“You can be anything”—Barbie’s power quest

Actress Margot Robbie wearing a stunning sequinned strapless black dress and matching gloves at the Barbie world premiere
Image: Shutterstock

By Anna Collyer, Chair of the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC)

A blockbuster movie about the world’s most iconic doll is nearly upon us, I’m sure you’ve noticed; Like Barbie or hate Barbie, everyone knows her. She’s a veteran of the toy industry and if you believe the hype, her movie is about to rake in $100 million dollars, just in its opening weekend.

So, what prompts a chair of the rule maker for electricity and gas markets and a recent appointee as an Equality Initiative Ambassador to write about Barbie? The answer is sitting behind me.

On a shelf in my home office I have four eco-leadership Barbies, a Mother’s Day gift to me from my husband. They’re made from recycled materials and, critically, dressed in sensible clothes and flat shoes appropriate to their respective roles as a renewable energy engineer, sustainability officer, environmental scientist and climate activist.

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The release of the eco-leadership range added to the repertoire of possible careers for Barbie and reinforced the reason she was created in the first place, for girls to imagine, ‘You can be anything’, and to role-play a future they may not have otherwise known was available to them.

But the upcoming release of the film will inevitably prompt familiar conversations about what is possible for women today and what might be holding us back. After the glitter settles, what are we really doing to level the playing field, particularly when it comes to encouraging diversity in the energy sector?

I was surprised—but probably shouldn’t have been—to read recently that only a third of the top 100 grossing films last year featured female protagonists, in the same way you might be surprised—but probably aren’t—to hear that energy has one of Australia’s lowest female representations of any industry.

Women continue to comprise less than 40% of the workforce in clean energy and closer to 20 per cent across the whole sector, making energy the third most male-dominated industry in Australia after mining and construction. The numbers are far worse if you exclude the public sector, and truly appalling in executive roles where, in fact, even construction and mining outshine energy at the CEO and head of business level.

With the scale of the build ahead of us, we have the opportunity to tackle both the challenges of diversity and net zero by supporting more women in technical roles— engineering and the trades—otherwise, we simply won’t have enough people to get the work done. The latest estimate is that up to 30,000 new workers will be needed.

Smiling woman with short hair in light pink sweater (barbie)
AEMC chair Anna Collyer

And we increasingly need different skills to solve the new problems that are emerging, whether it be working with communities to find space for 10,000km of new poles and wires, or the invention of new businesses to support household management of rooftop solar, electric vehicles and batteries.

We’re also seeing the scope for extraordinary technological innovation to operate our rapidly transforming system reliably and safely—which means working creatively and collaborating between research, development, investment and regulation. Due to the shifting nature of energy towards variable and dispersed renewable energy, opportunities will only grow for the highly valuable ‘power skills’ that women tend to bring.

As chair of the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC), my objective is to use my role as an Equality Initiative Ambassador to continue to focus on leadership and development. We in the sector need to remind ourselves about the importance of identifying talent and nurturing it, as well as being more open-minded about what diverse candidates can bring when it comes to leadership.

At the AEMC, we’re proud that 55% of our staff overall identify as female and at least 50% at every level of seniority. Recent data confirms too, that we maintain gender pay equity across the organisation. In fact, our current pay structure is slightly in favour of women.

Importantly, we’ve plugged a crucial gap by paying superannuation throughout paid and unpaid parental leave for both men and women. We also continue to provide flexibility to our employees to work both at home and in the office. Without that, I wouldn’t be in my own job.

We haven’t struck the perfect balance, but we have made a strong start. Why? Because in the midst of the enormous transformation towards a decarbonised energy system, we need innovative, creative minds and that means accessing the collective brilliance of diverse perspectives.

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If Barbie can be an icon in breaking stereotypes and promoting diversity, surely we in the energy sector can manage to create safe and inclusive environments for women to contribute and thrive?

The urgency of our work to reduce energy’s impact on the planet, while maintaining reliable supply, is too important to risk leaving anyone behind. To quote Isabelle Hudon, a co-chair in the global Equal by 30 campaign, ‘we must harness all possible talent, to discover the breakthrough solutions that will transform energy and the world’.

And if we’re talking about harnessing every possible talent then, love ‘em or hate ‘em, I’d say that even includes the diverse team of carbon-neutral, eco-leadership Barbies in comfortable shoes.

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