Women’s Contributions to Public Power – Now and Throughout History

Congress initially designated March 1987 as Women’s History Month to honor the women who made historical contributions to the nation’s growth and strength. In establishing this designation, a congressional resolution acknowledged that women had been “consistently overlooked and undervalued in the body of American history.”

Looking back through public power’s history, there are many examples of women who have helped shape community ownership of electric utilities in their cities, states, and regions. We searched through our archive to learn more about the first women to lead public power organizations. This search led us to profile Carolyn S. McNeil from Sandy, Utah, who was the first woman to lead Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems.

Here at the American Public Power Association, I had the pleasure of working with Sue Kelly, who was the first woman to assume the top leadership role at APPA. In January 2020, I succeeded Sue as president and CEO and worked with her for many years during my first stint at the association. A brilliant energy lawyer by trade, Sue adeptly led public power during a time of profound industry change. Known for her sharp wit and candor, Sue was named one of the “100 Most Powerful Women in Washington” by Washingtonian magazine in 2015. She is truly a living public power legend and a trailblazer for whom I am grateful.

Even as we honor the pioneers of the past, it is vital that we nurture and develop new talent to ensure a stable, trained, and inclusive public power workforce. This is not just about finding the women leaders of tomorrow, but recognizing and encouraging participation in all parts of our workforce across the entire potential talent pool. Training up — and supporting the retention of — a more diverse workforce makes practical sense as public power utilities face labor shortages.

We recently devoted an issue of Public Power magazine to the subject of equity. In my editorial, I noted that “[a]lthough the idea of equity is embedded within the public power model, it takes continual effort to understand, preserve, or remedy any challenges to how different customers access or use electricity. Especially as technology continues to evolve our relationship with – and reliance on – electricity, utilities should work closely with all members of a community to make sure utility decisions reflect local values; to strive for affordability and fairness in rates; to have a workforce that represents the community we serve [emphasis mine]; and to contribute to the community’s success.”

Public power utilities are already making efforts to make the workforce more inclusive of women. For example, last fall we profiled Giuliana Seretti, Hanna Gehrke, and Naushita Sharma, three engineering students who were awarded scholarships through APPA’s Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments (DEED) program. From Colorado, Michigan, and Arizona respectively, these impressive women are a sampling of those being exposed to careers in public power and provided mentoring opportunities, and of women contributing to the public power knowledge base. Their project reports offer utility employees insights into emerging practices and considerations for solar power, electric rates, and solar water heater adoption.

Another contributor is Anne Stratman, a Ph.D. candidate who researched the Southwest Power Pool as part of her studies in electrical engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Power and Energy Systems Laboratory. Through partial support from the DEED program, Anne is refining a model for utility operators with renewable energy resources in their portfolios to participate more fully in wholesale power markets.

At our upcoming Public Power Lineworkers Rodeo in Austin, Texas, in addition to the usual competition and training activities, we are holding an event that will in part highlight women in utility linework. While women still comprise a very small percentage of lineworkers, the women who have previously and currently do this frontline work have paved the way for many more to come.

Identifying and developing the untapped potential of those in the workforce who have been historically underrepresented in public power – or restricted to specific roles based on race, gender, or ethnicity -- makes tremendous practical sense. The workforce of tomorrow may be closer at hand and more accessible than we may have imagined.