By - Michael Drost

Women Leaders to Shape Utility of the Future


In 1882, Thomas Edison installed the world’s first central generating power plant on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, providing lighting for 59 customers. In 1892, Edison’s secretary, Samuel Insull, assumed the presidency of the small Chicago Edison Electric Company, and in a short time transformed the electric utility industry into its modern structure by incorporating efficient steam turbines to produce more power at less cost, while also maximizing his company’s “load factor” by taking advantage of off-peak power usage. Later, industrial pioneers George Westinghouse, Galileo Ferraris, Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, Nikola Tesla, and Carl Wilhelm Siemens would make incalculable contributions to the generation, delivery, and sale of electricity products.

If the modern electric utility industry started off with the innovations of two men, so it has remained primarily a male-dominated industry.   According to a 2013 report by Catalyst, the utility workforce is only 23 percent women, as compared to the general workforce where women make up more than half. If that were not bad enough, it gets much worse when it comes to board positions and senior management teams. According to Ernst and Young’s Index of women in power and utilities (P&U), about 5 percent of executive board positions across P&U companies are held by women, while women represent only 13 percent of senior management teams.

This is not a good. According to E&Y’s report, companies with the best record of promoting women into board and senior management positions are up to 69 percent more profitable than those who don’t, while the top 20 most diverse utilities significantly outperformed the lower 20 in terms of return on equity (ROE). The top 20 utilities had a combined average of 8.5 percent ROE, outpacing the bottom 20’s combined average ROE of 7 percent.

To get a clearer picture of what’s going on with gender parity in the utility industry, EUCI spoke to three women leaders at three leading utility and power companies. Here’s what they had to say about what the utility industry was like when they started out, and what it’s like today.

EUCI: Describe how you got into the utility industry?

Caren Anders, VP of Emerging Technology, Duke Energy: I always loved the logic associated with math and science and that led me to pursue a mechanical engineering degree. When I graduated, the utility industry was a perfect choice—power plants and the electrical grid provided numerous career opportunities within one company.

Mary Ellen Paravalos, Director of Strategy & Performance, National Grid: I got college degrees in electrical engineering, so a move into the utility industry was a natural fit. While science was my first interest and draw into the industry (energy is a very cool thing!), I have found that a career at an energy utility is so much more.   It’s a really important time to be in the industry and shaping our collective energy future – at the local community level all the way to national and global levels.

Wanda Reder, Chief Strategy Officer, S&C Electric Company: It was actually an internship at National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in Washington DC in 1986 that sparked my interest in the power industry. After I received my engineering degree, I started at Northern States Power Company in Minneapolis and have had a lot of different jobs with increasing responsibility and visibility over the years. I was fortunate enough to find a few sponsors who helped me along the way, and were very influential in my success. As a woman, I learned early to work extra hard to hit deliverables out of the park to be considered an “equal” with my male colleagues.

EUCI: What was the utility industry like when you started your career, versus what it is like today?

CA: When I started there were few women in engineering.   That was true both in college and in industry.  However, I was fortunate and rarely experienced being a woman as a negative factor.  I have always approached my positions as an engineer or a manager, verses a female engineer or a female manager.  There are both good and challenging stereotypical attributes that come with being a women, many of which I possess.  I have learned to be find confidence within myself and not seek it from others.  I am drawn in by facts but always listen to my intuition.   Gender is just one attribute that creates a person’s unique skills and challenges.  Being self-aware of those characteristics so that you can both draw from them and improve upon them is a key to success.  I have learned that if you treat people with respect, they usually reciprocate – I’m a great believer of those rules you learn in kindergarten.

MEP: When I started out 20 years ago, of course there were women in the utility fields, but we were very much a minority. Things have improved in places, but there are still many times I find myself one of a few women ‘at the table’.   I was fortunate to have some strong female managers and peers in my early days that really helped me visualize what was possible for women in the industry. I try to be that same kind of role model through mentoring and activities in and out of the day-job.

WR: When I started, I was the only female engineer and was treated much like the women in the administrative pool, which was kind of weird. I was in an engineer! There are a lot more women in technical and leadership role models now. When I was getting into my career, over 25 years ago, there were very few women, very few, and I had to figure out how to navigate and find males that would support me, listen to me, and in many cases advocate my position if my voice wasn’t heard. It was a different time

EUCI: Despite obvious progress, utilities are still a male-dominated industry. What do you think accounts for this? What would you like to see change, if anything?

CA: One of the barriers that I see in the industry is the way we define who will be good at a position – the requirements we put in job descriptions.   These requirements often limit the pool of qualified candidates and can keep women and minorities from positions where they would be successful. The requirements may have been successful in the past, but I challenge you to think about whether they are the only attributes that contribute to success.   I have given nontraditional candidates opportunities to fill positions in my organizations and have been impressed with their contributions and their success in those roles.

MEP: I would like to see many more women engaged and leading in this industry, and having rewarding careers that stretch them to enable them to reach their full potential. We need to get girls interested in technical fields at a young age, focus on confidence-building and leadership skills development for girls and women, and encourage women to seek out external networking avenues throughout their career that can provide a widened perspective, external visibility, and support and encouragement to aim high in creating and taking on new job opportunities.

WR: We’re far from where we need to be; we’re not in a position where we can celebrate success – yet. We need to tap insights and perspectives from a diverse workforce to benefit our employers and the communities we serve. We can learn from those who have been actively engaged, listen closely to the challenges of their journey and set-out to address them. One of the biggest challenges to overcome is cultural and it’s to get your voice heard in a meaningful way: get an opportunity to lead very visible programs and initiatives, work to  become part of an inner circle where decisions are really made, speak-up, volunteer to lead teams… Once you differentiate yourself, you are seen as someone who can deliver and is visionary.

EUCI: As women leaders in an industry on the cusp of significant changes, how do you think utilities will be restructuring their operation and business models over the next few years? What will the utility of the future look like?

CA: The utility of the future will be more customer focused – giving more options to customers to choose their type of service, to understand their usage patterns and how they can control their electric usage, how they get and pay their bills, among many other choices.   Our customers’ homes will be more interconnected with ability for smart and remote operations of the devices in their homes. Right now, the utilities are still the provider of last resort. As such, we need to not only enable this flexibility, but we also need to ensure the current electric grid is strong and resilient.

MEP: Utilities in the past have provided a relatively simple product – bringing energy sources delivered over pipes and wires into communities and to homes and businesses. Today’s energy landscape is more complex – with important climate-change considerations, technology advancements, economic pressures and evolving security threats. Utilities that will be successful in the future will focus on providing energy solutions in an environmental and economically-sensible way – and keeping their customers engaged and happy.

WR: We are at a point of significant industry transition — how we make, move, and use energy is a jump-ball with a lot of uncertainty. During this transition, it is very likely that customer choice will increasingly be a part of the equation, and distributed generation, renewables, microgrids and storage will be core elements of the modern grid. To be viable in the future, I believe that utilities will need to think beyond the traditional boundaries and be influential in policy reform to re-define business models that embrace this opportunity.

EUCI: As a woman who climbed the ranks of the industry to become a leader in your field, what would you say to women looking to make their mark and become leaders in the utility industry?

CA: The utility industry today is exciting and dynamic and a great choice for a career. What we do matters to our customers – we impact their lives in a meaningful and essential way. We power their ability to do both everyday mundane things and to make great inspirational advances. I take pride in being part of an industry that impacts people’s lives so profoundly. If we each use the skills and talents we have been given and if we continue to grow and learn, then we can be successful.

MEP: I would say to push yourself outside your comfort zone – set some scary goals for yourself and take risks – even on a daily basis! Also, remember it’s a career and not a sprint – think long-term but take actions in the short-term. And throughout – put health and wellbeing high up on your priority list – for yourself and those around you.  When you take steps to be in the best health possible for you, you’ll be all the better equipped to take on life’s challenges and reach your aspirations.

WA: It is the right time and place for women in the power industry. I think the skill sets that are required to take the industry forward are much different than in the past.   In the past, the leadership style has been very militaristic, a top down approach for good reason, and we’ve been successful because it’s operationally focused and the industry hasn’t moved that much. But now as we introduce customer choice, a lot of uncertainty in business models and a modernizes grid that will accommodate renewable generation variability, not all of the good ideas can come from the top.   It will take collaboration, listening, and bringing those to the table that can fill a wide range of skill sets to solve problems optimally. Women are pretty good in that role.   It’s easy to see that our brain patterns are different. From our day-to–day lives at home, women naturally multi-task and collaborate more than guys typically do. Therein is the opportunity for women in the power industry today: it’s our time to step-up and make a difference!

Want to learn more about how we can create more gender parity in the utility industry?  Come out to EUCI’s Leadership Conference for Women in Energy June 2-3 in Indianapolis.  Join the nation’s most successful women leaders in energy as they share their industry knowledge, strategies and experiences on how to accelerate positive organizational change and personal growth.

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