Women in Energy: Samantha Hung

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 in organizations.


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. This is our first interview with a gender expert representing a developmental finance institute within the series.

1. What role did your education have in your career path in gender equality? Were there any obstacles that your younger self needed to overcome?

My initial university education had no direct role in my career path because I originally graduated with double degrees in Commerce and Law (Hons) from the University of Melbourne and these courses did not include any subjects related to gender equality. That being said, my legal and commerce undergraduate degrees provided me with strong analytical skills which can be applied in any profession. And the understanding of international law and how this applies to global commitments such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (or CEDAW) has always been helpful. In addition, having spent my childhood growing up as an expatriate in Asia and having attended international schools, gave me a natural interest in working and living internationally and a career with a world perspective.

As a young graduate, I did not want to enter a legal or commercial profession like most of my peers. Instead, I decided to volunteer for what was then called Australian Volunteers International and was sent as a fresh inexperienced graduate to Vietnam to work for a year on a large UNICEF ‘microfinance plus’ program targeting poor rural women. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it was an exciting adventure and felt meaningful. My volunteer year was definitely not easy. Vietnam was much less developed back in the 1990s and nothing like the modern country it is now. I spent my time doing in-depth field research on women’s saving behaviors and health communication and this meant long periods in remote locations, often having to walk hours to the next village, staying in very basic accommodation, and with limited supplies. In those days, email and mobile phones were limited, and international phone charges were very expensive, so it was difficult to communicate with my family and friends back home. But it taught me a lot about myself and what motivated me, and most importantly, that I had a passion and interest in a career in international development and gender equality. I truly believe that you gain so much more from volunteering than you give, mostly from human engagement and interaction. Being immersed in the culture and living economically on a volunteer stipend gave me deep exposure to the local way of life and forced me to learn the language. The women and families I worked with were very poor, but they were so warm and kind. And my local colleagues at UNICEF and Vietnam Women’s Union were very passionate about making a difference in people’s lives, which rubbed off on me. Most importantly, I learned the huge potential that could come from investing in women’s economic empowerment and education.

It was only after this life-changing volunteering experience that I decided I wanted to pursue a career in international development with a specialization in gender equality. Coming home to Australia was challenging and although I landed a good job at Legal Aid working to provide legal assistance to disenfranchised youth and refugees, it was nowhere near as rewarding compared to my Vietnam volunteering experience. I thought that I needed to have a relevant additional qualification under my belt to pursue an international development career, so I enrolled in postgraduate study part-time while working and graduated with a Master’s in Public Policy (International Development) two years later, during which I completed a thesis on gender socialization in early childhood in Vietnam. More recently, while at ADB, I also completed a Master’s equivalent in Human Resource Management part-time while working, which is a valuable qualification for any management role.

2. How did you carve out the career path you are on now empowering and championing the rights of women and girls, addressing discrimination, and promoting gender equality?

I was extremely fortunate that UNICEF Vietnam hired me back as a staff member on a term contract for two years after my volunteering experience, again working on their Gender and Development Program, but more in a project officer role. This gave me solid training and legitimacy to pursue further professional roles and kick-started my career path as a gender and development specialist. I went on to work in various gender specialist roles in different organizations and countries, including the Institute of Development Studies attached to the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK; the Australian Government Office for the Status of Women in Canberra, Australia; Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Suva, Fiji; and the New Zealand Agency for International Development in Wellington, New Zealand, before joining ADB. Each of these jobs allowed me to strengthen and broaden my technical gender expertise to new contexts. I was then recruited by ADB as a gender specialist back in 2009. After several years, I took a break from gender to gain other professional exposure as a senior advisor to one of ADB’s Vice Presidents, followed by a stint in our HR and Budget Department, and then as Deputy Representative of ADB’s European Representative Office in Frankfurt, Germany, before coming back full circle to take on my current role as Chief of Gender Equality. This varied experience working as a gender specialist for different organizations in different countries, and then learning the corporate side of ADB’s business, has been invaluable for my role in leading ADB’s gender equality work. I believe that regular professional change is positive and your career does not need to be linear, rather you build on and take the learning from each role to enhance how you apply yourself for the next one.

3. How does ADB support women’s empowerment and advance gender equality through its energy-related work?

At ADB we take a comprehensive approach that begins with mainstreaming gender in our projects, ensuring that women participate and benefit from energy projects, and supporting policy and institutional reforms to eliminate barriers to women’s participation in the energy sector. Energy projects often include training and capacity building to provide women with the skills to participate in the energy sector. We also finance energy projects that support women-led businesses. When designing energy projects, we consider gender at all stages - from design to implementation, and we monitor and report on gender equality results. As projects are prepared, through gender analysis or sector assessments, we identify gender-related gaps and then include activities and designs to specifically address these gaps. For example, the Tonga Outer Island Renewable Energy Project is helping to build solar-powered plants and is providing clean energy jobs for women in a sector that has been traditionally male-dominated and has even met its target before the completion of employing 30% of women.

ADB’s 2021 Energy Policy recognizes the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment in the energy sector and emphasizes the need for gender-responsive energy policies, programs, and projects that take into account the needs of women and men and their roles in the use of energy, production, and access. The policy also promotes women’s participation and leadership, including their role in decision-making as energy entrepreneurs, consumers, and users. So overall it not only looks at women as beneficiaries but also as actors in the energy transition.

Another aspect is that mainstreaming gender in the energy sector is closely related to the education sector and what actions we take to prepare girls and women for future careers in energy. Investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for girls are critical to building a pipeline of women ready to take on jobs and leadership positions in the energy sector. I am encouraged by the fact that more women are participating in renewable energy at 32% compared to non-renewable energy, which averages 22% globally. However, once women break into these jobs, we need to address the barriers which contribute to a “leaky pipeline” of women’s talent in energy. Much of this has to do with the lack of a supportive environment where family-friendly human resource policies are not in place, or companies lack mechanisms to address sexual harassment. Our private sector operations colleagues regularly work with client companies to introduce gender-responsive human resource policies, including on sexual harassment and conducting gender sensitivity training among staff and management.

4. What are some of the critical climate policies and plans that must be prioritized by governments, public and private sector, to ensure that women and girls benefit from just transition?

For just transition to be fair and equitable, it needs to address gender equality and consider women as key stakeholders. I would say there are five critical policy and programmatic areas for women: gender-responsive climate policies; access to education and training; social protection; energy planning with women’s participation; and access to finance. Women’s voices need to be better represented in all aspects of decision-making around the energy transition.

Climate policies need to be more gender-responsive by taking into account the different needs and experiences of women, but also to allocate the necessary resources for ensuring that their implementation includes targets and approaches that reduce gender gaps in access to resources and engage women as agents of change in the energy transition. To enable women to participate in the energy transition, policies and investments are needed to provide women with skills development and career advancement for women in green jobs, to ensure that women have equal opportunities to benefit from the transition to low-carbon economies. Given that women may be more vulnerable to job losses and other economic disruptions from just transition, social protection for women such as income support, retraining and skills development, and support for women’s businesses affected by the transition will be needed. In other words, gender-responsive social protection. And finally, energy planning needs to also consider women’s specific needs and barriers, but equally important, the opportunities to engage women in renewable energy, productive use of energy, and as energy entrepreneurs. Here in Asia, we have great examples of women leading small-scale and large-energy entrepreneur initiatives, from selling solar panels in villages to leading renewable energy companies.

5. Do you have any practical recommendations for younger women pursuing a career in gender equality?

Know your passion, work out what you want to do, where your strengths are, and what suits you personally, then let that drive your career decisions. When you are clear about your goals, then you can target your efforts more effectively. Life is too short to not enjoy your work and you want to have a job that motivates you to get up in the morning. If you’re passionate about what you do, there is no doubt you will make a positive contribution.

If you want to pursue a gender equality career in international development, it’s important to get your foot in the door to gain practical experience. Do your research on the range of alternative employers – from UN agencies, NGOs, and government departments, to consulting firms – and sign-up for a range of employment website sites such as Devex. Be realistic and prepared to volunteer, intern, or take your less-than-ideal job so that you can acquire practical knowledge of the sector and build your CV. Be flexible, receptive to opportunities that come your way, brave to take risks and put your hand up for stretch assignments, and always be willing to learn. Demonstrate your soft skills such as cultural understanding, communication, and negotiation, in addition to technical expertise, as these are often highly valued by employers and will help you to be successful. Invest in networking in person and on social media (e.g. LinkedIn) and seek our mentors who can guide you at different stages of your professional journey.

Lastly, you can advocate and speak out for gender equality wherever you are, even if that is not your actual job. For example, support your women colleagues, try to increase women’s representation in your organization, and make your workplace a more gender-inclusive place to work.

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