(Bloomberg) -- Mary Powell turned down the top job at Vermont utility Green Mountain Power Corp. three times. She said she didn’t think she had the right qualifications and wasn’t interested in working in a corporate environment.
By the time she was asked a fourth time though, her perspective had changed and she said yes.
“I’m an artist, not an engineer,” said Powell, who has served as the power supplier’s chief executive officer since 2008. Initially, “I saw it as a granddad’s electric system and not the culture that I could thrive in. Then I realized I was being given the opportunity to transform the company, not just lead it. I get to participate and shape a cultural evolution.”
Powell embodies two tectonic shifts in the power sector: Traditional utilities are increasingly prioritizing clean power and embracing millennial technologies like solar, wind and smart homes. That, in turn, is helping break down the old boys’ club that has ruled the power business for decades, giving more women a home in the industry.
Almost a quarter of regulated electric utilities in the U.S. are now run by women -- three times their representation in the Fortune 500 by percentage, according to the industry group Edison Electric Institute. That compares with single digits at the turn of the century. Power companies say they’re part of a new energy economy at a time when growing numbers of people, male and female, have said that’s important. A 2017 poll commissioned by wind power giant Orsted A/S showed 82 percent of 26,000 respondents in 13 countries believe it’s important to create a world fully powered by renewable energy.
As millennials seek careers in feel-good clean technologies, the move to gender equality is also accelerating, said Abigail Hopper, CEO of the Washington-based Solar Energy Industries Association. Women made up 27 percent of the solar-energy workforce last year, up from 24 percent in 2015, according to data from the Solar Foundation. About half of new hires in 2016 were women, Hopper said.
Nina Skorupska, CEO of the Renewable Energy Association in the U.K. and a former executive at Germany’s largest utility, said the idea that you’re helping move the world toward clean power can be very attractive to prospective employees and may be helping diversify the workforce.
“Both female and male engineers want to work in renewables’’ much more than oil and gas, she said.
Gender diversity in the power sector gained steam around the turn of the century, when Rebecca Mark-Jusbasche served as CEO of Enron Corp.’s Enron International unit; Marce Fuller became CEO of Mirant Corp., later GenOn Energy Holdings Inc.; and Peggy Fowler was named CEO of Portland General Electric Co. in Oregon. They were followed by Connie Lau at Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc.
Now, women lead more than a dozen power companies in the U.S. alone, including Duke Energy Corp., El Paso Electric Co., PNM Resources Inc. and Sunrun Inc., and helm renewables associations and power-trading desks from the U.K. to Brazil. Meanwhile, less than 2 percent of oil and gas companies in North America and western Europe are led by women, according to Bloomberg data.
“Women were very unusual to see back then; there just weren’t a lot that gravitated toward energy,” said Mark-Jusbasche, who was one of the highest-ranking women in U.S. business while at Enron. She left a spinoff just over a year before Enron went under and is now chairwoman of Waterhealth International Inc. and runs farms in the U.S. “Millennials are really interested in having an environmental impact, and that seems to be driving more women into energy.”
One reason more women may be entering the power sector is there are more in the pipeline now. A lot of the industry’s leaders started with business or law degrees. Female law-school graduates outnumbered males in 2016, American Bar Association data show. The number of female MBA graduates has also risen 26 percent in the past decade, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
A start in government can also boost a woman’s career in the power business since a lot of these companies are natural monopolies that are heavily regulated, said Pat Vincent-Collawn, CEO of PNM Resources Inc. (She is currently serving a one-year term as the first female chairman of EEI and expects to be followed by another woman, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good, in June.)
Mary Kipp, 50, and the CEO of El Paso Electric, did exactly that, beginning her career as a lawyer at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where she says the flexible hours helped her raise young children.
“Government can be a great leader for industry,” she said. “It created a pool of women ready to go out and lead the private sector.”
“You’re now seeing women rise to the top where 10 years ago there wasn’t that recognition that we’re all a bit different and you need to work on that diversity,” said Carol Gould, head of power and renewables at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group in London.
Pioneers like Fowler, now 68; Lau, 66; and Good, 59; may also be responsible for some of the women who followed them. Diversity advocates say that seeing someone who looks like you in in a job can spur younger generations of applicants.
“We have to continue looking for promotional opportunities for women so that we can make our company better and demonstrate what’s possible for other women,” said Good, who worked her way to the top spot from an early career as an accountant and finance team member.
While strides have been made, women globally represent just 16 percent of board members among the 200 biggest power companies and just 5 percent of executive board members, according to a 2016 Ernst & Young LLP study. It will report this month that women now make up 6 percent of executive board members, according to Cyntressa Dickey, a partner.
“It matters to see women in leadership,” the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Hopper said in an interview. “As a young industry, we can create the kind of workforce we want. We need to shape it and encourage it.”
But there’s more work to do: Only a handful of global utilities measure how women progress up the ranks, few are creating pipelines of future female leaders and some executives assume the gender problem has already been solved or don’t even see it as an issue, according to Ernst & Young.
“There’s been some progress but it’s been slow,” Dickey said. “Disruption is going to accelerate that.”
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