Gender and Ethics of Care in Energy Systems

Gender and Ethics of Care in Energy Systems

How can the energy transition and smart technologies become more inclusive?

Sarah Darby (University of Oxford) responds to the Buildings & Cities special issue ‘Energy, Emerging Technologies and Gender in Homes’. If the adoption and use of smart home technologies and decarbonised energy systems are to be realised, then the principles of fairness, caring and caring ethics need to be embedded within regulatory, industry and domestic decisions and practices.

The papers in this Special Issue offer valuable and thought-provoking analyses of how gender is inseparable from the design, adoption and everyday use of technologies in the home.  They also make a compelling case for the significance of gender in energy transitions. All householders will experience transitions differently depending on the nature of the specific change: for example, whether it is shifting from biomass to fossil fuel or electricity for cooking, putting solar PV panels to use, adapting to changes in the built environment or to new modes of mobility. Where smart technologies are concerned, new forms of ‘digital housekeeping’ arise, for example in developing routines for battery charging, or checking solar PV output and maximising the use of electricity generated on-site. For all these, evidence in the special issue shows that gender influences the experience of transition and also the ways in which people adopt new practices and adapt old ones. We see it at micro-scale in the power dynamics and division of labour within households, and also in the predominantly male spheres of energy industry, research and policy. In the middle range, gender plays out in the operational complexities of technology rollout in buildings and transport infrastructures. The editorial introduction by Strengers et al. (2022) gives a handy guide to coverage of these topics (especially the tables on pp 845-46).

The authors in the special issue demonstrate abundantly how introducing and domesticating new technologies is never a seamless, carefree process: it always involves learning new practices and shifts in responsibility, benefits and costs. Implicitly or explicitly, they also pose vital questions for research and practice. Who will buy, set up, control and maintain new technologies, for what purposes? How will that influence the nature of a home, a site of such practical and emotional significance? (Gram-Hanssen & Darby, 2018). How is caring gendered and what does that mean for our homes and energy infrastructures? Who are the ‘brokers’ who might develop our energy systems in more gender-equitable ways? (Schiffer et al., 2022).

Gender, care ethics and justice as themes in energy studies

Readers of this journal will have no difficulty in thinking of energy systems in socio-technical terms. However, applying care ethics to energy systems is a relatively new area of study and concern, and a welcome addition to the debate. Caring is generally taken to mean caring for other people or for other living things; we do not often talk of caring for inanimate devices or systems, although we rely heavily on such caring – by ourselves or by others - to carry on our daily lives. The papers in this issue are full of instances of caring in the social-material entities that are our homes, as well as opportunities for caring in the brokering of energy systems.

Caring is by no means restricted to women, but the authors illustrate how reliant energy transitional practices are on women’s caring, often severely underestimated, and they show how emerging technologies need to support such caring, through being intelligible and not overly complex (Shirani et al., 2022), working with the grain of gendered practices (Aagaard and Madsen, 2022; Chambers, 2022; Pink, 2022), and strengthening women’s participation throughout energy systems (Schiffer et al. and all contributors to this special issue). Without bringing gender issues into full view alongside other forms of inequality, it is possible that energy systems in transition can create ‘new ways to generate unfairness’ (Roberts et al., 2020, p.7). Lucas-Healey et al., 2022 call for exploration of what a caring decentralised energy system might look like, and this looks to be an exciting research agenda. The literature on recognitional, procedural and distributional justice could be helpful in ‘maintaining an intersectional gender lens’, as called for by the special issue editors (Strengers et al., 2022; also see Heffron and McCauley 2017 for an overview; Calver et al., 2022 and Mang-Benza et al., 2023 for applications). 

There is no blueprint for research in support of gender-equitable futures for home energy technologies, but at least some guidelines and on evaluative studies can now be drawn upon, including those in this special issue. Some variant of social practice theory is an obvious place to start, e.g. Gram-Hanssen’s (2010) four lines of inquiry into domestic practices:

  • householders’ understanding the technologies used in the practice
  • the rules and conditions governing the practice
  • meanings assigned to the practice by all actors (not just within the home)
  • the nature of the technologies involved.

Gender can be brought into all these. The nature of gender as a ‘doing … that operates in social interactions to produce and maintain power and inequality’ (Bartiaux, 2022) also points us towards a relational approach that can be extended, where energy is concerned, beyond person: person to person: technology relationships (i.e., adoption, control, maintenance). For a new distributed-energy practice to work for in the home and for the system, these two sets of relationship are likely as be as significant as technical connectivity (Darby, 2020).  Every smart energy study I have taken part in over the past 17 years has shown the need for ‘middle actors’ / brokers who can guide energy users into new practices, troubleshoot the inevitable difficulties, and act as feedback channels so that user / layperson experiences and difficulties are conveyed ‘upwards’ to more senior system actors.  This type of approach is not usually presented in terms of care ethics, but there is surely a case for doing so.

Gender and care in energy systems, scaled-up

As Lucas-Healey et al. (2022) point out in this special issue, the emerging decentralised energy order could not exist at the scale it does without care practices; policymakers need to appreciate this and consider how to sustain such care. But Lucas-Healey et al. also note that there is no binary divide between ‘uncaring centralised energy infrastructures and a caring decentralised energy order’. It’s important not to forget this. Long-established centralised energy suppliers and network operators will have recognised duties of care (e.g. Aczel, 2020; Walker, 2015), and will work with mandatory standards for equipment and procedures. These are not always visible at household level but can still be seen as expressions of care or, at least, as showing respect for precautionary principles that can be invoked to protect us from harm.  Traditional duties of care may well need radical reworking but they are still probably worth studying for the lessons they might offer for regulating and managing a decentralised energy order and/or one that involves fuel-shifting.

Many (most?) of the regulatory and operational challenges posed by transition to decentralised, digitised and decarbonised systems arise from additional system complexity. Virtually all visions of low-carbon energy transition and universal access to modern energy services require new forms of connectivity between homes and electrical and data infrastructures, bringing risks along with opportunities. Techno-optimism tends to dominate the research literature (and certainly the marketing material), yet real-life outcomes in the long term will depend greatly on how far policy and commercial decision-makers are attentive to social inclusion, operational risk and environmental impact (e.g. Quitzow and Rohde, 2022).  Any smart-enabled energy system can be damaged deliberately by hackers, or accidently by software bugs or loss of connectivity when a system component is no longer available (Alladi et al., 2020).  Addressing systemic risk of this type is more likely to be understood in terms of defence and security (skewed towards male gender) than in terms of caring. But there seems no reason why care concepts cannot be applied to system protection and to environmental impacts. Could a shared vocabulary for caring and security be within reach?  

Transitioning in time

One further thought, on timing and the urgent need for action on developing caring and inclusive decentralised energy systems. Since these papers were prepared, only months ago, there have been several harsh developments in energy geopolitics and in the abuse of ICT.  Public debates about gender, too, have become more anxious and confrontational in many parts of the world. If ever there were a time to develop care ethics, and to learn by putting them into practice, it is now. As homes become more connected to various infrastructures , and as they become sites for producing and storing electricity as well as for consuming it, the significance of (gendered) caring practices within and beyond the home becomes more obvious. There is a pressing need to develop and maintain caring practices at all levels that accord with recognitional, procedural and distributional justice. In particular, it’s time to make much more of the opportunities identified by Schiffer et al. (2022), whose study demonstrates so persuasively how energy brokers can work with emerging technologies to address gendered inequalities, starting with greater inclusion of women in local decision-making. Without brokers / practitioners who take a grounded, gender-aware and relational approach to emerging technology, no amount of policy, commercial activity or individual effort is going to bring about energy transition on the scale needed.


Aagaard, L. K., & Madsen, L. V. (2022). Technological fascination and reluctance: gendered practices in the smart home. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 677–691.

Aczel M.R. (2020). Public opposition to shale gas extraction in Algeria: Potential application of France's ‘Duty of Care Act’.  The Extractive Industries and Society, 7(4), 1360-68

Alladi. T., Chamola, V., Sikdar, B. & Choo, K.K.R. (2020). Consumer IoT: Security Vulnerability Case Studies and Solutions. IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, 9(2), 17-25.

Bartiaux, F. (2022). Gender roles and domestic power in energy-saving home improvements. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 824–841.

Calver P., Mander S. & Abi Ghanem A. (2022). Low carbon system innovation through an energy justice lens: Exploring domestic heat pump adoption with direct load control in the United Kingdom. Energy Research & Social Science, 83, 1-2299

Chambers, D. (2022). Attuning smart home scripts to household and energy care. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 663–676.

Darby, S.J. (2020). Demand response and smart technology in theory and practice: customer experiences and system actors. Energy Policy, 143, 111573.

Gram-Hanssen, K. (2010) Residential heat comfort practices: understanding users. Building Research & Information 38 (2), 175-186.

Gram-Hanssen, K. & Darby, S.J. (2018). ‘Home is where the smart is’? Evaluating smart home research and approaches against the concept of home. Energy Research & Social Science, 37, 94-101

Heffron R.J. & McCauley D. (2017). The concept of energy justice across the disciplines. Energy Policy, 105, 658-667.

Lucas-Healey, K., Ransan-Cooper, H., Temby, H. & Russell, A.W. (2022). Who cares? How care practices uphold the decentralised energy order. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 448–463.

Mang-Benza, C., Jodoin, L., Doubogon, Y.O., Gaye, I. & Kola, E. (2023). Making energy justice work for women in rural sub-Saharan Africa: A qualitative diagnostic from Benin, Senegal, and Togo. Energy Policy, 173, 113345.

Quitzow, L. & Rohde, F. (2022). Imagining the smart city through smart grids? Urban energy futures between technological experimentation and the imagined low-carbon city. Urban Studies59(2), 341–359.

Pink, S. (2022). The gender of smart charging. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 488–502.

Roberts, S., Bridgeman, T., Broman, D., Hodges, N. & Aage, C. (2020). Smart and fair: exploring social justice in the future energy system. Phase One report and recommendations. Bristol: Centre for Sustainable Energy.

Schiffer, A., Greene, M., Khalid, R., Foulds, C., Vidal, C.A., Chatterjee, M., … Yesutanbul, A.N. (2022). Brokering gender empowerment in energy access in the Global South. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 619–637.

Shirani, F., O’Sullivan, K., Henwood, K., Hale, R. & Pidgeon, N. (2022). Living in an Active Home: household dynamics and unintended consequences. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 589–604.

Strengers, Y., Gram-Hanssen, K., Dahlgren, K. & Aagaard, L.K. (2022). Energy, emerging technology and gender in homes. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 842–853.

Walker, G. (2015). The right to energy: Meaning, specification and the politics of definition. L'Europe en Formation, 2015/4 (378), 26-38.


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