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Web Story Raleigh, NC, United States 08-03-2021

13 min read

Women in Energy: Empowering the next generation

Windmill engineer inspection and progress check wind turbine

In honor of International Women's Day, we are discussing a strong force in the energy industry – women!

I had the pleasure of interviewing two incredible women taking the renewables sector by storm, Cathy Livingston, a Senior Account Manager at Hitachi ABB Power Grids, and Sarah Kelly, a Business Development Manager for Kiewit Energy Group. 

In the following article, transcribed from a recent Power Pulse Podcast episode, we will discuss their journeys on becoming rising female leaders in a male-dominated industry, as well as share advice on how women and allies can create and support a more equal and inclusive workplace. 

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In honor of International Women's Day, today's discussion is all about celebrating women in energy, and how we, women and allies, as well as the industry, can support a more equal and inclusive workplace. 

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Choose to Challenge’ – which is geared towards challenging gender bias and inequality and choosing to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements.

Cathy, in your opinion, what is one of the biggest challenges that women in the energy industry face today? 

Cathy:  I think that the biggest challenge that anyone faces in the energy industry today is the rate of change and the ability to leverage your skill set to courageously acclimate to it.

When I started working in power generation in 2008, it was the emergence of a nuclear renaissance, followed by Fukushima, clean coal retrofits, and falling gas prices. Shortly after, solar and wind started hitting strides on being competitive when looking at the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE). And now, there is even more societal influence with a focus on building a sustainable future. It’s super exciting, but also that is a lot of change over the course of 10-15 years. 

The only way we will achieve the goals that the states, federal government, and even the globe have…is for us all to embrace a more diverse workforce with diverse ideas to achieve the innovation we need. And that takes courageous behavior! A lot of studies will tell you that a man is more likely to act more courageously when the opportunity presents itself, where a lot of times women will question if they have the right skillset before jumping in. I encourage anyone wanting to work in the energy industry to come open and excited. It’s a changing landscape where we have a great opportunity to shape an energy mix like never before.

According to a research study conducted by S&P Global Market Intelligence, women only comprise less than one-fifth of senior leadership positions in the energy sector, and when we look at US Energy firms, only 6% of CEOs are women.

On the positive side, the gap is slowly closing. According to the same study, the share of female board members has doubled since 2000, which was twice more than the previous decade. It’s likely that we will see this gap close more rapidly over the next few years with most companies ramping up diversity & inclusion initiatives that aim to hire and advance more female talent. Even so, while female representation in the industry continues to grow and D&I initiatives begin to take flight, there is still a long way to go. 

Sarah, why do you think the energy industry, at its current state, has less female representation? Do you see this increasing at all?


Sarah: In my opinion, there are two big drivers causing women to be underrepresented in the energy industry. First, there are fewer women graduating from STEM programs which are important for the industry, mainly engineering. Energy firms need to promote engineering majors among female high school students and try to attract women already studying engineering in school. About 30% of all STEM majors are women, which is actually closer to 20% when you narrow that down to just science and engineering. 

Second, I think there’s a misconception that in order to be in energy you have to be in a technical role. Sure, there are a lot of opportunities for engineers but there are many other skill sets that are needed in the industry – marketing, proposals, lawyers, just to name a few.

I think the energy transition from traditional fossil fuels to renewable/clean generation is a huge opportunity for women to get more involved in the industry. In my current role, I am focused on renewables and how we can support meeting decarbonization goals. With many states and even private businesses establishing goals for carbon neutrality, we will need as many diverse minds and critical thinkers at the table as we can get to make these goals a reality and there’s where I see women really gaining a foothold in the industry.

Renewables offer diverse opportunities along the value chain requiring different skill sets. Renewable energy is future-looking and exciting, which addresses the gender questions better. There is no tribal knowledge, which should help level the playing field for anyone who is interested in pursuing a career in energy. 

I think there is a misconception that men aren’t supportive of female acceleration and inclusion, but in reality, most men are very supportive of this change, but may not necessarily know how to show their support or are unsure of how to become allies. 

Cathy, in your opinion, how do you think men can support a more equal workplace as well as help accelerate women in their careers? 

Cathy: I agree, many men are supportive of growing good female talent. In my career, I have been very fortunate to have encountered many supportive men colleagues, mentors, and leaders. Of course, there was maybe one or two that I can think of that were less helpful on my path, but I didn’t see that as a biased towards my gender but more a bias towards my experience in the industry at the time and maybe they didn’t see my potential like others did. 

My advice would be that the line of communication flows both ways. Women who aspire to accelerate in their careers must be open to sharing their goals and aspirations. We also need to be open to receiving honest feedback and coaching on how to get there. Men and leaders, in general, should take the time to get to know their people and discover each one’s talents and capabilities so they can tap into the full potential, strengthen their teams, and help that individual accelerate.

When both sides are welcoming and open to a discussion then you bridge any divide and become allies.  

To switch gears a bit - We've talked about the problem, but now let’s talk about the solution and the path that is being paved towards a more inclusive future. 

Sarah, what benefits have you experienced or noticed when more women are involved with decision-making and overall strategy? 

Sarah: In my experience, more and different perspectives are always a good thing when looking to spark creativity and innovation, which is required to solve complex problems.

A more tangible benefit I have seen is that when women are involved there is more collaboration amongst team members. I think women are generally better at reading verbal cues and less likely to interrupt others in a meeting which leads to a more positive and productive discussion. As someone who is in a front-facing sales role, I also think that it helps to be a better reflection of our customers. Many of the companies we work for have a large focus on diversity and inclusion and I think it helps the relationship when our team looks like theirs.

Multiple studies have shown that companies employing a higher percentage of women typically have a more positive and meaningful work culture, which increases employee retention, and that having women on corporate boards increases profitability and ROE. Being more inclusive towards women is not a matter of choice, but a business imperative in today’s world. Companies cannot afford to lose female talent, nor the improved corporate environment and business results that gender diversity brings. I would go as far as to say that it is critical to the long-term success of the industry.

As we move to close the gender gap in the industry, I'm curious to how strong women such as yourselves developed the confidence to pursue careers in energy. 

Cathy, what advice did you receive early in your career that helped you get to where you are today? 

Cathy: Luckily, I have worked alongside many supporters who along the way truly saw my potential and helped stretch me past what I thought was possible. The one piece of advice that I always fall back to and hear in my head is when one of my mentors told me, “Cathy, you are afraid to fail and you are going to hit a ceiling if you don’t do”. Those weren’t easy words to hear. I’m a true go-getter and thought if I just kept doing what I was doing that would be enough, but at the time, he was right! I was a single mom and was trying to get ahead, but I was boxing myself in. After I took steps to get out of the box, I went back to school to finish my business and leadership degree, took on more stretch assignments, and walked through doors when opportunity knocked. Thankfully, I have some amazing kids and a good home support team that has always helped me grind through.

Sarah, do you have any advice for our listeners who may have trouble speaking up and confidentially in meetings? 

Sarah: If possible, prepare a few bullet points or thoughts. Sometimes I jot down my thoughts while others are speaking so that I don’t forget what I wanted to say. If you can prepare before the meeting that is ideal – don’t wait to get inspired, come prepared.

The hardest situations to be comfortable with are when you want to say something in the moment. If that’s the case, my advice is to think about yourself after the meeting – will you regret not saying anything? If so, take a deep breath and speak up.

Another strategy, if I’m feeling hesitant to speak up, is I will rephrase whatever I am about to say or want to say as a question. This makes me feel more comfortable as there are no stupid questions and it typically opens a dialogue on what it is you want to talk about. There is power in asking the right questions. Questions give you the power to bring your thoughts up and give the company the power of having a different perspective –so use them.

If you speak up enough and you feel like you’re not being heard then maybe you should think about finding a new role.

To Summarize, what is one piece of advice that you would like to give to our female listeners who aspire to advance their careers in the energy industry? Sarah, let’s start with you. 

Sarah: Be true to yourself and embrace what makes you different.

When I first started my career as an engineer I sometimes felt like I needed to be one of the guys – laugh at inappropriate jokes or horse around after meetings when I really just wanted to get back to my desk. As silly as it sounds, I thought I shouldn’t be wearing dresses, skirts, and high heels because it made me look different than everybody else. 

It was actually Dr. Seuss that said, "why fit in when you are born to stand out". And this goes for anyone, not just women – don’t waste your time and energy trying to be like everybody else. You don’t need to look like or sound like everyone else to bring value to your company, and if you don’t feel like a valuable member of your team, then it’s time to look for a different team. 

Cathy: Take your Shot and act with courage and confidence! In the words of the great Wayne Gretzky, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take". Each of us is usually our own worst critic, but you must remember that only you know what want to achieve – so you must also be your biggest fan and motivator. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you want, take on challenges, and seize the opportunities. Believe in yourself! 

Meet our guests

Cathy Livingston, Senior Account Manager, Hitachi ABB Power Grids
Cathy Livingston, Senior Account Manager, Hitachi ABB Power Grids

I am a Key Account Manager with Hitachi ABB Power Grids.  In my role, I am responsible for building business relationships and opportunities with US and Global customers.

Before this, I was a Regional Market Manager for the US East Coast with Hitachi ABB Grid Integration business and prior to that, I was with an Engineering/Procurement/Construction (EPC) company for 13yrs supporting Business Development efforts for major Power Generation projects. And even before that, I work a stent in State Government for Delaware Parks and Rec and on a Federal project in Arkansas.

I am from a small town in Delaware and began my career as an Administrative Assistant. Which at that time I would have never guessed that I would now be living in Charlotte, NC, and where I am today in my career! The journey has been quite the ride and a lot of fun and still a long way to go! 

Sarah Kelly, Business Development Manager, Kiewit
Sarah Kelly, Business Development Manager, Kiewit

I am responsible for helping grow our power delivery and offshore wind business in the Northeast by finding new opportunities, researching leads, establishing relationships with clients, and understanding industry trends – which ultimately get baked into our overall strategy and how to address the market.

My career has been very interesting so far because it’s brought me to 3 different cities. I graduated from NC State University with a degree in structural engineering. When I was in college, I decided to apply for a Co-Op (Cooperative Education Program) position and landed a job at ABB. I worked with the EPC substation team as an Engineering Co-Op. That was when I learned what a substation is and really got my foot in the door in the energy industry. I had really great mentors and senior engineers to learn from and even though it wasn’t sexy like bridges, tunnels, and skyscrapers, I really enjoyed substation design.

After I graduated I had a couple of very similar jobs as a structural engineer in power delivery before deciding I wanted to try something different. I previously was a structural engineer working on buildings and other structures around New York, while also pursuing a Masters's Degree in Structural Engineering. I found that I missed the power industry and so when we moved to Washington, DC, I was looking to get back into power and that me to be a Lead Structural Engineer at Kiewit, the largest construction and engineering organization in North America, where I work currently.  After about a year and a half, because of my technical background and project management experience, as well as my communication and social skills, I was given the opportunity to join the Business Development Team, which is where I am now. 

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