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International Day of the Girl Reminder: We Need More Women Leading in the Sectors That Have the Biggest Impact on Us

Kate Zerrenner headshotWords by Kate Zerrenner
Leadership & Transparency
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Tomorrow, October 11th, marks the International Day of the Girl. The day serves to highlight issues that girls face worldwide while promoting girls’ empowerment. An important empowerment tool is representation – as in girls seeing women in a range of aspirational jobs.

In recent years there has been a significant increase in women holding management positions at utilities across the country. But to empower girls to pursue careers across the utility sectors, work still needs to be done to expand representation. Of the 27 women CEOs in the S&P 500, only three lead utilities (two energy, one water).

Representation matters for girls looking at options for future careers, but diversity is also good for the bottom line. Earlier this year, a report from the World Bank noted that globally, boards with greater numbers of women were more likely to outperform on profitability and value creation than less diverse boards. In the U.S., the report indicated that companies with diverse boards had a 95 percent higher return on equity.

The utility sector as a whole is assortment of privately- and public-owned entities, with investor-owned utilities more common in the electric sector. Most water utilities are publicly-owned in the U.S. Arguably, the municipally-owned utilities, both electric and water, are typically the least innovative due to a number of factors. Those reasons include budgetary and financing constraints, local regulations—some of which may be long-standing — and the reduced flexibility that comes with providing a public good.

These regulations and structures are necessary to safeguard public safety and to provide maximum accountability to the city or region that the utilities are accountable to. But there, too, evidence suggests that companies that put women in leadership positions experience greater innovation due to the increased diversity of the voices at the top. And as utilities struggle to reform their business practices in the face of increased clean energy and water scarcity, women in leadership may provide the jolt of innovation needed to power through to success.

Women CEOs of electric utilities, such as Paula Gold Williams of San Antonio’s CPS Energy and Connie Lau of Hawaiian Electric Industries, are overseeing their utilities’ goals to reach 50 percent renewable energy by 2040 and 100 percent by 2045, respectively.

HEI is a holding company that owns utilities that provides 95 percent of Hawaii’s electricity, and its largest company was named investor-owned utility of the year in 2018. Under the watch of Mary Powell, President and CEO of Green Mountain Power in Vermont, GMP set a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 (they are currently at 60 percent) and has become a leader in the transformation to new utility business model. GMP has been named one of the world’s most innovative company three years in a row by Fast Company.

Women leaders of water utilities, such as Trish Berge, General Manager of Sweetwater Authority in California and Carrie Lewis, General Manager of Portland Water District in Maine, are pioneering innovative ways to increase education in water and technology in their communities. For example, Sweetwater Authority has initiated a partnership between a hydro station and an elementary school to teach kids about career paths in water management. Susan Story, President and CEO of American Water Works Company in New Jersey and the largest publicly-traded utility in the U.S., has overseen the investment in research and development of smart water technologies and established an innovation development process.

Female role models are powerful for young girls. As a teenager, with dreams of being an astronaut, I revered the first classes of women astronauts like Sally Ride and Shannon Lucid. It pushed me into a career of science policy. Recently, as I prepared to testify before the Texas Legislature on an energy-water issue, my daughter asked me what my job was. I said I saved water. Her response: “Good job, Mommy.”

This year’s International Day of the Girl reminds us that the in the face of climate change, we need a diverse set of voices at the table to find solutions, and those role models at our essential utilities are empowering for the little girls finding their path.

Image credit: Kate Zerrenner

Kate Zerrenner headshotKate Zerrenner

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

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