_One of the first things I noticed when I arrived at this year’s Solar Power International, in Dallas, was a quartet of women about my age dressed in orange-and-white satin flight attendant style costumes. Then I ran into a (male) friend on the floor of the trade show and he mentioned, unprompted, how lopsided the gender ratio was. Another exhibitor, glancing over as a young woman in a tight T-shirt and push-up bra stood next to a solar panel, in front of a knot of middle-aged men, was dismissive: “Solar sluts.” Later that evening, in Fort Worth, I compared notes with another woman who had been at SPI, and she noted that the previous evening she had been torn over whether to attend the regular party or the party with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.

It's not sexist that the solar industry is largely made up of men--that’s characteristic of the energy and high-tech sectors more generally--and I didn't feel uncomfortable during my brief visit. However, it doesn’t follow that the lowest-common-denominator marketing is inevitable. I’m thinking of, for example, the Freescale Technology Forum in San Antonio this summer. There was a similar gender imbalance, but not nearly so much sex on sale. Rather, the memorable parts of the Freescale forum were the innovative products, from the useful (smart plugs) to the oddball (the crash-activated motorcycle airbag vest).

I mentioned this all to my friend Kate Galbraith, the energy & environment reporter for the Texas Tribune. She points to a couple of analyses of the issue. In 2009, for example, the New York Times reported on an effort to market solar to "mainstream consumers," i.e., by sexing it up. Becky Stuart, writing at PV Magazine earlier this month, took issue with some of the "more brazen" advertising tactics in the industry. And Theo Romeo, writing about SPI at Clean Energy Authority, has a similar argument: "The fact is that solar prides itself on being different than other industries. We're forward-thinking; oil and coal is yesterday's idea. But if solar is, in fact, the modern solution, why are we still using old school marketing tricks?"

I would make a variation on that argument. Insofar as the solar industry promotes itself partly on the basis of its positive externalities--and lobbies for special favors (government subsidies, incentives, and protections)--it has an extra reason to make sure the externalities are actually positive. And as a business matter, they should be trying to boost interest among women. What they are selling is, at least in some cases, a consumer product, and women make up a big share of the market. The "booth babes" are business as usual; in this respect solar is no worse than most industries. But that doesn't mean they're an asset to the cause.
08/24/2012 22:52

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