Stephanie Carter l Palladium - Apr 15 2024
Meet the Women Changing the Face of South Asia’s Energy Sector

Sharmin visiting a local solar farm in Bangladesh with other SAR-100 engineers.

It’s the eve of International Women’s Day, and I’m on a bus moving slowly through Wang Noi Power Plant, south of Bangkok. Sharmin Aktar is peering out the bus window beside me, pointing to industrial concrete blocks and impossibly complex pipes, her face lit up.

“See that over there? It’s the cooling tower,” she explains. “It plays a very important role in a combine cycle plant. And those over there are the transmission lines. That’s where the power goes through the sub-stations, off into people’s homes.”

An Executive Engineer with the Electricity Generation Company of Bangladesh Limited, Sharmin knows her stuff. For the past six months, she’s been the only woman working on site in a combine cycle power plant back home in Dhaka, where she does daily rounds and quality checks. This doesn’t surprise me – the share of women employed in technical roles in South Asia’s power sector ranges from 1% in the Maldives to 16.5% in Bhutan. Few women join engineering education programs, and fewer again find jobs.

“My power plant at home is a bit smaller than this one, but I still think it’s beautiful,” she says with a wide smile.

‘Beautiful’ isn’t a word I’d normally use to describe a power plant, but if you’re talking about electrification for thousands of families and businesses, I can see how the shoe fits. Sharmin certainly seems to think so.

Our visit to Wang Noi is part of the final capstone week of the WePOWER SAR-100 training program, delivered by the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). For the past 8 months, 101 talented and tenacious women engineers – Sharmin included – from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, have participated in a series of online modules and research projects, collaborating on some of the region’s most pressing energy issues. Now here in Bangkok, the women are in person for the final leg of their SAR-100 journey: a busy week of learning, innovation, and networking.

The course and its final capstone week have been made possible through the AU$32 million South Asia Regional Infrastructure Connectivity (SARIC) Program, which is funded by the Australian Government and implemented by Palladium alongside the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.

As expected, the capstone week agenda is nothing short of inspiring. In addition to Wang Noi, the group visit Energy Absolute and Amita Technologies, gaining firsthand insights into lithium battery manufacturing and storage, and electric vehicle production. For those engineers working in a similar field back home, the site visit experience is invaluable. The icing on the cake is a visit to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific mission in Bangkok, to participate in the Southeast Asia Green Energy Co-operation & Exchange Forum, a first for all.

Then there’s the final capstone research projects, the culmination of 8 months of hard work and collaboration. We listen in as the participants explore everything from renewable energy financing, and smart grid technologies, to leadership and gender equality in the energy industry.

“The course has been great,” says Sharmin. “I’ve learnt many new things which will help me in my job, and I’ve made some friends in other South Asian countries. I feel more confident, and more motivated.”

The opportunity to connect – including at a mid-week speed networking event hosted by SARIC - also brings to the surface common challenges and shared experiences.

Most women have spent the past 8 months juggling study with full time work, household responsibilities, and childcare, and the daily balancing act is front of mind.

“I’m fortunate to have a supportive manager, it makes all the difference. My family is also very supportive. In fact, it was my uncle who suggested I study electrical engineering in the first place. I’m lucky to have them behind me,” says Sharmin.

She’s not the only one. Most of her SAR-100 peers credit strong family (or partner) support for their ability to accelerate in an otherwise male dominated industry. Without this, Sharmin explains, the number of women engineers won’t go up.

“I believe the industry needs gender equality – both men and women - with a diversity of opinion and thought. Mentorship is also important. I’d love to mentor more women engineers and graduates coming through. Women need to know what’s possible.”

We close out the week on a high, celebrating not just International Women’s Day, but the SAR-100 graduation ceremony.

The graduates proudly receive their completion certificates, and we hear more incredible stories of talent and resilience – women engineers installing solar panels in remote areas near Mt Everest base camp and fixing complex electrical transmission lines in Sri Lanka’s bustling capital, Colombo.

This year’s International Women’s Day campaign theme asked us to ‘Inspire Inclusion’, and as we watch the women swapping numbers and promising to stay in touch, there’s no denying that the impact of SAR-100 runs deeper than any single academic module. When it comes to inspiring inclusion and connectivity in South Asia’s infrastructure sector, human connectivity can make all the difference.

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