Dr. Reihana Mohideen, a policy expert on how to factor social considerations into engineering systems and models in the power and energy sector, has firsthand experience of the obstacles faced by women in technology.
Early in her career, during a job interview for an electrical engineering position at a utility in Australia, she was asked if she could climb utility poles.
It’s a small but telling example of the challenges women face to participation in technical fields, even though the perspectives, knowledge, and experiences of women are essential to technology advancement. As a result, females don’t always enjoy an equal chance to benefit or contribute, which limits the overall progress toward advancing technology to benefit society.
Throughout her career, Reihana has seen positive changes towards gender equality in the industry, although there is still much to be done. For example, renewable energy—the fastest-growing energy source globally—employs more women compared to the overall energy sector. Still, within renewables, women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs is far lower than in administrative jobs. The inequality is even more evident at decision-making levels.
As another example, technical standards for the generation, transmission, and distribution of electrical power in the developing world are most effective when they take into account the fundamental and sizable roles women play in these economies. On a practical, day-to-day basis the affordability and accessibility of electrical power often impacts women more than men in these societies. Therefore, for optimum system design, the gender implications of the technical aspects need to be considered.
To facilitate technical progress by increasing the participation of women in standards development and related activities, the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) has initiated a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) workstream within the Dignity, Inclusion, Identity, Trust, and Agency (DIITA) Program, as a joint collaboration with the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT). Reihana, along with other volunteers coming from different countries and disciplines, are contributing to this workstream.
|Dr. Reihana Mohideen is an electrical engineer and a Principal Advisor on social implications of technology at the Nossal Institute, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of Women and the Energy Revolution in Asia. Learn more.|
Standardization is Key to Addressing the Socio-Technical Divide
As the Chair of the GESI workstream, Reihana has worked for many years as a researcher and an international development specialist with strong links to the Asian Development Bank to promote social and economic development in Asia. Her body of work includes the integration of both policy-level and practical GESI-related considerations into power sector projects in developing countries that total more than $1 billion.
Reihana says standards development is a natural outgrowth of her work with IEEE, which looked at issues of energy, electrical power, and gender. “I saw that my understanding of policy, regulation, and gender equity in industry could be applied to the process of standards development,” she said.
“For example, many women in developing countries spend several hours a day collecting water from the nearest water source, or pounding grain,” she said. “Rather than designing power systems that are really only able to provide light, if we could implement last-mile systems that will deliver a threshold level of electrical power, then water could be pumped much closer to the women’s homes, or electrical grinders could be powered to dramatically reduce the time women have to spend working with grain, freeing them to spend their time in other ways, such as earning an income to improve their lives, education, and training activities or simply having more leisure time,” she said.
“This is all very much practical, on-the-ground work that requires engagement with government ministries, utilities, consumers, engineers, communities, and others, and it becomes clear when you do that you have to learn how to effectively negotiate this social-technical divide. The policy planning process is really key to this, and standards development is important to implementing policy choices.”
Gender Equality Accelerates Technology Advancement
As an IEEE SA Industry Connections activity, DIITA focuses on the fact that because many areas of human activity today are technology-based, people excluded from technology are thereby excluded from key domains of human endeavor.
This exclusion may arise from gender discrimination, affordability, availability, safety concerns, or other reasons, and DIITA considers when and how these causes of exclusion can be addressed through standardization and related solutions.
The GESI workstream seeks to propose technical standards that integrate gender equality into policy, planning, and system design, based on the following key elements:
- Women and girls are drawn into the processes by which technology is designed, developed, and used.
- People regardless of gender can afford and access appropriate technologies.
- A supportive environment for women in technology is created through standards-based solutions and policies.
“Our premise is that gender equality is essential to foster and advance technology to benefit humanity,” stated the GESI workstream.
Toward this goal, the workstream believes that evaluation of social and economic consequences are important and all efforts in this space should be monitored through appropriate metrics. The metrics will be based on the following key areas:
- Demographic information about access to electrical energy/power and internet and communication technology.
- Demographic information about access to education, safe water on demand, health services.
- Improved outdoor and indoor air quality.
- Policy statements on universal access to technology and their gender appropriate formulation by state, province, and jurisdiction.
- Information about major public and private infrastructure projects in support of the above.
Launched in June 2021, the GESI workstream has begun to put together a framework to understand gender equality in a technological context, drawing on gender equity principles from the United Nations. Its output will include a white paper offering guidance on how to incorporate gender equity into technical standards.
The GESI workstream has about a dozen members offering a wealth of cross-disciplinary and international experience, comprising female and male electrical engineers from utilities, technology companies, startups, and academia; planners and policymakers; health systems experts; digital security experts; and others. Any interested individuals from around the world are welcome to participate.