POWER’s 2015 Women in Power Generation Survey

How do women in the power generation business—in power plants and in the vendor community—view their jobs in this male-dominated industry? In what is likely the first survey open to women across the industry, they told us.

Chelsea N. Smith. Courtesy: Burns & McDonnell

Chelsea N. Smith. Courtesy: Burns & McDonnell

The November 2008 issue of POWER included an industry-first in-depth look at women in the power industry, “Workforce Management Lessons from Women in Power Generation.” When one of the women who participated in that article suggested it might be time for an update, I decided to take a different approach this time around. In order to incorporate the voices and experiences of more people at more levels than is possible with selective, in-depth interviews, I launched a survey.

There have been previous surveys of women in specific power sectors (primarily renewables) as well as broader surveys of women in engineering, but there does not appear to have been any prior survey of women employed across the power sector—covering all technologies and including both generating companies and companies that interact with generators. (See sidebar for a note about the woman featured in the opening photo.)

High on Power

Chelsea N. Smith, shown sitting on a beam at a construction site in the photo that opens this article, is an assistant project manager at Burns & McDonnell. She says, “I chose to work in the power industry because there is an endless need for innovative engineering and construction services. In addition, the energy sector of industrial construction provides job stability and a range of career opportunities. Every day is a challenge, which requires determination, critical thinking, and intrapersonal skills. I can’t imagine working in any other field!”

This article presents findings from POWER’ s April 2015 survey. For even better results and insights, a collaboration among multiple power industry groups should field a study that targets a representative sample of women in the industry. POWER would be happy to report on the results of a more comprehensive study.

For a look at the broader context of women’s participation in the power industry, see “Women Are Essential to a Thriving Power Generation Sector” in this issue.

Survey Design and Participation

POWER fielded an online survey of 21 multiple-choice questions plus one open-ended question between April 2 and 26. The survey was promoted via the POWER -sponsored LinkedIn group Women in Power Generation (WIPG); at the WIPG panel session at the ELECTRIC POWER Conference & Exhibition on April 22; and via email to the leaders of Women in Nuclear, Women in Solar Energy, and Women of Wind Energy. The LinkedIn group had 748 members when the survey closed; some members may not receive regular notifications of new posts, so they may have missed the announcement of the survey’s availability.

The 52 responses received represent 7% of the WIPG group but should not be considered representative of all women in the power sector, because not all women in the industry are members. Although this was a convenience sample based on this group’s membership, this group does include representatives from multiple generation types. Note that there are technology-specific groups and organizations for women in nuclear, wind, and solar, whereas there are no coal- or gas-specific power groups. (See the web supplement “Resources for Women in Power Generation,” associated with this issue in the archives at powermag.com, for a list of those groups.)

Despite the sample size limitation, when asked in Question 5 (Q5) “What type of fuel is your current job primarily involved with?” the responses reflect reasonably well the contribution of each fuel type to U.S. power generation, with the exception of nuclear (the percentage in parentheses is the 2014 number from the Energy Information Administration)—coal: 42.3% (39%), gas: 26.9% (27%), nuclear: 5.8% (19%), hydro: 3.8% (6%), solar: 0% (0.4%), wind: 1.9% (4.4%), and other: 19.2%. Those responding “other” may have not been involved in fuel-specific parts of the industry or may have been involved in other less-used fuels such as biomass and geothermal; three respondents identified themselves in write-in comments as being involved with geothermal power.

Despite the small number of responses, this survey enabled the collection of more information, from more people, from diverse corners of the industry, than was possible with the in-depth phone interviews conducted for the 2008 article.

Respondents were not required to answer all questions, although most questions were answered by all participants. The lowest response (41) was for Q19, “What do you value most about your career in the power industry?”

Respondent Demographics

Q1 asked, “What type of company do you work for?” The majority of respondents, 65.4% (34), work for a “Power generation company,” followed by 26.9% (14) who work for a “Technical company supporting or interfacing with power generators (including equipment manufacturers, engineering firms, operation and maintenance firms).” Although “Business consultants, legal firms, finance/project development” and “Regulatory agency” were other choices, those received 0 responses, but “Other” accounted for 7.7% (4) of responses.

Younger respondents accounted for the majority of survey takers, as shown by responses to Q2: “How many years have you worked in the power generation field?” The largest share, 46.2% (24) have spent 0 to 10 years in power; 26.9% (14) have spent 11 to 20 years; 15.4% (8) have spent 21 to 30 years; and 11.5% (6) have spent 31 or more years in the field.

In response to Q3, “What is your primary work location?” the majority of survey respondents, 86.3% (44), said North America; 3.9% (2) were from Western Europe; another 3.9% (2) were from Asia; and 5.9% (3) were from elsewhere.

Q4 asked about educational background (Figure 1). The majority, 67.3% (35), hold a degree in engineering or science, followed by 15.4% (8) with business degrees. Note that in all pie charts, only answers or categories that received more than 0% responses are shown.

PWR_0615_WIPG_Survey_Fig1
1. Q4: In what field did you get your highest degree or level of training? Source: POWER/2015 Women in Power Generation survey (WIPG survey)

Q6 asked, “Which of the following best describes your job function?” The largest percentage, 45.1% (23), answered, “Technical or trade (including managerial)”; 35.3% (18) responded, “Mid-level to senior manager”; 19.6% (10) responded, “Sales/marketing/administrative.”

Visibility of Women

Three questions asked about the visibility of women in respondents’ workplaces. The majority, 60% (30), responded to Q7, “What is the percentage of women in your work environment—plant, office, or division?” that no more than 10% are female (Figure 2). For other estimates of the percentage of women employed in the power sector, see “Women Are Essential to a Thriving Power Generation Sector” in this issue.

PWR_0615_WIPG_Survey_Fig2
2. Q7: What is the percentage of women in your work environment—plant, office, or division? Source: POWER/2015 WIPG survey

Regarding changes over time, Q8 asked, “In the past 10 years, has the number of women in your plant or working environment increased, decreased, or stayed about the same?” Nearly half, 49% (25), answered, “Stayed about the same”; 47.1% (24) answered, “Increased”; and 3.9% (2) answered, “Decreased.”

Since I first started covering women in the power industry, many articles and individuals have commented on the importance of role models, mentors, and sponsors. There are important differences between mentors and sponsors that make it tricky to ask about those supportive individuals in a survey, where respondents may not share an understanding of these roles.

Generally, mentors are people from within or beyond one’s company or industry who advise, encourage, and support one in a career—often just by listening or being a sounding board. Mentors may have little or nothing at stake and often expect nothing in return. Sponsors, on the other hand, are more-senior individuals within one’s company or industry who “sponsor” or vouch for their protégés and put more of their own reputation on the line by backing someone for a special assignment, promotion, or job change. Consequently, sponsorship must be earned, and the result—or payback—needs to be that the sponsored individual reflects well on the sponsor.

Role models, on the other hand, are fundamentally aspirational and may be mentors, sponsors, or neither. Q9 asked, “Do you have female role models in your company or division?” The majority, 60.8% (31), answered, “Yes”; 39.2% (20) answered, “No.”

Men vs. Women

Three questions asked about issues of gender equity in the workplace.

Q10 asked about salary: “Relative to men in your company with comparable education, training, and experience who do the same or similar jobs, are you paid: the same, less, more, or don’t know?” Responses were roughly split among “the same,” “less,” and “don’t know,” with 4% (2) answering “more” (Figure 3).

PWR_0615_WIPG_Survey_Fig3
3. Q10: Relative to men in your company with comparable education, training, and experience who do the same or similar jobs, are you paid: the same, less, more, or don’t know? Source: POWER/2015 WIPG survey

Of the 50 who responded to Q17, “Have you ever worried about your physical safety on the job due to the behavior of male coworkers?” 88% (44) said, “No,” while 12% (6) said, “Yes.”

In fields that have not traditionally attracted women, women who enter those fields sometimes feel they need to work extra hard to prove that they belong. Q18, however, did not ask about self-imposed stretch goals but instead asked about external expectations: “Are you expected to do more than your male colleagues with the same or similar job titles?” The majority, 68% (34), said, “No,” while 32% (16) said, “Yes.”

Personal Success and Challenges

No job is without its challenges, but different factors—both external and internal—can account for those challenges. Q16 asked, “What has been the single biggest obstacle to your professional success in the power industry?” The most frequently chosen factor (Figure 4) was “Corporate and/or site management attitudes” at 39.6% (21).

PWR_0615_WIPG_Survey_Fig4
4. Q16: What has been the single biggest obstacle to your professional success in the power industry? Source: POWER/2015 WIPG survey

The nine who chose “Other” provided the following explanations:

■ It’s 2015, and the environment is still a good old boy’s club.

■ A layer of skepticism that exists because I am both a woman and younger than nearly all of my colleagues.

■ No matter how capable I am to do my job, I am always competing or having to prove I am just as good or better than a male peer in the same situation.

■ Listening to people from different backgrounds; getting past gender stereotypes.

■ I could make more money and rise higher in a bigger company if I was willing to give up owning my own company and being in charge of my own time. I enjoy working from home and make use of flex-time to a great extent. I enjoy being able to support my engineering work and clients while also making dinner for my family and taking time for personal health and mental well-being (including walking the dog, a lot).

■ Being a non-local female in a small community has been very challenging. I was not welcomed with open arms when I first joined the company.

■ Outage seasons getting shorter, less work. I’m getting older and the hard labor moments are reminders that I need something less physical although I’m still not ready for a desk job.

■ No obstacles.

■ Not having engineering degree and personal confidence in assuming [I] can do range of jobs.

 

For any woman in an industry where women are a minority, a number of factors are necessary for success, but to Q15, which asked, “What has been the single most important factor in your power industry success so far?” the clear majority, 60% (30) responded, “Personal character and perseverance” (Figure 5). “Education” was the least-chosen response, at 6% (3).

PWR_0615_WIPG_Survey_Fig5
5. Q15: What has been the single most important factor in your power industry success so far? Source: POWER/2015 WIPG survey

Job Satisfaction and Professional Development

A number of questions asked about job satisfaction, beginning with the simple Q11: “How do you feel about your job?” The majority, 60.8% (31) said they “Love it”; 33.3% (17) said, “It’s OK”; and 5.9% (3) said they “Hate it.”

Work/life “balance” is rare. Instead, Q12 asked, “How would you describe your current work/life satisfaction?” Nearly half, 49% (25) responded, “High”; 43.1% (22) said, “Medium”; and 7.8% (4) said, “Low.”

As noted in the 2008 article, policies that are attractive to women in the power industry also tend to be attractive to men, especially those of younger generations. Q13 asked, “For both women and men, at different life stages, and for various personal and family caretaking needs, would you describe your company’s policies and culture as supportive of reasonable personal life flexibility?” The majority, 86.3% (44) said, “Yes”; 13.7% (7) said, “No.”

As for career growth, Q14 asked, “Regarding opportunities for career development and professional advancement with your current employer, do you see them as: excellent, good, or poor?” Responses were: 30% (15) “Excellent”; 50% (25) “Good”; and 20% (10) “Poor.”

Individuals may enter a field for any number of reasons initially, but what keeps them committed to a job or career may not be what initially attracted them. Although the survey did not ask what initially drew respondents to the power industry, Q19 asked, “What do you value most about your career in the power industry?” There was no clear winner in this category, though there was a clear loser. Responses were: “The people,” 39% (16); “The salary,” 29.3% (12); “The technical work,” 24.4% (10); and “The location,” 7.3% (3).

One of the best indicators of respondents’ experience working in the industry may be their response to Q20: “Would you recommend your career to a young woman in high school or college who shows interest in the power industry?” An overwhelming 90% (45) said, “Yes”; 10% (5) said, “No” (Figure 6).

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6. Q20: Would you recommend your career to a young woman in high school or college who shows interest in the power industry? Source: POWER/2015 WIPG survey

That result is interesting to consider in light of the response to Q21: “Are you considering a career change?” More than a quarter, 28% (14) said, “Yes”; 72% (36) said, “No.”

Note that, although cross-tabulation of responses by fuel type did not yield significant patterns in responses for most questions, for Q20 and Q21, there was a notable correlation. Of those who said in Q20 that they would not recommend a career in power to young women, 100% (5) are currently in the coal sector. Of those who are considering a career (rather than a “job”) change, 7 of the 10 are in the coal sector.

Personal Comments

Nineteen respondents provided anonymous write-in comments at the end of the survey.

Three identified themselves as being in the geothermal sector, and one requested that geothermal be added as a breakout in any future survey, noting, “There is a big community of females in this industry!”

Multiple respondents noted that, although they would encourage young women to consider a career in power, they need to be “tough,” as one woman put it. Another said, “I would also advise them that they’ll need to be thick-skinned and ready to get dirty. Most women at my plant are cowgirls, so they are used to a rough and tumble atmosphere.”

Some expressed the view that difficulties in professional advancement did not have to do with gender. One noted that “men who ‘grew-up’ in the company were also disenfranchised by management.” Others said gender had been an impediment. One commented: “I have felt that my career progression has been limited due to my gender. I also feel that to have a successful career within the industry involves a strong sense of humour and willingness to ‘bite your tongue.’” Another said, “As a female, non-engineer, I’ve had to fight hard for every advancement. I can absolutely say that I’m not afforded the same opportunities as the men. However, I have advanced and have done well.”

One woman, commenting in particular on Q18 (“Are you expected to do more than your male colleagues with the same or similar job titles?”) said, “Back in the day—yes. As a group, men are getting better about female co-workers, [but] there is still an individual here and there that thinks you need to prove something to them. I have already proved myself in this man’s world, and I won’t play that game anymore. If I excel past the men it is to improve my own abilities and I do strive to be ‘an effective team member.’ ”

Several commented on their job satisfaction. One said, “I am so fortunate that I am engaged in a career that I love. Every day is exciting and I never wake up dreading having to go to work. What could be better!” Another noted that, “Job performance, affinity groups, networking, and sponsorship are key elements to career advancement in my company. I can definitely see an active role in the company promoting minorities. Very happy with my job.” One woman, who has spent more than 15 years in the power industry in a broad variety of projects of widely varying sizes and technologies, said, “For me this has been a very rewarding career and I can’t imagine working in any other field.”

Multiple women commented on how their power industry job provides a sense of satisfaction derived from having contributed to the world—which is different from personal enjoyment of a job. One explained: “Although there are hurdles for women, especially in the engineering and management areas of this industry, it is very rewarding to know that one’s work has made the workplaces safer and the processes more efficient. I had some experience in the nuclear power industry for several decades and am pleased to know that some of the safety equipment with which I was associated worked properly when needed. The same can be said for the transmission and distribution equipment.”

Another respondent, who took the survey after the ELECTRIC POWER Conference & Exhibition, said, “I have worked in both the oil & gas and power sectors—both male-dominated industries, but just like in our home lives, I truly believe women are making the difference to move these industries forward. Women attend conferences and participate in panels for different reasons—we are there to get something accomplished, to move the needle. I feel like men are more focused on the social aspect of the conferences and are not always as prepared or willing to attend to actually learn something.”

Finally, a couple of respondents recognized the need for women to support other women in power generation careers. One seasoned veteran of the industry said, “My job now is to mentor, rather than be the mentee. I do enjoy the peer support found through LinkedIn.”

Both the survey responses and write-in comments indicate that corporate policies typically are not the barrier—people are, as suggested by responses to Q16 and Q21. ■

Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s editor.