Expert Q&A: Jessica Menon Discusses Advancing Gender Equality for Women in the Global Energy Workforce
Jessica Menon, Tetra Tech’s gender integration director for energy, has advanced gender equality and social inclusion globally for 20 years. Based in Lusaka, Zambia, she manages Tetra Tech’s USAID Engendering Industries program, oversees a team of technical experts who also support USAID Enhancing Equality in Energy for Southeast Asia (E4SEA), and provides technical support to gender specialists across Tetra Tech’s international energy services projects. Jessica works with leadership and management teams at more than 40 energy and water utilities in nearly 30 countries around the world, supporting them to improve gender equality and opportunities for women in male-dominated industries.
Jessica also supports gender and inclusion integration across a host of Tetra Tech energy programs and developed guidance to integrate gender into energy innovations for entrepreneurship as part of USAID’s Powering Agriculture innovation program. Jessica has designed multiple innovative tools to promote gender equality, from leadership training courses under USAID to a gender analysis web application. She also developed the USAID Toolkit for Monitoring and Evaluating Gender-based Violence Interventions along the Relief to Development Continuum and a series of guides on integrating gender in infrastructure.
Jessica holds a graduate degree in International Policy and Development from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also has a certificate in refugee and humanitarian emergencies from the Georgetown Institute for International Migration.
*Note: In July 2021, the USAID Engendering Utilities program transitioned to Engendering Industries, a name that reflects the program’s expansion into male-dominated industries outside of the power and water sectors. This interview preceded the name change.
In the five years you have been managing the Engendering Industries program, what kinds of changes in gender understanding and equality have you seen among the utilities Tetra Tech works with in developing countries?
Traditionally, it is a heavily male-dominated sector—only 25 percent of the energy workforce is women. We’re making changes throughout the employee life cycle, making sure there are opportunities for women in what are usually more lucrative technical and leadership positions. Lately, we’ve been getting more traction with our utility partners, as they’ve been able to show increased revenues now that they have more women in the field and in leadership. Utilities also are becoming role models for each other. In the Dominican Republic, Edesur Dominicana is very outspoken about gender-based violence. The CEO told the Ministry of Labor that paternity leave is critical for the workplace environment and for shifting cultural norms about childcare expectations for men and women. That’s influencing changes nationally and having a ripple effect. A manager at the Nigerian utility Eko Electricity Distribution Company, committed to talk to his employees in the field regularly about gender norms and sexual harassment. I am so honored to be part of this program and to witness that change.
How can changes in energy jobs and workplace culture support gender equality in the industry?
Pervasive cultural norms about what is acceptable for women to do or not do, such as manual labor, still exist in many places. But with technology advancements, many tasks that were once considered heavy manual labor may have changed and now require lucrative skill sets, which may be attractive to women and open opportunities to them.
But that isn’t enough—what we’ve seen with Engendering Industries is that utilities can get a richer talent pool when they demonstrate that women can get a job, thrive, and grow. CEOs at partner utilities have publicly stated that gender equality is one of the key pillars of their business strategy. That has proven to attract more women, who see that employer as a place where they can be safe and respected and have opportunity for upward mobility in their career. That goes a lot further than the natural technological progression of the industry.
How have you seen the evidence that gender equality improves utility business performance reflected in Tetra Tech's work with utilities?
This is something we see quite a bit at many of our utilities, and BSES Rajdhani Power Limited (BRPL) in India is a good example. All our partner utilities experience revenue loss. Energy theft and nonpayment of bills are some of the most challenging, critical business issues that many utilities face. At BRPL, they would keep sending men to read meters and collect bills, and the men would be turned away from homes where women are home alone and don’t want to let a man inside. Shivani Kumar, the general manager of customer care and one of our Engendering Industries participants, had an idea to train a team of 40 women in collections and reevaluated their approach. They got to know community members on a first-name basis, talked about the importance of paying the bills, and listened to reasons why people had trouble paying. This woman-led team got to nearly 100 percent collections in that area. Now BRPL is replicating the approach in other areas, and other utilities are also doing it. It’s not just about collecting bills; it’s about taking the opportunity to innovate and improve by harnessing ideas from a diverse group of people.
How does Engendering Industries training help leaders increase opportunities for women working in utilities?
We run a 12-month executive leadership program with Georgetown University that includes biweekly change management coaching. One of the criteria for our utility partners on Engendering Industries is that senior management demonstrate not only that they understand gender equality is good for their business, but also that they are willing to take a leadership role and be a champion in this area. Industries send three senior managers to this program, including people who are influential and can make changes in policies and practices. Too often, when an organization is doing work on gender equality, they send the most junior person to do it—someone who can come up with sound plans but doesn’t have the power to make changes. When you have an active, engaged team of leaders who can push that work forward, magic happens.
We are now piloting an accelerated version of the program to get people started in gender equality. It includes a train-the-trainers program where we partnered with five local universities with highly skilled faculty in Nigeria, Kenya, Vietnam, Colombia, and Eastern Europe. They’ll learn how to facilitate a one-week intensive program centered around the Engendering Industries best practices framework. Participants will leave with a gender action plan and then get five virtual coaching sessions on change management while they implement it. The goal is to create momentum, because little changes create more momentum to do more.
How else is Tetra Tech contributing to gender equality in the global energy sector?
Tetra Tech has many projects where gender is an integrated component. Powering Agriculture and the Water and Energy for Food Grand Challenge are supporting innovative entrepreneurs and approaches at the nexus of energy, agriculture, and water. In those projects, Tetra Tech has integrated gender into criteria for innovators applying for funds and has a gender specialist to help innovators improve their products, outreach, marketing, customer service, and internal operations. For a while, we’ve also been integrating gender into broader projects that are focused on institutional reforms, such as looking at opportunities for mentorship or workforce development. Within the project framework, we make sure that women’s organizations and female policymakers are involved in changes in the energy sector. Now, we’re working on ways to really systematize and strengthen our approach, both in gender-specific energy programming and embedding lessons from Engendering Industries into our other programs. In Southeast Asia, we’re tailoring the accelerated program model to seven countries under E4SEA and working with academic partners to address the talent and outreach pipeline for women in STEM careers. On the USAID Sustainable Energy for Pakistan project, we applied Engendering Industries’ assessment principles and developed a mentorship program for women with energy employers. And on the USAID Sustainable Energy for Indonesia's Advancing Resilience project, we’re working on finding potential energy employer partners to support with gender best practices.