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Woman-led wind turbine team advocates for improved gender representation

In an industry that wields just 14% women representation, Babalwa Kekana, demonstrates that the narrative can be challenged. 

Leading a team of 81, which comprises circa 80% men and 20% women, Kekana is the Head of Services for Nordex Energy South Africa, which undertakes the operations and maintenance function for nine wind farms.

The majority of the team consist of technically skilled people who have qualifications in mechatronics, mechanical, and electrical disciplines , the majority of which have completed Nordex wind turbine technician training, six of which are woman service technicians.

“There’s no doubt that the renewable energy industry in South Africa and globally has a long way to go to achieve gender diversity. Women still lag behind men in leadership and technical jobs in the renewable energy sector and even more so within my division, where technical and operational skills are pre-dominant. The general perceptions of appropriate gender roles driven by industry and societal norms, and the physical nature of technician roles, unfortunately contributes to the slow growth of woman representation. This is a status that I’d like to see challenged across the sector as I believe that women have unique qualities which include exceptional management and interpersonal skills that not only add value, but help to create a thriving industry and organisations,” said Kekana.

She entered the industry in its infancy, a decade ago, describing the technical and commercial environment as demanding and at times intimidating, especially in relation to the complexity around Wind Turbine Generators, which is driven by technical knowledge and mechanics. However, through mentoring and her ability to face challenges head-on, Kekana was able to take on the many demands.

“Personally, I have maintained a curious and flexible mindset throughout my career and had the great privilege of observing the industry’s development from the ground up and benefitted directly from being mentored by experienced international project managers during my early years who coached me through the entire value chain of the construction and operations of renewable projects. This learning has been profound and critical to my development, far more than any academic curriculum.  It is this experience that has enabled me to develop my leadership capabilities and provide direction and guidance to my service team,” she explained.

However, she points out that despite the company’s successful efforts to increase gender representation across management, it is a continuous challenge to access a pipeline of talent across the turbine maintenance areas of the business.

To rectify the current gender status, deep-rooted gender assumptions, which are sometimes cultural and unconscious, need to be tackled, increasing the number of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. 

The starting point, Kekana believes, is a clear industry plan that seeks to develop a diverse pipeline of women in the renewable industry. Secondly, organizations should focus on recruiting candidates with transferable skills who can bring diverse perspectives to the renewable field and lastly, renewable energy companies can set targets to increase the presence of women on boards, in leadership, and in the workforce.

“Having noted that during our recruitment process for the 2023/2024 internship program, there is an immense lack of women putting their hands up for internship opportunities which means awareness of the industry opportunities is still lacking, however we will continue our efforts to help debunk this misguided perception,” added Kekana.

Working together with industry associations to help affect broad change, Kekana supports the Gender Diversity Working Group’s endeavours to increase skills development from the grassroots up. In addition to this the Energy and Water Sector Education Training Authority (EWSETA) women’s management development programme, in collaboration with the South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA), launched this year to develop sector leadership.

“I am directly involved with SAWEA’s Working Group’s recently launched ‘Management Development Programme for Women in Renewable Energy’ along with three other of my colleagues. The exposure thus far has been very valuable in terms of networking with industry colleagues, in similar roles as myself,” concludes Kekana.