Building Back Better Means Unleashing the Power of Women

Globally, an additional 47 million women are expected to fall into extreme poverty in 2021, particularly hitting women aged 25-34. In this age group, for every 100 men in poverty, there is expected to be 118 women by the end of the year. Energy can have a role to play in supporting women’s economic empowerment, but as governments try hard to build back better, some are making policy decisions that undermine that goal.

From New York to Nairobi, women all over the world are facing the similar challenges. Whether it’s family illness or school closures, it is women who more frequently must drop what they’re doing to care for the elderly or to teach children. While this is certainly a product of social expectations, it’s also a practical matter. Women across the world earn less than men, often working in less lucrative, more precarious job sectors, such as domestic work or hospitality. These are exactly the sectors hardest hit by the COVID-19.

As the world stumbles out of its pandemic-induced global recession, the lag in women’s participation in the workforce will be a real drag on the global economy – not to mention an economic and social disaster on a personal level for many women. In the US, women’s participation in the labor force drove most middle-class income gains over the past 40 years. Elsewhere, evidence from the World Bank suggests that gender equality in the workforce can have huge economic benefits, potentially increasing the GDP of a country like Niger by up to 23%.

There’s a lot that women need to facilitate re-entry into the workforce, such as childcare policies, social protections, and support for women-owned enterprises. While the solutions will look different from country to country, for women to participate in paid labor they need their health, enough time to take on work, and attractive labor opportunities with skills training. Health, time and opportunity are aspects that the energy sector can provide, if countries invest in gender-sensitive energy plans.


Every year, an estimated 4 million people premature deaths are attributed to household air pollution. It’s a death toll that’s greater than COVID-19 on an annual basis. One of the major contributors of household air pollution is lack of modern cooking technologies, and those health impacts disproportionately fall on women and children. These deaths – and the longer-term health impacts of household air pollution – have real economic impacts. The World Bank has estimated that health impacts and lost productivity due to lack of action on clean cooking costs the world $2 trillion each year.

And yet, in response to COVID-induced recessions, many governments have made budget decisions that plug short-term budget holes at the expense of programs supporting women’s health over the long-term. In Kenya, increased taxes on improved cookstoves (ICS) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) fuel will hinder efforts to reach universal access to clean cooking by 2030. It also runs counter to the country’s recently announced Gender Policy, which aims to promote clean cooking solutions, in part, through addressing affordability, a key barrier to ICS adoption. Duke researchers estimate that reintroducing the tax on ICS and LPG is likely to cost Kenya over $433 million USD in health and environmental impacts over the next ten years, even taking into account the government revenue raised. Despite that, Kenya maintained taxes on the majority of clean cooking products. However, it’s worth noting that Kenya did reinstate exemptions for SHS after a similar study found that a 20% import tariff could result in 300,000 fewer people gaining access to electricity per year.

It’s not just Kenya. Underinvestment in clean cooking is a worldwide phenomenon. The World Bank estimates that transition to universal clean cooking by 2030 would cost about $148-158 billion per year – an investment that would produce 16 times that amount in health, productivity and climate benefits. Of this cost, it is expected that approximately $50 billion per year will be borne by governments, development partners, and private sector investment. Although the World Bank’s ambitious $500 million Clean Cooking Fund expects to leverage $1 billion in investments, there’s clearly a long way to go.


While these numbers point to clean cooking producing a great economic and social return on investment, it’s important to realize what these numbers represent. Nearly half of that $2 trillion in annual costs from a lack clean cooking technology comes from lost productivity. Households can spend up to six hours a day collecting fuel, cooking and cleaning stoves, with that duty disproportionately falling to women. This is just one expression of the burden that women’s domestic tasks can have on their time use, which acts as a key barrier to participation in the paid workforce.

A recent study by my Duke colleagues found that ICS ownership saves households over 30 minutes a day on average from collecting fuel. Electricity access can also free up women’s time and provide greater flexibility in terms of when time is allocated to certain jobs. Electric lighting allows domestic tasks to take place in the evening. Refrigerators can allow food to be cooked in advance, stored longer, and re-heated at convenience. Sewing machines and other types of equipment can speed up chores, and can allow women to take on additional paid work. It should come as no surprise that wealthier women, who can afford to power more energy intensive appliances, actually save the most time.


What women do with the time that they save depends on what opportunities exist. One way for women to use that extra time is to work in the burgeoning clean energy sector. Globally, women represent only 22% of the energy sector workforce, but now make up 32% of the renewable energy sector. The renewable energy sector already represents over 11.5 million jobs globally, a figure expected to nearly triple by 2030.

However, even in the clean energy sector, women are more often found in administrative or communications positions, rather than higher-paying technical ones, with even fewer women in senior management positions. This is, in great part, because of a lack of STEM education for women and poor representation in positions of power.

Addressing these issues will require coordinated action to deliver training and career opportunities. The recent Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) regional Policy for Gender Mainstreaming in Energy Access asks member states to develop national action plans that tackle, among many other things, access to STEM education and energy internships for women.

These policies are inexpensive and could help bring women into a high growth sector and enable greater social mobility. In Ghana, the Ministry of Energy plans to increase vocational training in energy to the tune of 50,000 EUR a year, and it would cost only an additional 20,000 EUR a year to raise awareness by showcasing women in the energy sector. In Togo, supporting women’s career advancement within the Ministry will cost only 10,000 EUR per year. Some policies come with no financial cost. Mali’s Ministry of Energy aims to set aside 30% of public sector positions for women – a move that will cost nothing.

As governments and donors think about building back better from the pandemic, clean energy policies that support women’s re-entry into the workforce and enhance economic prosperity are critical. The energy sector can unlock essential ingredients for empowering women: good health, more time, and greater career opportunities. Incorporating these elements into energy policies can harness women as an engine for a clean, high-powered, and more equitable recovery.