Visibility matters

It is a common occurrence for a woman in a technical field to be surrounded by only men in most of her daily meetings.

According to data from Catalyst, a leading-nonprofit institution with a mission to advance the inclusion of women in the workplace, women:

•      Account for almost half, 46.8 percent, of the total US labor force.
•      Hold only 26 (5.2 percent) CEO positions at S&P 500 companies.
•      Are present in about one-fifth of S&P Board seats.

When we look at the energy utilities in the S&P index, the numbers are roughly the same. While women make up almost half of the workforce, we see only single digit percentages represented in most senior ranks. These numbers barely inch forward each year, ignoring well-publicized evidence that diverse leadership teams make better decisions and financially outperform their more homogeneous peers.  Growth projections predict we are decades away from nearing proportional gender representation in executive levels. 

At the New York Power Authority (NYPA), we have a different mindset and are actively working toward advancing the goal of creating a more representative management. Under the leadership and direction of our president and CEO, Gil Quiniones, and the continuous encouragement of Governor Andrew Cuomo, we have increased the percentage of women with titles of vice president or higher by 50 percent in the last five years. As the largest state-owned utility in the country, we are setting an important example for our industry.

A critical component of this effort is focusing on visibility, a powerful tool to accelerate the balancing of the senior staff roles. It is essential that women in leadership positions and non-traditional roles such as fieldwork and operations be seen internally and externally.  This is especially true when women are not proportionately represented.  We need to speak at conferences, displaying our vast array of technical responsibilities. We need to write papers, join boards and industry committees, and submit op-eds. We need to be deliberate about being seen. As these images become part of the so-called “new normal,” it will be easier for the selection committees often mostly male to consider a woman for the next career opportunity.

At NYPA, we started a Women in Power employee resource group in 2014 to raise the visibility of women throughout the organization. Programs and events typically appeal to all employees, such as entrepreneurship, managing personal finances, and career advancement advice. Speakers, including NYPA employees and leadership from our peer companies and customers, feature mostly women who are highly competent and well-regarded in their fields. Our Women in Power group organizes an annual book club. We select a female author and then invite her to speak at a company-wide event every fall. Sometimes subtle, sometimes not, NYPA's Women in Power group is actively putting images of impressive, accomplished women in front of our employees on a regular basis.

The progress achieved toward improving diversity in leadership at NYPA is built on a foundation of senior level support. Our CEO and his entire executive committee are personal champions of employee resource groups like Women in Power, LGBTQ, and veterans.

If you have the talent and the skills, it does not matter if you are female.

For those of us that love the national pastime, baseball, minor league umpire Ria Cortesio said it best, “A ball is a ball, a strike is a strike, whether you have blue eyes or brown eyes, or whether you’re male or female.” Or as Hank Aaron said in 1977, “There is no logical reason why girls shouldn't play baseball.”  I would add or being an engineer or holding a c-suite position.

A lack of diversity affects us all. Everyone wants to work for a company that thrives and remains relevant and successful through the evolution of our industry. Staying relevant necessitates having a variety of backgrounds at every level of our organizations.

Each of us can personally contribute to increasing the visibility of women and minorities in the energy industry. Recommend a woman speaker the next time when you are part of an event planning committee. When accepting an invitation for an event, ask how many women have been asked to speak and encourage balanced representation. Post your own images on social media of women up on stage at industry events, or on the job at your company.

Gender imbalance in the utility industry is a solvable problem. Women are filling the classes of engineering and technical schools in record numbers. As they progress through the ranks of their organizations, they should eventually have access to top positions and become part of the movement to achieve real leadership equality.

This vision of the utility of tomorrow is good for everyone.