Kanika Chawla, policy specialist in renewable energy and financial markets, talks openly about the importance of mentors and support groups in building successful careers.
I have only ever worked in energy policy and I love it. More specifically, I work on renewable energy markets and finance, including the role of policy in advancing both markets and the availability of finance for renewable energy and the energy transition in emerging economies. That doesn’t make for easy dinner party introductions. My response to the all-too-common question, ‘What do you do?’ gets all sorts of reactions. Everything from yawns (both real and metaphorical) and blank stares to the occasional look of admiration. However, what I don’t get enough of is an understanding of what that means.
The expectation itself could be cast aside as unfair. Public policy careers, working at a governmental and/or institutional level on shaping policy, are still not mainstream, and there is even less understanding of the sub-sections of such work. Furthermore, there is the troubling reality of the skewed ratio of men to women in the workforce. At the dark intersection of these two factors lies the problem of why not enough women build careers in public policy. The absence of well-defined linear career trajectories and not enough female role models can be quite daunting. I often end up visiting anxiety, my old friend, when the usual stresses of work are combined with external perceptions around the nature of my work, particularly its suitability for men. My work requires an understanding of the energy system, scientific enquiry, financial analysis, data interpretation, team management, and a significant amount of travel. This, to a lot of people, sounds like a man’s role. Women must be caring, prioritise personal goals, and choose ‘ladylike’ professions, not chase power, high-flying careers or big salaries. How often have we been told this?
Left unresolved, these issues result in self-doubt and a self-selection process by women to not chase leadership positions or to leave the workforce. For a country like India, which has been ranked 108 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, which evaluates a number of dimensions from economic opportunities to political empowerment, the road to addressing these gaps will be long and rough. While systemic corrections will require decades of social, behavioural, and economic advances, there is an urgent need to build mechanisms that support the careers of women, and nudge these advances along.
In my experience, mentorship and access to a community is one such potent tool. Throughout my career I have benefitted a great deal from active mentorship. Feeling heard, recognised, and understood – even if just by a few – can go a long way in supporting women (and men) through phases of professional anxiety. Much of my professional drive can be attributed to having the support of my mentors, who have displayed faith in me even when I have questioned myself. They have led by example and built successful careers and communities, all against the odds. Be resilient, you will be told, but how, you might ask? This is what mentors are for. The challenges, while different for each of us, are not unique when viewed as a whole. Mentors and support groups help us keep perspective, help us persevere.
I have been fortunate to have found mentors in my bosses. However, it may not always be that straightforward or that may not even be adequate. In an attempt to make a community more accessible, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), where I work, started the Women in Sustainability (WIS) initiative. WIS is a network of individuals and institutions, which seeks to promote greater participation, inclusiveness, and visibility of women at all levels of the sustainability workforce. It endeavours to recognise and recommend affirmative actions to counter the challenges that restrict women from entering the sustainability workforce, taking on leadership roles, and receiving due recognition.
WIS is not alone. Another initiative close to my heart is the Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition (GWNET), started by one of my mentors, with a dedicated mentorship programme. The Sisters too is yet another step to encourage the coming together of a community. However, these alone will not move the needle. Each one of us needs to become an agent of change. We need to believe in ourselves, and in each other, to do anything we set our minds to, because there really is no such thing as a non-ladylike profession.
Kanika Chawla is a policy specialist, working at the intersection of renewable energy and financial markets. As Senior Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), Kanika manages the Council’s work on renewable energy policy, markets, finance and socio-economic benefits. Her current responsibilities include analysing financial risks affecting renewable energy investments in emerging economies, decoding market dynamics, managing the Council’s periodic surveys on renewable energy jobs, and convening a high-level working group on renewable energy policy and finance. Kanika holds an MSc in Economics and Development Economics from the University of Nottingham and an undergraduate honours degree in Economics from Miranda House, University of Delhi.