Career Advancement at Utilities: Tips for Women from Women
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Roughly six in 10 subscribers to EEC Perspectives are women. Many of our most engaged readers are women. So we asked some female practitioners of utility communications and marketing to share their ideas on how women can succeed and advance in their chosen profession, based on their experience. And by hearing the unvarnished thoughts of women who are not in their chain of command, maybe this will help improve the management skills of any man who manages a woman.
Utility Industry Advancement Usually Happens with Advanced Degrees
Christina Pierson has served as a public affairs professional for several Midwest customer-owned electric utility organizations
Everyone’s experience is unique, which makes it hard to give advice. There really is no one-size-fits-all advice that works for every woman working in utility communications, marketing, government affairs, and association management.
In the hope of making gender a non-issue and pay equity a reality, persistence by qualified women in applying for positions traditionally held by men will make it better for the next generation.
When I first entered the industry, my chief executive mentors often had a master’s degree in business administration. Although not a rule, many of these mentors were replaced by leaders with more technical master’s degrees in engineering, law, or information technology.
Over the years, as the industry became more complex, it has become even more engineering-centric and tightly bound by laws and regulations. If your ultimate goal is to lead a utility organization in business strategy, you may need to pair undergraduate work in communications or social sciences with an advanced technical degree.
Willingness to change your residence to another community or state also can be helpful if you want to share your talents as an organizational leader.
Networking is always important and valuable. Attending conferences, receptions, and sporting events offer opportunities to learn new information. Serving on industry subcommittees presents another opportunity to use leadership skills in a collaborative way that can bring career satisfaction.
Be Alert for New Opportunities on the Back Nine
Director of Government & Community Relations,
My biggest advice to women working in utility communications and marketing is to be open to new opportunities, including the potential to leverage our network both within and outside of the utility industry to create new opportunities.
For instance, I used to work in politics and after joining the Delaware Municipal Electric Corporation (DEMEC) as a Communications Specialist back in 2017, I connected my government network and our legislative communications to expand DEMEC’s advocacy efforts. Having worked at Legislative Hall, I knew that luncheons were always a big hit, so I created a new opportunity called the DEMEC Legislative Luncheon, which now happens annually.
Additionally, branch out to new areas and grow your network beyond your comfort zone. If a new opportunity presents itself when your utility sponsors or partners with different organizations for events, do not be afraid to jump in and try new things.
DEMEC sponsors a few golf tournaments throughout the year, and they typically invite us to have a team in the tournament. In the beginning, I tried to recruit others — staffers or board members — who were known to like golf. At that time, my golfing “experience” was limited to miniature golf.
However, I realized that great conversations and networking happen on the golf course. Most tournaments use a “scramble” format, which takes the pressure off you to be a good golfer. In a scramble, each team plays the best ball of its foursome. So, I borrowed a set of women’s clubs and got out on the course when the next opportunity came.
Looking back, I see that labeling myself as unqualified kept me “out of the game.” You will see growth personally and professionally when you branch out and get in the game.
Keep Fighting, and If You Have to, Bring Your Own Chair to the Table
Chief Marketing Officer,
Conway Corporation, Arkansas
Last year, I attended a Jason Isbell concert and Mickey Guyton was the opening act. She opened with her song, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”
I soaked in the lyrics. You can too if you go to https://youtu.be/-s1dcoTRTT0.
I have felt a little bit like the lyrics of this song in coming up with the words for this blog post. What can I tell you that you haven’t already heard a million different ways when someone asks about being a woman working in a male-dominated field?
I grew up, like many little girls, hearing that I could do or be anything I wanted. I believed it was up to me to make it happen. I didn’t spend time thinking about the male-to-female ratio in a room or even realizing there were rooms where I might not be welcomed. I just wanted to bring my best self to any job I did.
When I was 25 years old, my boss suggested that I join a local civic club. I did, and several long-time members quit the club. It was a room I was not supposed to be in. Myself and one other woman were the first women to join the club. The other woman did not stay very long, but I did. Six years later, I became the first woman president of the club. Today (more than 25 years later), that club is filled with women who are leading and impacting our community. Some of the old-timers still like to jokingly remind me of the men who quit; but I remind them of what they have because I stayed.
Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968. I have this quote from her in my office, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
That is my best advice. Also,
- Trust yourself and keep showing up with your best self
- Encourage, engage and equip others to believe in the possibilities
- Have that folding chair handy and bring along some extras — we need each other
In the song it asks, “Do you tell her not to fight? Is it worth the sacrifice? Can you look her in the face and promise her that things’ll change?”
My answer is, keep fighting. It is worth the sacrifice. Things are changing and we are the change.
Ask Questions So You Can Do Your Best Work
Public Information Coordinator,
Greer Commission of Public Works, South Carolina
Five years ago, I entered the utility business as a one-person communications department. I had no utility industry experience. Two weeks into my new role, a snake got into our substation and damaged equipment, knocking out power to 1,500 customers. Talk about getting thrown into the fire!
I am only the second person to be a public information coordinator at my utility, so it took some time for co-workers to understand and see the value in my role. But by working together, we have been able to spread positive and timely messages when it counts. It has been one of the most rewarding careers with many opportunities for personal and professional growth.
If I could offer any advice to others in the utility communications role, it is to ask your co-workers questions often. Ask them why things work a certain way or how their work impacts customers. Doing this will help you, as a communicator, better explain utility issues without jargon, in an easy-to-understand manner.
I’ve found that not having a utility background has helped me tremendously because if I can understand the information, then hopefully our customers will too.
Also, I recommend:
- Get your hands dirty
- Show up on job sites
- Ask more questions
- Become an active participant to the degree it is safe to do so
All of that will only strengthen your relationship with co-workers, which really pays off when there’s an emergency — like when a snake or a squirrel shorts out a substation!
Use Humor, Stop Apologizing, and Keep Blazing that Trail
Public Relations Coordinator,
Okanogan County PUD, Washington
Earlier in my career, at a meeting with 200 public power peers, the speaker recognized me as the only female Millennial in the crowd. I smiled, waved, and offered to sign autographs. Only one person took me up on that offer, but the point is, it’s time to stop apologizing for being who we are — whether it is age, gender, personality, abilities, experience, etc. Whether we are the first to do something or the thousandth, let’s make the trail an even better one for those that walk it after us.
Hard to believe, but I still get asked, “Who watches your kids while you’re at a conference?”
I can think of a thousand smart-aleck replies to that question, but my go-to is a wry-yet-friendly smile and the question, “Would you ask that question if I were a man?” The answer: Of course not. It’s nice to kindly remind people that if you wouldn’t ask a particular question to someone if they were a different gender, then it’s probably not appropriate, possibly even offensive (although they rarely intend to be either).
I’m going after my master’s degree now, but if that seems too much (it’s not), look into certifications, accreditations, and other programs with credit or something to place in your employee file.
I’ve done many a training program over the years, and the ones that have been most useful and have raised the most approving eyebrows are:
- FEMA incident management
- Accreditation in Public Relations
- Electrical Systems 101, and
- Several one-hour webinars/video tutorials on design, social media, etc.
The more those pile up, the better it will be for you and the more reasons your employer (or potential employer) will have to give you that next step up.
As a Storyteller, Embrace Simplicity
Media Relations Representative,
Salt River Project, Arizona
These days, people have multiple careers and often times our work trajectories tend to be non-linear. But in so many ways, my life seemed predestined for a media relations career at Salt River Project (SRP), the nation’s third largest public power utility.
After receiving my degree in broadcast journalism, I began a 22-year career in that field as a TV news reporter and anchor for ABC and NBC affiliates across the country. I was privileged to sit at the foot of history, covering stories and people that have shaped our world.
Then, 12 years ago, I switched career paths and became a media relations specialist at SRP. To me, it was a daunting endeavor: I knew nothing about electric distribution, transmission, water storage, and the myriad ways my utility impacts daily life. What I did know, however, was how to tell a story. How to connect with people. How to boil down complex topics to be relatable, so that my mom, grandma, or children would understand.
I don’t know that I have a secret formula on how women or anyone can succeed in utility communications or marketing, but I can say when you approach your job and life with the attitude of caring for and clearly communicating with people, it always pays off.
Each day I approach my job in the same manner:
- How can I help our customers through media pickup?
- How can I tell SRP’s story?
- How can I highlight and uplift our dedicated workers by allowing them to be spotlighted?
- How can I put a face to a large company?
My father, an electrician who worked in New Mexico’s uranium mines for 22 years, passed away a few years ago. There are so many days that I think about his broad smile and sheer giddiness that his girl — the daughter of an electrician — works in electricity too. I never imagined my life would lead me here, but I am awfully proud and honored to step into my father’s footsteps in my own way.
Ask for Help but Trust Your Gut
Conservation Program Specialist,
Holland Board of Public Works, Michigan
Beginning in the utility industry straight out of college during the COVID pandemic brought all kinds of unexpected challenges, the biggest of which was being onboarded while working from home.
Most of the employees who work here have been doing so for more than 15 years. I am a young, energetic woman who is just starting her career in the utility industry. Thanks to my parents, I have confidence in every decision I make, whether it ends up being the right one or not.
I wish someone had helped me maintain my confidence, even when others ridicule my decisions.
Being young in an industry that has operated mostly the same for so many years brings challenges to individuals who seek advancement and growth. Having confidence in making decisions and grace to make mistakes brings opportunity to learn and succeed.
I encourage other women entering this industry to seek others for guidance, but to trust your gut and to continue to strive and meet your goals.
We’re only a month into the New Year of 2022, but if I know my utility communicator colleagues, they are already starting to fall behind on their writing projects for the year.
It doesn’t have to be that way, because Egan Energy can help!
Whether it is a customer newsletter or annual report or employee newsletter or an online marketing piece or a ghosted piece of thought leadership, we have the time, knowledge, industry expertise, and desire to help you and your communications team get ahead of the curve and stay on top of those deadlines.
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