Aline Kirsten Vidal de Oliveira and Kathlen Schneider are two of the co-founders of MESol. We talked about their careers and how they promote gender equality.
How did you move from a research-oriented career to advocating gender equality in the solar energy industry in Brazil?
Kathlen: We studied at the same institution with Aline where I completed my master’s last year and where now she is doing PhD. Then I became the director of the IDEA institute founded by our tutor, professor Ricardo Rüther. So we are still like the same family where I wear a different hat and work more directly on IDEA institute projects. My research project was about community-owned solar energy projects. I am still working on that context. Sometimes, it is challenging to do both, but the gender aspect of the energy topic is what moves me – it just makes sense for me to stand up for that. Even the volunteering is extra time; we make the time for it because it is what we have in our hearts. It all began in the research lab – Aline and I, with the incentive of Professor Rüther. He told us he could connect us to some senior women in the solar energy sector, and that’s how we had our first meeting.
It looks that it all happened very organically, and you were both very receptive. Aline, I am under the impression that you have a career focused on research for PhD and hands-on experience. What moved you to be a part of this?
Aline: At our lab, many of the women are electrical engineers. We used to go on the field and see that women face many challenges – sometimes discrimination; we hear sexist comments. We face this reality but also in the lab, we are in a community where everyone respects each other, and we know that when our voice is heard, how good that is and how it empowers us. Then we asked if are there any more women like us that go on the field and how it is for them. We started to organize, and many women around Brazil told us how great and important that is to unite women and represent their issues.
Then the network began to form almost itself. But it is a very different job; as researchers, we are used to dealing with facts and numbers, we are trying to bring that to our gender activities by getting a lot of data and numbers from the field. First, we did a short survey by only sending it to the people we know from the lab. Still, it spread, and we got around a hundred replies.
You said that you got the support from people around you, and people came to you with their own stories. Was it also essential for you to also get the help of the men in the PV industry?
Aline: I think it was fundamental. We initially did not have this goal to reach out to women, but our supervisor oriented us and gave this support against the hardships we faced at the university. Hence, we needed to have the support of other men. We met many men who have no idea of the challenges women face but were interested in what we had to say. But it also led us to meet other women in the PV industry who have been working for so long and shows us that it can be made successfully – so it was also essential to see their side.
It feels that this is one of the problems that women face in many industries that men never really understand what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. But also be a woman who has a child, who has periods but still has to complete their daily jobs on a schedule based on men’s working rhythm.
Kathlen: Something I observed that, adding to what Aline said, is when we started to talk more about our struggles out loud inside the research lab, for the boys in the research lab it was something never talked about or observed before. It is almost two years that we started this movement, but I can see the shift in their perspective and behaviour – they are more careful about the things they say and reflect on it like they never before.
Many people have been so lonely in their struggles that when there is a platform to share as you created, you see how much it is needed. In terms of making a platform to share, I also observe it on social media when we share news or research about women in renewable energy. Many men like the post, re-share it, tweet about it. I find it encouraging. Maybe women’s loneliness in this field is not that bad when there are platforms like you guys are doing, and I think it is crucial not just for the PV industry. It has a domino effect – maybe these people in the lab will look differently to women in their families, in society.
Aline: It is not only men but also women themselves who start to realize these. They hear nasty comments it ruins their days, but they don’t talk about it with a man. When her co-workers objectify a woman who works on the field, she doesn’t talk about it, but now this is changing too; they can say, “no, that’s not okay”.
So, to move the topic to the solar energy industry, which research topics do you find more attractive?
Kathlen: I started working with the integration of panels to the buildings; then I was doing some research on energy efficiency, and then I combined generation and energy efficiency. However, I felt the lack of reaching out to people more directly, so I changed my research topic to renewable energy communities in Brazil. Today I am gearing towards more energy and society, social and technical aspects of renewable energy. This is what moves me today - how we achieve everyone to have the right to access energy. Because currently, in Brazil, this is still for privileged people.
Aline: My topic is about the performance of the systems, and my PhD is about the inspection of large systems. Nowadays, I am working more about storage systems, and I think this is the research path I’ll follow from now on – storage systems and their deployment in Brazil.
What are the main strategies you plan to use to promote gender equality in MESol?
Aline: In MESol, it was initially five co-founders, but now we have many volunteers that bring a lot of different targets – currently, we are working on social media to increase communication, promotion, and information about gender equality for the community. There are people with us working on how to reach more women about gender equality topics.
Kathlen: We see that it is very important to network and know one another to uplift and recommend another woman, let’s say when there is a job opening. Raising data is another point that we are working on; we found an opportunity to conduct another research that c40 supports to understand who these women are, what are their challenges because Brazil is a vast country – we’d like to understand the issues from all regions. So, promotion, information, support and communication can be summarized as the strategies that we use.
What are the main challenges of MESol?
Aline: One of the challenges is financial because we like to remain independent that’s why we are all volunteers. So, it is tough to grow without either having a company or government support behind us, but we are trying to do things independently; that’s what we are proud of and like to remain that way. Of course, the pandemic made fitting in volunteering tasks to daily life a bit more challenging.
Kathlen: Structuring ourselves to find the time to coordinate volunteers is one of the challenges. I know we need to be patient with ourselves too. Since it is from the heart, we find the time to do it, but it is not always easy.
Are there any upcoming events or announcements?
Aline: We intend to make this video campaign to show it at schools and inspire young girls to step into the solar energy industry, but it hasn’t been possible yet. We are organizing virtual meetings. We are also trying to manage our webpage, but that is also in work.
Kathlen: We might organize something in Intersolar here in Brazil, but it is not certain yet. We are about to release a podcast. We are launching an event of virtual round-table; it is a more closed, internal event.
We wish you all the success! Thank you so much for your time.
Follow MESol on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/redebrasileiramesol
Read the report about opportunities and barriers women in the energy sector face in Brazil
Note: This interview is conducted by SEE Audience Contact manager Carolina Garcia, transcribed and edited by creative team member Merve Özcaner.