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21
Apr

Conference Speaker Spotlight #4: Rachel Kyte

Rachel Kyte

 

Rachel Kyte is CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All)& Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All.

She will be a featured keynote speaker at the fifth annual SAIS GWL Conference, Securing a Sustainable Future: Women as Leaders in a Changing Climate during at 9:50 am.

In the current climate change conversation, it sometimes feels like there’s a dichotomy between activism and policymaking that probably is a false one.

I completely agree. Earlier in my career, I decided that I needed to know how to make big institutions change. I call myself an “activist bureaucrat.” There have been very few things I’ve been clear about with myself through my career, but one of the cognitive moments was “I need to know how big organizations operate and how to change them.” Big institutions don’t change unless there are people on the inside unless there are people on the inside who know how to help them change, but they also don’t change unless there’s pressure from the outside.

Now, then there’s the question of whether you need these big institutions or are they the problem. But then that’s the difference between sort of revolutionary paths and democratic, less revolutionary paths.

At what point did you feel like you were making the transition to actually effecting change an institutional level? What were the key factors that allowed for that?

What I’ve learned is that you have to ask different questions. We made change at the Bank in developing the climate strategy for Paris by asking a completely new question, which was: What are the least number of most important things that need to get done [to reach our climate goals]?

Nowhere in that question was the World Bank. We came up with the four things that we thought needed to get done to get to the 2ºC target. And then, and only then, did we say “is there a role for the World Bank?”

So it’s about asking different questions. And it’s very liberating, and it’s totally terrifying.

Because the answer to your question could be that this institution shouldn’t have a role at all.

Right. And I was very clear that if there’s nothing for us to do, then we should not do anything. But that wasn’t particularly popular. It’s also prioritization. It’s not that everyone isn’t doing amazing work, but if you’re going to bend the curve, where do you put your emphasis?

It was not easy, and it caused huge resistance as well as huge success. There’s a huge personal sort of price that gets paid when you’re rubbing up against the system constantly. And you have to enlist people. You can’t just walk into the room and break eggs. You’ve got to get everybody interested in your recipe.

With energy poverty, women bear a much larger portion of the burden. Could you talk a little about how that manifests itself and what effect it has on your work?

There is still a female face on poverty, and that applies to energy poverty as much as to any other form of poverty. The solutions need to be ones that women can access as well. Anything that actually caters to solutions that women can access is going to go really quickly, and we have proven again and again that women are better customers than men and should be targeted.

But I do think the fact that women are the face of an issue still dictates the seriousness with which it’s taken and the creativity and the solutions that are brought to the table. So this is what we’re going to do something about.

What about the state of women’s leadership on the policy side of this issue?

It doesn’t matter which way you come at it, it is bizarre and frankly frustrating that it’s still as bad as it is. The finance community has got a huge piece of work to do on why women are not represented in positions of power. The MDBs are nowhere where they need to be either, the UN hasn’t been, and frankly civil society is not much better.

So it’s hard, and you’ve got to lean and pull up. It’s no good being the only woman in the room. When you’re the only woman in the room, you’re limited in what you can say and how you can argue a position. There have to be three of you in the room, at least. And getting to the point where there are three of you in the room on a consistent basis is hard. And I think you internalize it, you feel that you have to be better prepared and really know what you’re talking about.

In the World Bank, the board is 25 people, and there’s always like one or two women. And there was a moment about five years ago when there were six women out of 24. The reaction that those six women got, individually and collectively, was unbelievable. Even within staff, it was like “oh yeah, there are all these women on the board” — there were six, right? And from some of the male board members it was like “Oh well, you guys are talking and meeting in secret” and all this kind of rubbish.

How does that translate into how women should approach their professional development and advance their careers?

I think the thing is building careers for women. I’ve hired a lot of women over the ages, and what I love is watching their careers grow. But it’s a different business, right? This “having it all,” I don’t know what I think about all of that. It’s how do we get to the point where that accumulated life experience as well as accumulated professional experience is gold dust? If I were a CEO of a private company, and I was looking for non-executive directors, that [life experience] is gold dust. But in energy companies only 6 percent of board seats are held by women. So clearly not gold dust.

It’s speed and scale, right? There are great examples in almost every sector of the economy, there are great examples in every country now. There are superb women leaders across the private sector and public sector in almost every country, many better than this country. But it’s still not at scale. It will be very interesting to see politically whether the current activism among women will result in masses of women running for office and things like that.

These are the things that will have to change with your generation. These are the things that you will change.

Full text:

How did you start becoming interested in sustainable development and energy access in particular?

Well, sustainable development goes all the way back. I was a youth activist in Europe in the ’80s, when we were in the middle of mutually assured destruction and the Cold War, and there was a growing sentiment in Europe, especially among young people, that this wasn’t how we wanted to define our future in Europe, nor how we wanted to redefine what Europe meant to the rest of the world. The environment was one of the organizing principles for a lot of activism. At that point there was a lot of acid rain and contaminated water, contaminated air, and it didn’t respect political boundaries. You could pump up sulfur dioxide in Poland and it would go over the Iron Curtain and land in West Germany or Norway. So you had to collaborate. And that idea that you had to collaborate and work together to protect the environment became an organizing principle for how I ended up working for the original Earth Summit in 1992, working with CSOs and different non-state actors.

And then it was through my interest in sustainable development and the environment that I became active in the women’s movement, when in 1990 in Bergen, Norway there was a major international conference of non-state actors, and women were not represented — youth was represented, business was represented, NGOs were there — but women weren’t represented. So a bunch of women turned up at this thing and sort of insisted that women be added to the agenda. And they came up to me and said to me: You should be doing more. You should be working with other women, you should be empowering women. And I hadn’t really thought about it at that time, but from then on I’ve had a career that’s bounded sustainable development, women’s rights, and human rights.

After the Paris Agreement, I had sort of exhausted myself working on pure climate politics. I wanted to be really involved in the transformational change that we have to engineer if we’re going to live equitably and fairly on this planet while staying well below the 2ºC goal. And one of the most important pieces of it is the energy transition. That means we have to have an energy transition that gives everybody energy, which it doesn’t today. That energy system has to be zero net emissions, and it has to drive an economy that’s zero net emissions. It has to be much more efficient, it has to have much different fuel mix than it does at the moment. But the human piece of that, the idea that we can get everybody energy, and do it cleanly and affordably, just seems like a place where we have to make progress quickly if we’re going to maintain a brief that everything we agreed in Paris was reasonable.

So I’ve always jumped around but there is a thread there, I think. The thread is about the justice that has to come from living within our means on the planet.

In the current climate change conversation, it sometimes feels like there’s a dichotomy between activism and policymaking that probably is a false one.

I completely agree. Earlier in my career, I decided that I needed to know how to make big institutions change. I call myself an “activist bureaucrat.” There have been very few things I’ve been clear about with myself through my career, but one of the cognitive moments was “I need to know how big organizations operate and how to change them.” And so I went to the IUCN and eventually to the World Bank Group. I think the energy policy and climate structure of the World Bank, it was not a given at all that those things would happen the way that they did. I’m not saying that was me, but I’m saying that the relationship between activists on the outside and activists on the inside is really important. Big institutions don’t change unless there are people on the inside unless there are people on the inside who know how to help them change, but they also don’t change unless there’s pressure from the outside.

Now, then there’s the question of whether you need these big institutions or are they the problem. But then that’s the difference between sort of revolutionary paths and democratic, less revolutionary paths.

At what point did you feel like you were making the transition to actually effecting change an institutional level? What were the key factors that allowed for that?

Well, I think it’s overused now, but the idea of being on the right side of history is real. The inertia in a system and the incumbency is weighty. But there is a preponderance of evidence. There is a preponderance of scientific fact pointing to the need for action. The question is not if but when, right? If you look out into the future as a straight line from the past, we’re going to miss the target.

These are not bad institutions, and these are not bad people, but they look at goals in terms of “well, that’s what I did yesterday, so that’s what I’m going to do today.” What I’ve learned is that you have to ask different questions. And there’s nothing more terrifying to bureaucrats than asking a question that they haven’t been programmed to answer. They stick to “What should I improve?” or, if they’re really good, “What should I do less of—or stop doing?” But these questions necessarily create incremental change over what you were doing yesterday. We made change at the Bank in developing the climate strategy for Paris by asking a completely different question, which was: What are the least number of most important things that need to get done [to reach our climate goals]?

Nowhere in that question was the World Bank. We came up with the four things that we thought needed to get done to get to the 2ºC target. And then, and only then, did we say “is there a role for the World Bank?”

So that in fact became the mantra not just for the World Bank Group, but on the finance side that became the mantra for everybody. Simply because we asked a different question. And I think that’s what you have to do. Otherwise it’s like, “What’s our lending volume? Should we lend another tranche?” No: It’s “How do we get Uganda out of poverty in 10 years?”

So it’s about asking different questions. And it’s very liberating, and it’s totally terrifying.

Because the answer to your question could be that this institution shouldn’t have a role at all.

Right. And I was very clear that if there’s nothing for us to do, then we should not do anything. But that wasn’t particularly popular. It’s also prioritization: The least number of most important things. It’s not that everyone isn’t doing amazing work, but if you’re going to bend the curve, where do you put your emphasis?

It was not easy, and it caused huge resistance as well as huge success. There’s a huge personal sort of price that gets paid when you’re rubbing up against the system constantly. And you have to enlist people. You can’t just walk into the room and break eggs. You’ve got to get everybody interested in your recipe.

The other thing is that the thing big institutions and systems don’t do very well is urgency. What I learnt a lot in the last few years is how you create urgency. You create moments when you peak. I think we got quite good at creating moments, and then it’s like rock climbing: You throw your ice axe and you’re pulling yourself up from there.

The UN secretary-general asked at one point that there would be a climate summit at the UN General Assembly in September 2014. In retrospect it was incredibly smart, because what happened was that it created this moment [with everyone together in New York], and then we were off to the races with 15 months to get ready for Paris. And in that 15 months, you saw all kinds of commitments that I doubt would have been quite as dynamic if he hadn’t created that moment in 2014. So that’s really important.

And now, when you’ve got an administration where everybody’s a little unsure as to what their commitment is, then that international momentum becomes very important.

Can you talk a little bit about the on-grid versus off-grid debate?

Well, it’s both! What I find really fascinating is why “both” is so unnerving. There’s this psychological phenomenon where if 25% of the total group is a minority, the majority (the 75%) believe that the minority is in the majority. Let’s say there are 20 people on the board: As soon as you have 5 women, the 15 men think that there are more women than men in the group.

So I was wondering whether the on-grid people, now that off-grid is starting to get attention (if not the same scale of finance), are beginning to think that the off-grid minority is commanding too much attention.

Look, the reality of it is that our grid-connected electricity system today has never met the basic goal of affordable energy, reliably provided for everybody. That’s never been the case. We now have a unanimous goal that there should be reliable, affordable, modern energy for all. Working backwards, the grid is not going to get you there by 2030, and the grid’s going to be an extremely expensive way to do it.

We now have the ability to provide, on a cost-competitive basis, off-grid renewable energy that is affordable for remote communities and those who live underneath the power lines. And if the off-grid guys are telling you that with a minimum amount of support they can connect 10 times the number of people in half the time, then why wouldn’t you do it? Now is it going to happen just like that? No. Government has to get in there and say “This is okay, and here are the policies that will make it happen.”

If I were asking countries to do something that were way more expensive than the alternative, that were slower than the alternative, then call me stupid. But it’s like: “Guys, this can actually go quite quickly and is better than what you have at the moment.”

With energy poverty, women bear a much larger portion of the burden. Could you talk a little about how that manifests itself and what effect it has on your work?

There is still a female face on poverty, and that applies to energy poverty as much as to any other form of poverty. The solutions need to be ones that women can access as well. One of the reasons why cell phones as the medium for solar transactions has grown is that women have access to cell phones even if they don’t have a bank account. Anything that actually caters to solutions that women can access is going to go really quickly, and we have proven again and again that women are better customers than men and should be targeted.

When it comes to clean cooking, of course women aren’t just the face of it, they’re the lungs of the problem. But finding a clean cooking solution, even though 6 million people per year die from household air pollution, is where we’re not seeing anything like the rate of progress we need to. Again there, I think that because predominantly women cook, it is an issue that has become sort of a boutique or marginal issue. It’s not boutique or marginal, it’s 3 billion people, 1 in every 2.5 people on the planet, doesn’t have access to clean cooking. That’s outrageous. Where do you think your food comes from?

The end goal is that every family and every household should have access to a range of solutions that allow them to cook cleanly. That means they can have the charcoal burning stove because they use it very rarely to cook certain kinds of bread because it tastes better—just like I go into my garden and barbecue. But I have a microwave, I have a gas hob, and I have an electric oven. So let’s be real about our goal. Women will make the choices about what they’re going to cook on what source of power. If their voice is heard much more in this debate, it becomes a real discussion about how to build a market to provide 3 billion people with energy cooking solutions, not a poverty development dialogue of “We must get you this one cooker and you have to use this cooker.” You know, we’re not in 1950s Russia.

But I do think the fact that women are the face of an issue still dictates the seriousness with which it’s taken and the creativity and the solutions that are brought to the table. So this is what we’re going to do something about.

What about women’s leadership on the policy side of this issue?

In policy terms, there are far fewer women than there are men. You can come at the problem from any direction: Diverse teams make better risk decisions, or these are global issues and therefore need global solutions, and we need to have the best brains in the room. It doesn’t matter which way you come at it, it is bizarre and frankly frustrating that it’s still as bad as it is. The finance community has got a huge piece of work to do on why women are not represented in positions of power. The MDBs are nowhere where they need to be either, the UN hasn’t been, and frankly civil society is not much better.

So it’s hard, and you’ve got to lean and pull up. It’s no good being the only woman in the room. When you’re the only woman in the room, you’re limited in what you can say and how you can argue a position. There have to be three of you in the room, at least. And getting to the point where there are three of you in the room on a consistent basis is hard. And I think you internalize it, you feel that you have to be better prepared and really know what you’re talking about.

You have to put up with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg syndrome, where people just ignore you and then guys say exactly the same thing and they’ll all say “Well, that’s brilliant.” And it happens so often that you’re inured to it. But it literally happens all the time, and there are other phenomena as well — that’s the one I remember today. You just have to keep going. But you’ve got to pull other women up with you. You can’t make it on your own.

It’s back to this 25% phenomenon. In the World Bank, the board is now 25 people, and there’s always like 1 or 2 women. And there was a moment about 5 years ago when there were six women out of 24. The reaction that those six women got, individually and collectively, was unbelievable. Even within staff, it was like “oh yeah, there are all these women on the board” — there were six, right? And from some of the male board members it was like “Oh well, you guys are talking and meeting in secret” and all this kind of rubbish.

And then there’s a group of us who are women who support each other in our leadership, and we all come from different walks of life, but we’re all concerned about the same issues, and we often find ourselves as the only woman in the room. So we’re sort of in support of each other. And it’s really fascinating because we’ve occasionally met, and it sort of becomes known that there’s a group of women that’s met, and that suddenly becomes a secret, clandestine, to-be-suspicious-of-or-feared meeting, and it’s like “No! It was just a group of people who got together. No, you weren’t invited, but it didn’t mean anything, we just decided to go and have a drink.” And it’s really interesting because that happens all day, every day, because a group of women decide to go and get a drink. And it’s fascinating.

How does that translate into how women should approach their professional development and advance their careers?

I think the thing is building careers for women. I’ve hired a lot of women over the ages, and what I love is watching their careers grow. But it’s a different business, right? First of all you’ve got child-rearing, and there’s a dynamic about what happens when you leave college. In England, you can have a better degree and get paid less, and you’ve immediately got that issue. It’s more or less the same globally.

So you’ve got that issue, advancement of career, and then you’ve got child-rearing and that slows you down in most cases. Of course you should never regard your career as a straight line anyway, but that piece affects the way your resume is seen by the system, right? And then you come to where I am now, which is the sandwich period—I’ve got kids that I’ve got to take care of and I’ve got parents that I’ve got to take care of—and you are stretched. You’re stretched in both of those directions and you’re a chief executive officer. I mean… maybe something has to give, and then the question is which one? And of course it’ll be the job, given those three circumstances.

So it’s interesting, and I watch my peer group now, and we’re all in this place. It’s tough. This “having it all,” I don’t know what I think about all of that. It’s how do we get to the point where that accumulated life experience as well as accumulated professional experience is gold dust? If I were a CEO of a private company, and I was looking for non-executive directors, that [life experience] is gold dust. But in energy companies only 6 percent of board seats are held by women. So clearly not gold dust.

These are the things that will have to change with your generation. These are the things that you will change. It’s speed and scale, right? There are great examples in almost every sector of the economy, there are great examples in every country now. There are superb women leaders across the private sector and public sector in almost every country, many better than this country. But it’s still not at scale. It will be very interesting to see politically whether the current activism among women will result in masses of women running for office and things like that.

In a way, the growing appreciation of the need to act on climate parallels the need to promote a greater role for women worldwide.

Michael Klein, who teaches at SAIS and was a colleague of mine at IFC at the time, told me that [when I got the climate portfolio] “we gave you a 10% chance of success.” So that’s not the glass ceiling, that’s the glass cliff. Women get given jobs that men think are impossible. There was this whole discussion thread before Paris about why were there so many women in the climate discussion, and there were two rationales for that. One was that there was this group of extremely extraordinary visionary women at this moment in time. The other was the glass cliff: Here’s an issue that looks like it cannot be solved, so women ended up taking it on.

It’s probably a mix of the two. You don’t see that preponderance of women in arms control or other things. I am struck that when I am in energy meetings that are about big old-fashioned energy systems and utilities and all the rest, there’s hardly any women, but if I go to an off-grid or renewables or blended finance discussion on energy, then there’s lots of women. So we’ve got to break though into that other world. Some people have to be in that other world and help it change from the inside. …Or help it get out of the way.

There’s this whole thing about the distinction between sponsorship and mentorship. Women need women sponsors, or women need male sponsors. I was given two of my biggest breaks by guys. One said to me: I think you should apply for this job. You’ll have to compete for it, I can’t give it to you, but you should apply. And if he hadn’t said it, I never in a million years would have thought about applying. And I had to compete, but in the end i got it. And that was a direct intervention. I basically jumped two grades which at WBG doesn’t happen, and I would never have done that if it hadn’t been for him saying that to me. So you need that. I had women who did that earlier in my career as well. But [the men who helped me] were comfortable in the presence of women. I’ve worked for men who were comfortable in the presence of women and men who are not — big difference. 

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