What It Takes to Be a POWER-ful Woman

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in the energy industry. According to the Department of Energy, less than a quarter of U.S. workers in the electric power generation field are women, compared to an average of 46.8% in the national workforce. Some influential women in the industry share their thoughts on how to address this disparity.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) latest U.S. Energy and Employment report covers four sectors of the U.S. economy: the electric power generation and fuels sector; the transmission, distribution, and storage sector; the energy efficiency sector; and the motor vehicles sector. The report found that “These energy-related sectors are relatively less diverse compared to the overall national workforce. Women are a smaller portion of the workforce in these sectors, ranging from 22 to 34 percent, compared to the overall economy, where women make up 47 percent of the workforce.”

According to the DOE report, in general, the electric power generation sector employs more women than the fuel sector. For example, coal electric power generation employs more women than coal fuels, with women comprising about 37% of the generation workforce. This carries into the oil and gas sector, with about a third of workers in generation being women. Roughly a third of the combined heat and power generation sector is comprised of women. “Nuclear generation has a relatively high proportion of female workers, with almost four in ten employees reported to be women,” the report says.

Nancy Pfund (Figure 1), founder and managing partner of DBL Partners, suggests that the energy sector needs to attract more women for their unique contributions. “We need more women in this sector. The perspective and integrative approach that women bring to investing and business is especially valuable in this sector because of the combination of technical and social forces at work in each company,” she told POWER.

1. Women needed. The energy industry could use the input of women, Nancy Pfund (left), founder and managing partner of DBL Partners, told POWER. Courtesy: The Hawthorn Club

Women are gaining a foothold in the solar industry, according to the Solar Foundation’s annual jobs census. “Women represent a greater proportion of the solar workforce than in previous years, having risen steadily from 18.7% in 2013 to the 28% reported in 2016. The increase from 2015 to 2016 represented the largest annual jump to date, moving from 24% to 28%,” the report says.

That figure only gets more dismal when looking at women in leadership positions. According to a 2016 analysis conducted by international advisory firm Korn Ferry, only 6% of energy industry CEOs are women, 10% of industry chief technology officers are women, 35% of chief information officers are women, and 13% of chief marketing officers are women. Only in the role of chief human resources officer do women outnumber men at roughly 57%. All told, the analysis finds that women fill 24% of C-Suite positions in the energy sector.

The Global Perspective

The global situation is harder to parse, as comprehensive data is not available. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2014 released a report looking specifically at renewables. The report notes that “In two countries that have uniquely monitored these numbers, women’s employment was estimated several years ago at 26% in Spain (in 2010) and 24% in Germany (in 2007).”

The USAID report goes on to suggest that women might find the renewables sector more inviting. “The renewable energy sector is perceived to be less discriminatory than the fossil fuels industry because it is a new and non-traditional field. And there is some evidence that women are drawn to choose career paths in line with their worldview or that they believe will make a difference in the world,” the report says.

This rings true for Trude Sundset, CEO of Norway’s state-run carbon capture and storage (CCS) enterprise, Gassnova. “I feel I’m at the point in my life where I can decide to do things that are not just a job, it really means something more, so I would like to do my best to make sure that we succeed in CCS,” she told POWER in an April 2017 interview.

According to the USAID report, there is less of a gender divide in Vietnam in engineering training, and women fill up to 40% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) positions. At the other end of the spectrum, the report notes “Social stigmas prevent female engineering graduates in Sri Lanka from being placed in engineering jobs. At a recent renewable energy conference in India, of the 200 participants only four were women, who cited caste status as a prerequisite for either women or men participating.”

In the Boardroom

The picture isn’t any better in the boardroom, where only 16% of all board members in the world’s top 200 power and utility companies are women, according to an annual report produced by multinational professional services firm EY. This is unfortunate in light of studies finding that having more women in leadership increases profitability.

“When we examined the profitable firms in our sample (average net margin of 6.4 percent), we found that going from having no women in corporate leadership (the CEO, the board, and other C-suite positions) to a 30 percent female share is associated with a one-percentage-point increase in net margin—which translates to a 15 percent increase in profitability for a typical firm,” according to a Peterson Institute for International Economics working paper published in February 2016.

To address the underrepresentation of women on boards, some countries have instituted quotas for publicly traded companies. Norway, for example, was the first country to institute a gender quota, requiring that the board of any publicly traded company is composed of 40% women. Germany, France, Belgium, Iceland, and Italy also have mandatory quotas. The U.S. has no such requirement.

Powerful Women

So, how do women get into these positions of power, and even more importantly, what can we learn from the experiences of those who have broken through the energy sector’s glass ceiling?

Perhaps the first lesson to learn from these women is that there is no one way to the top. Sundset, for example, started her career as a researcher but felt drawn to management very early on. “I think I’ve always wanted to have a broader scoop on things, so I’m not sure I was a very good researcher to be honest because I can easily get bored if I have to do the same thing over and over again,” she said. “To be leading researchers, I love doing that, to stimulate them, to make sure that they have the right surroundings, the right resources, I always loved doing that … I believe this is how I can contribute most.”

Sundset (Figure 2) attributes her success in part to her willingness to take on new challenges. “What is typical for me is that when they ask me to do things, a new challenge, I always say yes,” she said. “If you do that, if you say yes to some challenges—and I think I could have been better at asking to get these opportunities myself—but for me, it has worked. I have been asked to do things and then I just kind of, you just have to say yes, and that’s maybe where women tend to be too afraid to say yes. We should say yes more because my experience is you always find a way, you always figure out a way to do things.”

2. Take on new challenges. Trude Sundset, CEO of Norway’s state-run carbon capture and storage enterprise, said “yes” to any challenge thrown her way throughout her career, she told POWER. Courtesy: Gassnova

Lynda Clemmons, vice president of sustainable solutions at NRG Energy, graduated with liberal arts degrees in history and French, and a minor in business. She went on to work at an investment bank before being recruited by Enron, which she calls “the ‘little energy company down the street’ that later became a household name for all the wrong reasons.” From there, she took control of her own career. “I had the opportunity and the good fortune to start two businesses during my time there and then left to go start my own company with a few partners. Backed by an insurance company out of Bermuda, we built a trading and insurance division focused on managing financial weather and energy risks for corporations. We were successful and had a lot of fun, but after three years I was ready to start a family and enjoy a change of pace from constant travel,” she told POWER.

For seven years Clemmons consulted on “everything from emission credits and weather derivatives to private equity investing and trading software” before joining NRG. “I jumped in at a sales level with no managerial responsibilities. While catching up on the power sector, I also went back to school and finally earned that master’s degree in finance I had wanted for 20 years. Today, I lead three teams at NRG—a renewables sales team, a sustainability team and a ‘put-steel-in-the-ground’ project management team.”

Dame Fiona Woolf’s career has gone in many, many different directions. She is currently an energy lawyer with CMS Cameron McKenna and has previously served as Lord Mayor of London (one of only two women to do so). Woolf’s background in banking and project finance for infrastructure, most notably on the Channel Tunnel, resulted in her being asked to help an electricity company in Northern Ireland persuade the government not to allow a private, lignite-fired power station. That company taught Woolf how they operated their power system in the Belfast control room, and she became the only lawyer who had been trained in system operations. “As a result, I got the job of advising the National Grid when the industry in England and Wales was restructured and the competitive wholesale market was implemented.”

Woolf led a team of 38 lawyers, “advising on, drafting and negotiating over 700 agreements and codes for the restructuring and privatisation of The National Grid Company plc including the legislation, ancillary services agreements, the Grid Code, transmission access and pricing and the regulatory regime,” according to her website.

Challenges for Women in the Industry

Once in the industry, many women report issues, some big, some small, that they believe men in the field don’t have to consider. For example, Jennifer Didlo, president of AES Southland, reported various annoyances and challenges for women that men in the field may not even notice. “Oh, where to start; there are seemingly little things like no women’s bathrooms out in the plant to obviously larger things like limited female role models who are actually doing a job a few steps above you in an organization. Or other small things like safety milestone achievement tee shirts that apparently only come in men’s shirts and other big things like being the only woman in the room who is six months’ pregnant and feeling vulnerable,” she told POWER.

Didlo went on to note that while the small things are annoying, it’s those bigger issues that are holding women back. “All in all, I firmly believe it is up to each of us to tolerate the little things but take many ‘firsts’ steps to change the big things,” she said.

Lack of Role Models.With so few women in leadership positions in the energy industry, many of the women interviewed noted a lack of female role models as a disappointing reality.

Woolf found a role model in economist Sally Hunt. Hunt worked for 20 years at National Economic Research Associates (NERA). “When I couldn’t understand what was being said, I used to follow her into the ladies’ toilet and ask her dumb questions! She always made me feel that it was the dumb questions that sparked her best thoughts!” Woolf said.

For Woolf, it was up to her to stand up as a role model for the women working below her. “The job was so inter-disciplinary and different to anything that any of us had done, that we all needed and helped each other. It was a huge collaborative effort, but I did have to encourage some of the girls in my team and make sure that they felt supported.”

However, being one of the only women at her level was stressful. “I wished that I had other women at my level to talk to. It was challenging to build a business and inspire a young team—I did have a lot of women—and I was so busy that I struggled to find the time to help them develop because we were all client-focused,” she said.

Didlo notes that her first role model in the industry was not a woman, but her father. “Growing up I watched my father, an engineer for GE, go to work energized and excited about work nearly every day,” she said.

However, what really drew her to the industry was an event that brought like-minded women together. “When I was in high school I attended a women in engineering day at [the University of Southern California] and was fascinated by the interesting work these women did and also felt an amazing sense of community being among these accomplished women. This sense of community is rare in the working world; for me, I have experienced it either while working on a very highly functioning team and in organizations and groups that are focused on bringing women together,” she said. Didlo went on to note that industry groups for women, such as The Hawthorn Club (Figure 3), have been instrumental in keeping that feeling of camaraderie throughout her career.

3. Camaraderie is key. For women working in the energy industry, it is important to make supportive connections with fellow women. One group working to help build these connections, the Hawthorn Club, of which all of the women included in this article are members, bills itself as the only international network for professional women in the energy industry. “Here’s a fun fact for you—there are more men named John on the boards of U.S. energy companies than there are women,” Hawthorn Club CEO Meade Harris (back row, fourth from the right) told POWER. Courtesy: The Hawthorn Club

Finding a female role model is easier for some. “Of course it’s a challenge, you don’t have that many, but Norway had, very early on, a female prime minister,” Sundset said, speaking of Gro Harlem Brundtland. “She always talked about ‘you can do anything,’ and then you had all this focus politically on health care, on maternity leave, on kindergarten, and all this, so I think that’s one of [my role models].”

Child Care and Maternity Leave.An ongoing challenge for women in every industry in the U.S. is a lack of mandated paid maternity leave. According to a 2015 article in The New York Times, “Paid leave raises the probability that mothers return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages. Paid leave does not necessarily help businesses—but it does not seem to hurt them, either.”

Sundset finds that living in a country that supports working mothers significantly improves the productivity of workers. In Norway, new parents may take 46 weeks of maternity leave at full pay or 56 weeks at 80% pay. Fathers are allowed to take up to 10 weeks of paternity leave, but if they choose not to take it, it is subtracted from the total parental leave for the family. This way, fathers are encouraged to be as active in child rearing as mothers.

That makes a big difference in how caring for children is viewed in the workplace, Sundset says. “You can be in a meeting and say, ‘Well, I actually have to leave because I have to pick up my kids at 4 o’clock,’ that’s accepted…. It is accepted that you take care of your kids.”

She also noted that this flexibility in work-life balance does not lead to decreased productivity. “When you give people flexibility they also give something back. I can always trust my employees, if they say they’re going to deliver, they do so,” she said, going on to state that it doesn’t matter if her employees complete their work at home after their children have gone to bed, or during the work day, as long as it gets done. “If you want to have a life outside, if you want to talk to your kids and see them play handball or football, you have to get your job done quickly enough so that you can do that and that’s very appreciated in Norway.”

This kind of flexibility is nothing to scoff at. According to a recent study by Expert Market, Norway is the second-most-productive economy in the world.

Corporate views on child care issues in the U.S. are rather shortsighted, Clemmons said, noting that she is thankful that she was working as her own boss when she had her children. “Challenges around taking care of family—whether children or aging parents—still fall mostly on women. And corporations often view onsite childcare or even lactation rooms as a big expensive perk, which to me is as ridiculous as it is shortsighted. And let’s be clear, it’s not limited to the energy industry,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry if my job would still be there for me after a short term of corporate maternity leave, and I didn’t have to worry about burning out only a short while after returning and trying to juggle everything.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, what is there to be done? According to a December 2016 fact sheet released by Catalyst, women still lag behind men in pursuing STEM degrees, and in turn, working in STEM career fields. “In the United States, only 11% of working engineers are women. Among women who earned engineering degrees, over a third (38%) quit engineering or never even entered the profession,” according to the fact sheet.

Even when women do enter technical industries, they’re much more likely than men to leave those industries quickly. “Women who start out in business roles in tech-intensive industries leave for other industries at high rates—53% of women, compared to 31% of men,” according to the fact sheet.

This migration of women out of the energy industry is particularly interesting to Clemmons. “For entry-level positions, the ratios are roughly equal men to women, but once you get into the next level or two of management, women become scarce. Then, at higher levels, women often return in leadership roles, hired from outside of the industry. I think there’s a great opportunity for the power sector to take a look at why women in their mid-20s to mid-30s aren’t sticking around to grow,” she said.

Citing a report by the Center for Talent Innovation, the fact sheet claims “Isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments, ineffective executive feedback, and a lack of effective sponsors are factors pushing women to leave [Science, Engineering, and Technology] jobs.”

The key to succeeding in the energy industry, according to these POWER-ful women, is relatively simple, though perhaps easier said than done: find something that you love to do and stick with it, don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong, and don’t underestimate the value of a supportive role model. ■

Abby Harvey is a POWER reporter.

SHARE this article