able to change someone’s life and see that.”

As scholarship winner Ratard will be supported to take the Australian Institute of Company Directors Foundations of Directorship course.