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Women in Energy: Zehra Aneek

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. 

1. Do you feel that your education and career path led you to where you are today? Were there mentors and cheerleaders along the way?

I have been fortunate to get access to one of the best educational institutions in the country (Pakistan). I did my Bachelor's and Master's in Business Administration from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), which equipped me to venture into varied sectors and organizations like Chevron, KFC Pakistan, British American Tobacco, and finally K-Electric Limited. Primarily a marketing and communications professional, policy and development was always a passion. My management background and growth mindset helped me evolve as an ESG and Sustainability professional. Innovation and value additions to your own personal brand are key for career advancement I joined K-Electric, at a time when it was going through a business and structural transformation, which gave me an opportunity to contribute to the wider core business functions and to build Sustainability as one of the core strategy pillars.

Throughout my career, I am lucky to meet and work closely with inspirational leaders both men and women, who encouraged me to build resilience and perseverance to handle any tough situation. I feel your biggest supporters are those who push your boundaries and throw you into challenging situations without giving gender any consideration. These are challenges that not only sharpen your survival skills but also carve you as a leader.

2. What in your view are some of the unique or complex challenges that women face when vying for a leadership position in the energy sector? Are there any effective strategies to address these?

The challenges are more unique and complex for women in the South Asian context.

Firstly, our cultural boundaries don’t nurture women as leaders and it has always been a boys’ club where men cheer for each other, and define gender-based limitations. Women are often trained to take a backseat and restrained to speak up to express their ideologies and make decisions for themselves. As a result, women avoid taking mainstream technical roles which require long-term commitment, longer hours of work, and above all requires quick decision-making skills. The energy sector is a classic example where men dominate most leadership positions majorly because over the years the traditional energy sector could not develop a diverse resource pipeline primarily because there was no intent from the sector to hire women in technical or leadership roles.

In my part workplace, I often used to be the only female leader at the table and this is the biggest challenge in the sector globally, and more so in our region. I feel my utmost responsibility is also myth-busting of gender stereotypes by being bold.  As a woman leader, I have implemented projects and entered territories that were perhaps totally male-dominated and unthinkable for a woman to enter. My approach has been to define my own limitations rather than someone else defining my limits. I have carved opportunities to fit for myself, not the other way around. I hope I have opened up new avenues for younger women to follow.

Secondly, sector-based networks are super essential for women leaders in energy.  Networks where they can build meaningful relationships, get support, and, most of all, where they can have a voice to discuss challenges as well as solutions and be heard within an exclusive space. A platform where women can form their own ‘girls club’, to cheer each other.

3. How is your organization or the energy sector in Pakistan in general attracting, retaining, and promoting a more gender-diverse workforce and more equity in senior management positions through this industry transformation? Is your organizational data on this publicly available?

The sector is evolving and diversity and inclusion at all levels are among key priorities. The numbers are increasing in the support function but the number of women in the technical and core functions is still low despite the fact that an equal number of women are graduating in STEM disciplines and equal opportunities are open at all levels. The regulators through policy and reforms are pushing for a more inclusive and diverse sector.

In the last few years, we have seen that there is a higher representation of women in leadership roles and management positions at large energy‑related multinational enterprises, many of whom have put in place corporate policies focused on diversity and inclusion. We also see an increase in women's representation at the board and C-level. The diversity agenda in most organizations including K-Electric is driven by the board and the focus is to create a diverse and inclusive talent pipeline along with family-friendly workplace policies. Another area of importance is the gender pay gap, nullifying the gap is key for the retention of women employees.

The factor which plays a pivotal role is the cultural sensitization within the organization especially in the South Asian context where men are not used to working with women leaders or women peers. Policies, reforms, and retrofitting workspaces for inclusivity will be meaningless if mindsets aren’t adapted to a diverse and mutually respectful culture. Clear behavioral metrics should be defined with an emphasis on collaborative work and cordial attitudes through the sensitization sessions and should also become part of the performance appraisal process.

K-Electric’s latest diversity and inclusion data is publicly reported annually and is available in its sustainability report in 2022.

4. What according to you are some of the biggest opportunities for women leaders in the sector today? Technology, economy, and regulatory forces are transforming the traditional energy sector. On one hand, there is increasing urgency to address climate change, use cleaner energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the other hand the world is powering up with rising energy demands.

The transition has instilled much enthusiasm about exhibiting greater purpose, promoting employee empowerment, facilitating collaboration inside and outside the organizations, and operating with higher levels of agility and entrepreneurialism.

In the workplace, women’s leadership is associated with increased transparency and equity around climate impact. A higher percentage of women on corporate boards and leadership positions positively correlates with a more purpose-driven and transparent leadership approach. The transition is also creating jobs in energy tech, renewables, responsible supply chains, and sustainability. These are some of the evolving new skills and professions which can be more women-centric.

Just transition is largely driven by women leaders and a great example of a women-led project based on climate equity is K-Electric’s ‘Women Neighborhood Safety Ambassadors Program “Roshni Baji’, (the light bearers) in which women from climate vulnerable communities which are mostly electricity theft prone are trained on various aspects of electrical safety and also certified as electricians. These women sensitize other women from the community on the adaptation of safer and more efficient habits around electricity usage and to convert from illegal unsafe usage of electricity to a legal networked connection. To date, these women have sensitized around 450,000 Women in a span of two years. These sensitized women are now equipped to make informed decisions for the safety of their households and can contribute towards efficient usage of electricity. The program simultaneously creates a trained women resource pool for KE and most of them after spending a year in the program become part of the permanent workforce at the officer level.

Another aspect to focus on is succession planning. Women leaders should ensure that they are nurturing strong women as their successors and a few of them are also being trained in core functions to fill traditionally male-centric leadership roles.

5. What are some untapped actions the energy and electricity sector could focus on to accelerate change, increase diversity, foster a better gender balance in leadership positions and empower more women to lead?

The few urgent perhaps ‘untapped actions are:

  • Exclusive STEM-based scholarships to get more women into energy and electrical utility-centric programs. More exposure and connection with future prospective employees at the university level via internships, projects, simulations labs, and knowledge-sharing platforms for women.
  • Concerted efforts to propel a diverse ecosystem for the transition based on entrepreneurial start-ups, suppliers, subject matter expert journalists, policymakers, researchers, and informed consumer representatives.
  • Collaborations with organizations focused on women’s capacity building and entrepreneurial grooming.
  • Women in energy-based platforms should ensure that women thought leaders and sector experts are showcased as role models. Younger women working in the sector should also be given equal opportunities to connect and inspire.
  • The energy sector should evolve as a robust, action-oriented, futuristic, and tech-based sector that can excite, attract and retain a diverse talent pool.

6. What would be your one practical recommendation to mentor or support women starting a career in energy or climate action in Pakistan or South Asia in general?

The energy sector stands out as one of the most dynamic and rapidly evolving sectors of our time. It experiences constant transformations driven by technological advancements, policy changes, and societal demands. It impacts and moves the world and it favors the bold and the courageous. The opportunities in this sector are infinite. Expand the opportunities which are given to you to fit your ambitions and tread on unfamiliar territories by defining your own limits. The cultural boundaries will eventually adapt if you have the courage, boldness, and grit to change perspectives and break the glass ceilings. 

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