Women in Energy: Eleonora Kazakova
The Women in Energy series is a joint project between USEA and USAID to help improve the visibility of women's participation and leadership in the traditionally male-dominated energy sector and their active participation in policies and gender outcomes at their respective organizations and the sector overall.
Every month we feature a woman who has shown exemplary leadership. The women highlighted come from diverse backgrounds and roles, and they bring with them a unique perspective on gender equality within the energy sector. We believe that increasing women's leadership and participation in decision-making for climate policies needs active communications campaigns and championing that catalyze behavioral change and urgent action.
1. How have both your education and career path led you to where you are now?
I chose my first profession – a translator, philologist, and French instructor – myself, having graduated from the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the Kyrgyz State University in Bishkek. It was my professional knowledge of a foreign language that opened up the opportunity for me to get a second degree – in the field of management and economics – in France. And my third and current profession chose me. In France, I met like-minded partners who offered cooperation in the field of energy – small hydro. “The Little Switzerland of Central Asia,” as Kyrgyzstan is sometimes called for the similarity of mountain landscapes, picturesque pastures, and water resources, attracted French investors for its water energy potential. After examining dozens of sites of abandoned small hydroelectric power stations (HPPs), we finally chose a station that French specialists decided to restore. It was a pilot project – you can call it a "start-up" – and the first restored small HPP in Kyrgyzstan, which in 1997 received the first license of a private independent electricity producer in our country. My professional knowledge of a foreign language, managerial knowledge and skills, and teamwork with foreign and local energy specialists opened the field of energy for me, which I now consider my specialty. I have devoted a career to the field of green energy, and our pilot project turns 25 years of age. I think more than a dozen other companies failed to adapt to ever-changing economic realities, but our small HPP and our close-knit team hung on. I'm very proud of it! And I am pleased to boast that my contribution to the industry was recognized. In 2019, in honor of the 85th anniversary of the country's energy sector, I was presented with a personalized watch from the Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic.
2. What obstacles have you experienced as a woman pursuing an education and career in the energy industry? What obstacles do women vying for leadership spots face in this sector?
I personally did not experience any obstacles in my career choices. My parents were both engineers and, in our family, there was never a question of limiting interests based on gender. I can confidently say that in Kyrgyzstan there are many universities and colleges that offer a wide range of specialties in various fields, without gender restrictions. This also applies to the energy sector. Obviously, however, there were societal stereotypes and limiting beliefs about women in technical specialties and how it is more difficult for them and can adversely affect their health and motherhood. Therefore, statistically, from school onwards, girls are less interested in technical subjects and less likely to choose technical professions compared to boys.
According to the National Statistical Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic, there are more girls (52%) among students at higher educational institutions. Girls dominate in the field of education (86%), while boys dominate in technical sciences (69%). As of January 01, 2022, women dominate in real estate (96%), education (79%), healthcare, and social services (78%). There are more men in construction (99%), mining, transport activities, and storage of goods (96% each). The number of business executives is distributed similarly – there are more women executives in health care, education, and real estate, and more men leaders in construction, mining, and transport. At the same time, education and healthcare are among the lowest paid economic activities, while construction and mining are among the highest paid. (http://stat.kg/ru/news/cifry-i-fakty-o-nas-zhenshiny-i-muzhchiny-v-kyrgyzstane/)
Add to this regional, national, and religious traditions. Despite the fact that the countries of Central Asia are secular states, Muslim traditions often limit girls from choosing their professions where there are more freely. In particular, there are implicit restrictions on the appointment of women to senior positions in the public sector, although officially there are no such restrictions in the legislation.
According to the results of a recent gender perception survey in Kyrgyzstan, about 80% of both men and women believe that in a family environment, a woman should take care of the house and the children, and a man should earn money.
I feel women can happily manage time for work and family. The role of the state, in this regard, is very important. If Kyrgyzstan could build enabling social conditions supporting motherhood and child benefits, women would have more opportunities to significantly contribute to any sector, including in the field of energy.
3. Technology is transforming the traditional utility business model into a more modern interactive grid. Some utilities view this transformation as an opportunity to focus on innovation and diversity, which research has shown to drive better business performance. How is your organization attracting, retaining, and promoting more women into senior management positions to respond to this industry transformation? Is company data on this publicly available?
Our small hydropower plant employs 12 people. The two main leadership positions are held by women. That would be me as the head of the company and our chief accountant. The direct operation of the hydroelectric power station, which is located in the mountains, is provided by male electricians. To a certain extent, we can say that there is decision-making parity in our team – women in management provide the strategic direction of the enterprise, and men provide professional operation and maintenance of power equipment. Everyone feels secure in their place to ensure the coordinated work of our enterprise.
There is no gender-related training offered at our company because, as a small power producer, we do not offer any kind of training. However, I believe that the fact that the company's leaders are women suggests that there is no gender discrimination in our team.
At the same time, the development of new technologies of today, including the operation of modern power plants of low and medium power, allow facilities to operate in the absence of personnel, with remote control. Such facility management innovations, including in the energy sector, provide new opportunities for women to enter new careers in the energy sector that will optimize women's employment.
4. What changes in the sector at large do you think have launched more women into leadership positions?
There are no legal restrictions preventing women from achieving leadership positions in Kyrgyzstan. However, since in the public sector the selection to fill vacancies, including those for leadership positions, occurs through a competition, men will always find reasons to reject a female candidate, using her family responsibilities as the excuse for rejection. It is necessary to establish clear quotas for vacancies by law, that ensure the participation of more women, including in leadership positions.
In the private sector, things are different with practically no restrictions for women in choosing their careers. The development of small and medium-sized businesses opens up equal opportunities for women, along with men. The renewable energy sector, in Kyrgyzstan, has a “female face.” A number of specialized associations, foundations, and non-governmental organizations in our country are headed by women who are actively working both in the production sector and in promoting new technologies, improving the regulatory legal framework in the renewable energy sector and energy efficiency, and popularizing energy specialties among young people and girls in particular.
5. What are some untapped actions the energy and electricity sector could focus on to accelerate change, increase diversity, and foster a better gender balance in the boardroom?
Energy is an industry without which it is impossible to imagine life on earth today. This means that activities in the energy sector will always be in demand. A profession in high demand can always provide a person with a proper standard of living. There are so many interesting and necessary things in this area that it can be equally attractive for both men and women. In addition to basic technical subjects at school, such as mathematics, physics or chemistry, it is necessary to popularize various professions in the energy sector so that by the end of school, young people can confidently make a choice in favor of energy.
The operation of many energy facilities today is run by digital technology and includes activities not associated with heavy physical labor. These include engineering, design, dispatching, production economics, law, and finance, with their own “energy” specifics. Here, women can achieve professional fulfillment.
At the same time, there are certain actions that could foster a better gender balance and will allow women to take a more significant place in the energy sector. These include promoting opportunities in renewable energy in the education system, introducing legislative norms to fill vacancies with an equal gender balance, establishing guarantees – at state-owned enterprises – that a woman’s job will be available to her after her maternity leave, and creating more kindergartens and opportunities for telecommuting.
6. What could be your one practical recommendation to mentor younger women pursuing a career in energy or climate action?
Currently, Kyrgyzstan has a number of programs in various areas aimed at greater involvement of girls and women in careers related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Among them is the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative, an International Public Foundation that is conducting research of the system of school and out-of-school education and implementing a mentoring program for at least 15,000 girls. The mentoring program has a special focus on girls from migrant families and vulnerable groups to enable them to make informed choices of STEM careers and acquire the skills necessary to help break the cycle of poverty in their communities.
The USAID Regional Energy of the Future Program, Power Central Asia, and Women in Energy projects are aimed at supporting female students in energy-related fields, facilitating their employment in the energy sector, as well as creating a single platform for women employed in the energy sector in Central Asia, where they will be heard and will have the opportunity to realize their aspirations and potential.
We have the opportunities and the potential!
To conclude, I would like to quote the famous Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho “There is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It's your mission on earth.”