Every utility executive, employee and leader can have an impact on the role of women in the utility industry. It starts with awareness. Statistics tell one part of the story: the utility industry workforce has 25 percent women in its ranks, compared to the general population where women make up roughly half of the total workforce. Some argue that a foundation of progress has been laid, but the numbers show that there’s still a long way to go.

On June 19, in Spokane, Washington, a three-member panel of utility executives shared their paths to leadership, and discussed their perception of how women can better take advantage of career opportunities and overcome obstacles in the energy industry.

The panel was facilitated by Heather Rosentrater, director, Engineering & System Operations, Avista Utilities. The following discussion was edited for space and clarity:


Q. Thank you for paving the way here, and I especially appreciate Eric for joining us today. What unexpected challenges have you faced during your career?

Sue Ann: I feel fortunate because I’ve had a very positive career. However, like most, I’ve had to work with some difficult people. Early in my career, one particular individual was exceptionally difficult to work with and was known to be “critical” of women in the workforce. This was an extremely challenging time for me and, at one point, I considered leaving the company. Instead of leaving, I stuck to my values and my work ethic. I found mentors inside and outside of the organization who supported me and gave me the opportunity to do different things. These opportunities are part of the reason I am where I am today. I didn’t let him push me out. I prevailed and ended up progressing in my career and ultimately landed my dream job at Salt River Project (SRP).

Karen: When I came to Avista in 1998 as a Human Resources business partner, I was looking forward to a less-stressful job than what I endured working at Microsoft. However, shortly after I arrived, a diversity manager position came up. I was reluctant, but leadership felt like I was the right person for it, so I ended up applying for and getting the position. By 2002, I was asked to take on being vice president of HR and then, our CEO and our president asked me to take on the Corporate Secretary role in addition to the vice president of HR role due to retirements. I looked at them as though they were crazy. I told them I didn’t think I was the right person to do both. I kept resisting and they kept persisting.

But I realized that my resistance was a big, career-limiting move, so I ended up accepting that challenge. The challenge has not stopped – and it’s daily. It’s meant staying up until midnight to learn new things, and having to rely on so many people. The job can’t be done in a vacuum.

The point is, people saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. We can be humble to a fault. But there’s risk in that. In the end, we need to rely on the people we work with.

Eric: What I’ve struggled with is confidence. We’re part of a large utility group, we’re not just Cascade any longer. I go home at night saying to myself, “You and your team have to make decisions for the entire company.” An article I read preparing for this discussion was that there might be a lack of confidence among females in this industry. In the article, a senior vice president said, “Sometimes I feel like a fraud, sometimes I feel like an imposter.” And those are the exact words I’ve said to myself sometimes. I also wonder if I am supposed to be where I am. But although a person may feel that way, if the opportunities are there, one has to jump on them.

Stick to your values as you go through your career, know who you are and know what’s important to you.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to see the problem with women leadership that we’re discussing. We have several females at the executive, mid-management and director roles. Looking at statistics in construction, mining and utilities – utilities lead the way with having in women in leadership. Women’s share in the utilities is nearly 25 percent, and at the executive level, it’s just fewer than 25 percent. The question becomes, is the right number to have 50 percent? If so, then we’re halfway there. When it comes to a glass ceiling, I do know it’s there, but I don’t see it at our company. If I were to interview for senior positions, I’d hope there would be a lot of women applying. The utility workforce has been traditionally white, older males. As more women have come to the utility sector, I think their perspectives help balance things out and I appreciate that. I may not see that there’s as much of a problem as some people do, but I realize that it’s there.

Q. Some recent articles claim that women are not as self-assured as their male counterparts, specifically in the areas of networking and self-promotion. Do you see this in our industry, and what suggestions or advice do you have to women who struggle in this area?

Eric: I’ve had those same challenges when it comes to networking. Some are able to get in front of a crowd and be in a social atmosphere, and that’s where they perform their best. Because networking is so advantageous, if you’re not good at it, it can be challenging to be noticed by leaders and others. We have to give employees opportunities to present. As an example at Cascade, you’d think our safety manager would be in charge of the safety meetings, but instead we have various employees give safety presentations.

Karen: My undergraduate work in print journalism has really prepared me. When you’re in a leadership role, you’re trying to influence others to accept your ideas and get behind you. You need to do the business analysis and assemble the right stakeholders. It’s a skill. Since leaders in this industry have been mostly male, they are already more comfortable with one another, which makes it harder for the females. I have felt that when I have sat at the table, even though I’m as prepared as anyone else in the room. I talk to my people so much about communication and about how they’re showing up. I check to ensure they’ve talked to the right people. I always reevaluate after a presentation and ask what I could have done better.

Sue Ann: I have to say yes, I’ve seen this in our industry as I have struggled in this arena in the past and still do at times. I don’t know if it’s a male/female thing, but perhaps it is more prevalent in females than males. For me, I think part of it is my personality and developing my own self-confidence in my career. My advice is to be prepared. Before you go to a meeting, make sure you are prepared. When you’re presenting, be prepared. Be sure you know more about the topic than anyone else in the room. At times, I’ve not followed this advice and it didn’t end well. Plus, act confident even if you’re not. That’s half the battle.

Eric: Males are pretty good at hiding their emotions. Sometimes, I don’t do it very well, but the majority of the males I’m around are better at that. I think males have the same issues with confidence. It’s our responsibility as executives to identify those opportunities for everyone. Recently, I was asked to give a safety presentation to our board of directors. I didn’t ask for it and I really didn’t want to do it. But afterwards, after I critiqued myself, I was pleased that I had the chance to do that. Now if I ever have to make a presentation to them again, I’ll know what to expect.

Karen: Earlier in my career, I had to present to our board, and Vice President JoAnn Matthiesen and I were the only two females in the room. I had thoughts of leaving, saying I was sick. When it was time to present, I was so freaked out. The bottom line was that I presented, I got through my material, and I was completely prepared. John Kelly, a member of our board, told me afterward that I did a great job. I told him I was so nervous, but he said I was articulate and prepared, and they were happy to have me at the company. It was then I realized how wonderful that feedback was and it’s important to pay that forward. I look for those moments when other people stretch outside their comfort zone, and I look for those opportunities to say so to both men and women.

Q. How does your utility attract and retain female employees?

Sue Ann: We don’t have any specific recruiting events for women. We work with engineering schools at Arizona State University and University of Arizona, and we’re always thrilled to see the young women coming up. We acknowledge that we want more women in the utility industry and we do have several programs to help retain women at SRP. One that I’m personally involved in is our Women’s Interest Network (WIN) group. The group offers different types of networking events, educational events and some social gatherings. For example, we held 30 different “coffee talks” last year that give our members an opportunity to meet in a small group with female and male executives to focus on leadership and career development. Men are not excluded from the events, and we often have a good mix of attendees, especially when we have speakers from outside SRP, such as members of the Arizona Corporation Commission. We have other groups, such as Females in Technology and Working Families, which helps promote professional growth. There’s also a formal mentoring program for males and females.

Eric: Ours is informal. We’ve never sat around the table saying, “We don’t have enough women, we need more.” Informally we understand that there are those opportunities out there, and we seek them out. We have a formal mentoring program and anyone can put in for that. In the end, from my perspective, we end up hiring the best-qualified person for that job.

Karen: We’re more focused on it. Our CEO has a focus on employing females. Our company is 28 percent female and 72 percent male. We’ve looked at how many females are in leadership at the management, director and executive levels. We have five senior officers and three females at the board level. When we look at board selection, we recruit minorities and females. When we do succession planning at the officer level each year, we talk about our ratio of females to males. If we’re going to increase our ratio of females, we need to hire more and provide them opportunities for advancement. We also have an affirmative action plan. This table could be filled with men, minorities, women, and every single one wants the opportunity to move up. You’re not all going to get that opportunity. It’s how you prepare and what you do to be ready.

Q. From your experience what are some lessons learned or “nuggets of knowledge” that you think are important for others to know about?

Sue Ann: Stick to your values as you go through your career, know who you are and know what’s important to you. If you veer away from that, you’re not going to be good at what you do. Consider taking every opportunity presented to you. We’re all very busy and it’s tempting to say no to new positions or projects. But even if it ends up not being the best decision you’ve ever made, you will learn something from it. Also, let your career goals be known. If you don’t tell your boss or mentor what you want to do, they will not be able to provide you advice about moving in that direction.

Karen: When you’re dealing with the next level, be it a manager or executive, you need to understand that their agenda is a lot different than yours. If you can understand their perspective, you’ll be more successful. Don’t criticize. You don’t have a vision of what they’re dealing with. People reporting to me don’t know that I have 15 other concerns, and my priorities might be very different than theirs. As far as being intentional about your career goals, do it in the right time in the right place. Also, don’t come in complaining, especially the higher up you go. Instead, come in with a solution. Also, test things with people who are credible. As you go higher in an organization, if you make a misstep, you can be burnt badly. I’ve seen people make big mistakes simply by not talking with other people first.

Eric: Rely on everyone in your organization. In operations, we comprise 80 percent of our company. We tend to get in our own silos, and can tend to think that the decisions we are making are to be the right ones. Break down those silos as much as you can. We have officers all in different locations and technology gives us the opportunity to communicate more readily. We’re talking about breaking down those silos and bringing HR into operations discussions to evaluate if we’re covering all of our bases.

Karen Feltes is senior vice president of human resources and corporate secretary for Avista. She is responsible for coordinating strategic and tactical planning, as well as for providing support and guidance to the board of directors and the senior management team. She is an accomplished human resources professional, with a 20-year career spanning the breadth of domestic and international human resource issues, in both the public and private sectors. She has extensive experience in strategic planning, leadership and organizational development, employee relations, benefits design, executive compensation, recruitment, and program/policy design and implementation.

Eric Martuscelli, vice president of Operations for Cascade Natural Gas Corporation, has spent his career with Cascade. A Walla Walla, Washington, native, Eric began as summer help and became a full-time meter reader in 1992. He held several operations positions through 2002, and moved to Bend, Oregon, as a construction coordinator. In 2004, Eric moved to Pendleton, Oregon, as a general manager and then moved to Mount Vernon, Washington, to serve in the same role. Eric became the region director in 2008 and moved back to Bend, Oregon. In 2012, Eric became vice president of Operations and currently resides in Kennewick, Washington.

Sue Ann Perkinson is the controller and senior director of Corporate Accounting Services, and has worked in the Financial Services area of Salt River Project since 1998. Prior to joining SRP, Sue Ann worked primarily in the financial services and accounting industries with experience in managerial reporting, external reporting, financial management and auditing. Sue Ann earned both a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting and a Masters of Business Administration from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. She maintains a certification in public accounting in the State of Arizona.