The project aimed to investigate how “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy” (SDG7) was constructed by professional actors, and with what implications for gender equality (SDG5), in the Global South.


We interviewed 86 professionals working in and around the energy sector, across four case study countries: Nigeria, Ghana, India, and Pakistan. These countries were selected on the basis of current energy access rates and also their performance in the 2019 SDG Gender Index. We were especially interested in how such professionals – whether they be policymakers, architects, NGOs, engineers, etc. – imagined energy use and energy access, and indeed the systems and infrastructures that surrounded and enabled these visions. It is from this starting point that the implications for gender equity were unpicked.

Background Rationale

Women are key users, suppliers and innovators within energy systems, and their empowerment is crucial in achieving sustainable energy goals (Winther et al., 2017). Yet little academic attention has been paid to intersections of gender and energy access, including: how gendered energy ‘needs’ are constructed (Anfinsen and Heidenreich, 2017; Greene, 2018b); interactions between energy-related practices and gender (in)equity (Walker, 2013; Greene, 2018a); and integration of gender issues within energy justice agendas (Lacey-Barnacle et al., 2020; Govindan et al., 2020). Furthermore, energy access governance has heavily focused on techno-centric accounts (Wu and Wu, 2015), with energy needs regarded as fixed and to be met ‘efficiently’ (Waitt, 218), while vulnerability is viewed as a characteristic of individuals/groups (e.g. Besagni and Borgarello, 2019). Such approaches have overlook how energy access intersects with diverse (gendered) daily activities (Schiffer, 2020). Indeed, the nexus between access to SDG7’s ‘modern’ energy and dynamics of everyday practices is an under-researched area (ibid; Sustainable Energy for All, 2019).

Contributions and relevance to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

This project focused on SDG7: “Affordable and Clean Energy” and SDG5: “Gender equality”.

While much research, policy and practice address these SDGs separately, there are major gaps in knowledge and action on how energy access and gender equality intersect. Energy access initiatives are, for instance, only starting to consider how gendered conventions determine ‘necessary’ energy use (e.g. UNIDO, 2013). Progress on one SDG can therefore lead to unintended consequences for the other (c.f. Fukuda-Parr, 2014). Measures promoting energy access could even adversely affect gender equality; e.g. reinforcing existing disparities within energy resource management arrangements (Köhlin et al., 2011).

Specifically, the project challenged under-researched mechanisms that reproduce gender inequalities through structures and processes of energy access; e.g. decision-making procedures around energy provision and consumption. In particular, the project focused on professionals who are themselves agents of (structural) change, investigating how their expectations of current/future ‘needs’ and ‘practices’ shaped their present actions (Borup et al., 2006; Strengers et al., 2018).

The project yielded actionable, evidence-based recommendations for stakeholders in both energy and gender equality fields (e.g. via network-formation, workshops, policy briefs), to support the equitable development of new and ongoing policies and interventions on energy access. The project also helped link technical aspects of energy infrastructure with social aspects, providing an interdisciplinary socio-technical understanding of energy, built on knowledge exchange between partners. Such an approach was critical in ensuring energy policy(makers) start conceptualising gender in more inclusive ways, as part of energy access interventions; e.g. going beyond understanding women only as energy-users.