"If I could counsel my younger self, I would suggest acknowledging and presenting my skills more openly"

Today marks International Women’s Day and the theme of this year is #balanceforbetter, highlighting that gender balance drives a better working world.

The recent commitment by 32 CEOs from leading energy and utilities companies in the UK to improve diversity through the Energy & Utilities Skills Partnership is promising; however, the statistics on women in utilities are sobering and demonstrate that there is a long way to go before balance is achieved.

At present, just 17 per cent of the workforce in our sector is female and men hold 84 per cent of leadership positions. With 221,000 new recruits needed by the energy and utilities sector by 2027, gender balance is essential for our industry’s future.

The situation has improved in recent decades, but readers will still see evidence of the gender gap in their workplaces.

In the early stages of my career, being the only woman in a room was a very familiar feeling for me. I regularly attended the Gas Forum in the mid-90s when the gas market was deregulating and was always one of two females in the room. Back at the office the team was more balanced, but in the more senior ranks there were fewer females.

It is typical that gender balance is achieved in the more innovative corners of utilities, such as green technology companies and emerging disruptors, with more conventional organisations still being male-dominated. Indeed, Catherine Mitchell, a professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter said that a lack of women in traditional energy companies is holding back the sector’s efforts to tackle climate change. At Wave, we are proud that 50 per cent of our leadership team are women.

In its 2016 Women in Power and Utilities Index, EY found that four key factors were holding back progress in achieving gender balance. The first was a disconnect in reality, with leaders assuming that more progress had been made than had actually taken place.

Secondly, the data disconnect showed that power and utilities companies didn’t track and monitor diversity in an effective, consistent way. The third factor was lack of a pipeline, with nearly 60 per cent of respondents saying that there was no differentiation between men and women in their companies’ leadership programmes.

Finally, and perhaps most critically, was a gap in perceptions and perspectives. Men said the most prevalent factor for the lack of women in leadership was a suitable shortage of female candidates. Women ranked this as the lowest factor, citing organisational bias against women as the most important, which men ranked among the least important factors.

Energy & Utilities Skills Partnership industry leaders recently recognised that its workforce fails to represent the population, which serves as an important first step towards addressing that gap.

So, while change is being implemented across the sector, what can women do in the meantime to get ahead? To borrow a phrase from Sheryl Sandberg, don’t be afraid to “lean in”.

During my pregnancy in 2001, I passed up the opportunity to talk to Michael Alexander, managing director of British Gas, about my career aspirations. I simply had other things on my mind at the time. I do think that some women have natural career breaks when they are parenting, which takes their eye off their career path.

Another learning opportunity came when I was encouraged as a “high potential” candidate to apply for an internal move to Head of Residential Markets at British Gas New Energy. I felt that I needed to be transparent and authentic in the interview, so highlighted all the tasks in the job description that I had no experience of doing. The feedback was nobody would tick all the boxes, so I should focus on selling my skills rather than talking about the gaps. After all, Richard Branson once said that if someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – and learn how to do it later.

If I could counsel my younger self, I would suggest acknowledging and presenting my skills more openly, developing my personal brand, and building partnerships with colleagues that have complementary skills. I would also have said “yes” more. There’s a fabulous saying in the North which I’ve learned to embrace – shy bairns get nowt.

This IWD, we have a lot to look forward to as utilities leaders demonstrate their commitment to achieving #balanceforbetter, but there is still a long road ahead.

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