Spark Logo

Share in our latest insight and ideas in energy, from data visualization to best practices from the field.

Women in Energy: Policy, Advocacy, and Regulation

Posted by Anna Jursik  |  Date July 31, 2012  |  Comments 0

Center for Energy and Environment research and programs focus on Minnesota buildings and homes, but advances in energy efficiency impact people all over the world. The United Nations declared 2012 the year of Sustainable Energy for All and is working to empower women to participate in the energy field.


In addition to supporting Girls Excel in Math, CEE employs women who play key roles in support of energy efficiency. i.e. is interviewing women at our organization to recognize their work in energy. For this installment, I asked Manager of Client and Government Affairs Bridget McLaughlin and Manager of Policy and Engagement Nancy Lange about their work in policy, advocacy, and regulation.
 

Anna: Could you each speak a little about your background? Why did you decide to work in energy?

Nancy:

I got motivated to work in energy by my graduate work at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Policy, where I concentrated my studies in energy and environmental policy. Through this program, I better understood the implications of our energy footprint, and to appreciate the key role that energy policies play in improving human and environmental health. Even though the science of climate change had been understood for a long time, it was becoming more evident that greenhouse gases were increasing in the atmosphere. At that point, the implications of the increasing emissions on the climate became a mainstream focus in the environmental field.  While my initial work in energy began as part of my academic studies, when I left the Humphrey Institute, I was offered a position within the Izaak Walton League’s Energy Program, where I was able to approach the issues from a policy standpoint.

Anna: And when you say “policy,” what does that word mean to you?

Nancy:

That’s a good question, because policy can mean a lot of different things. But I think what it means to me, and what it meant in my work at the Izaak Walton League, is the public decisions that are made by governments to influence outcomes. And that could be the state government, or the federal government, or even local governments. For energy policy, those are the actions that govern how our society produces and uses energy.  Those could be policies that subsidize fossil fuel energy, or that promote energy efficiency, or that address carbon emissions. And sometimes those policies occur through legislation, sometimes they occur through regulations, rules and standards. On an international level those policies may occur through treaties, like the climate change treaties that have been considered.

Bridget:

My path to energy was significantly different. My degree is in Public Administration and Speech Communications.  Even though I’ve always looked at issues from a practical standpoint (i.e. what is the most productive way to get something done), I had never looked at energy that way.  I grew up always rooting for the underdog, for social and environmental justice issues, energy being one of those – what can we do now to make our environment better for future generations. Unfortunately I was never very well informed and never really went beyond the passionate part of it to inform myself on the intricacies of real energy issues. It’s never as easy as it appears. I ended up in the energy industry by chance. My background was regulatory and compliance-based in banking and health care, and I applied for a regulatory position within a local electric and gas utility. I asked my hiring manager if he was concerned that I didn’t have a background in energy, and he said “no, that you can learn, what I need is someone who knows how to manage the regulatory system and how to effectively work with people both internally and externally. I fell into it by chance, versus a calculated decision or path.

Anna: What are some of the trickiest parts of energy advocacy? What are the hardest steps of passing energy policy?

Bridget:

Stakeholder buy-in. Consensus is always incredibly difficult. There are so many differing viewpoints and that stem from education and background and experience. Plus, everyone, by right, has his or her own position – and you need those differing opinions in order to make the best decisions. You have far left, you have middle of the road, and then you have far right. You need to have the right people in place to facilitate, to get people to agree on a common goal before you agree on the process. Willingness to fully educate yourself on an issue and hear both sides enables productivity and progress.  

Nancy:

If you reflect on the landmark Minnesota policies that have passed, for example focused on energy efficiency goals, or renewable energy standards, or retiring the oldest coal plants, they all required “bipartisan” action. And I mean that in a general sense, not necessarily Democrats and Republicans. They required buy-in from people of all sides. Because enough is at stake in terms of money, the environment, and people’s ideologies, that if you can find that place of agreement, things move forward that are far-reaching. I’ve observed that these types of achievements happen cyclically; at moments in time when actions and people converge.  

Anna: At the last interview, Martha and Angela said that the gender make-up in energy research and engineering was less than 10% women. What’s the gender make-up in the policy and the regulatory world?

Nancy:

I would say it’s closer to 50/50.

Bridget: 

At least now. I remember when I started at the utility 11 years ago, there would be one, two, maybe three females in 90% of the meetings that I walked into. That changed dramatically over the years, to the point that in their DSM area in particular, now I’d say it’s probably 70% women.

Nancy:

Many of the people I worked with in policy arenas have law degrees, and today many women are going to law school. There are also definitely people working in policy who come from the sciences. Overall, I would say it’s about half men and half women.

Anna: Even in terms of leadership roles? So policy-makers and decision-makers?

Nancy: 

It seems to me that there are typically more men in leadership roles, but if you think about MN’s legislature, there have been several women leading the Senate Energy Committee over the past many years. 

Bridget:

I do agree though, I think it’s still weighted male over female. As policy and decision makers in the Legislature, in utilities and in advocacy organizations, women continue to gain more prominence as they feel they have a stronger voice.    

Nancy:

But there are some very prominent women in energy, including on MN’s Public Utilities Commission.

Anna: It’s strange that it isn’t 50/50 yet. Especially since there are so many women with advanced degrees.

Bridget:

Part of it kind of depends if you’re looking at the public sector versus the private sector. From the utility perspective, a lot of the women that are there have been there a very long time. It might be substantially different for new women coming in. They would just start with a different balance of men versus women instead of moving it themselves.

Nancy:

If I think of the community I came from, a nonprofit advocacy sector, a lot of the people in leadership roles were men. Which was a little surprising too, given that it’s a nonprofit sector. You might think that would influence the gender balance, but a lot of the nonprofit energy leaders are men.

Bridget:

That is interesting to me. I was surprised that there were so many men at RE-AMP. I really thought that it would be a female-dominated type conference. Just because (and this is my potentially skewed perception), it is something that is very passionately driven, and women just innately show their passion more. And so in my mind that means they would tend to vacillate towards the kinds of roles and jobs where they could express that freely.

Anna: Angela and Martha were curious whether you ever felt it was more challenging to advance or to earn respect because you’re a woman. If you felt that you faced more barriers than your male peers?

Nancy:

I felt I had to earn my stripes. For example, at the legislature, 90% of the witnesses testifying in front of an energy committee hearing will be male. And so I think there are subtle areas where you have to prove yourself a little harder just because it has been so male-dominated. If you go in front of the hearing room at the Public Utilities Commission it is a lot of men. That’s just what it typically is - the lawyers and expert witnesses in front of the commission representing their parties’ interest are mostly men.

I haven’t ever felt like I was discredited just because I was a woman, but I wanted to be really factual and accurate. I didn’t want to make a mistake and I set myself a pretty high bar.

Bridget:

I agree wholeheartedly. Adding to that, I always felt like I had to have a consistency factor in order to gain respect. It wasn’t just a one-off shot to come up with a great idea and present it well, it was time after time after time. In my role working with the different departments at the utility, and working with people over and over again and learning how to work with people and knowing what they knew what my expectations were, and those expectations were largely handed down from my mentor.

She was a woman, and was clear that you always made sure you had the right data, that you were consistent, you were transparent, you were honest and constantly following a pattern. And I think that I definitely felt that I proved my worth by consistently meeting a certain expectation. And I always felt that if I did something once, that it wasn’t quite good enough, that it had to be more and more.

Anna: Do you think that women bring a different voice or perspective to energy policy and regulatory work?

Nancy:

I think it depends on what perspective they’re trying to represent. I think women at a utility work to represent that utility well, so I don’t know if there’s a certain perspective.

Bridget: 

The perspective is whatever the company or the organization wants, and that is handed down from senior management.  That perspective likely comes from a combination of both men and women.  In an advocacy or environmental organization position there is more ability to voice your opinion, because the organization framework is just smaller.  It was a much more constricted environment at a large utility. 

Nancy:

Women can bring a very unique perspective to areas of energy policy, such as environmental justice issues and how energy can impact public health. If you are a mother and your kids have asthma, and you’re living next door to a coal plant, your perspective for advocating for clean energy is affected by living and breathing the effects of this pollution every day. I’ve seen a perspective brought to energy policy and advocacy work that is very grounded in being female.

Anna: Do either of you have any advice for young women considering a career in energy policy, advocacy, or regulation?

Nancy:

I think it’s really good to work in a lot of different settings if you can. In grad school I wanted to work for organization where I could make lasting change. And one of my professors said “if you really want to make change, you should go work in a state agency or a federal agency.” I thought you make change by working outside those systems, which was maybe a naive assumption, but his suggestion was to think about working within systems. I’m sure you brought about some really progressive changes at the utility. And people at a state agency who want to work for strong, progressive policies have a platform to do that. So my suggestion is to seek out experiences in different kinds of settings and sectors, and learn how decisions and progress are made in those settings.

Bridget:

My advice would is more general: Never overlook an opportunity. Never turn down an offer to try something new, especially if it scares you, just jump in. Those are often your biggest learning opportunities and experiences. And never EVER burn a bridge, when you leave a job. We’ve all made that mistake once; hopefully we have learned a lesson from it to take forward in life and our careers.

My best advice; everyone deserves to be treated with respect. And everyone has something to teach you. There are people that following an initial conversation, I might not taken the time to get to know,  but after digging deeper to find out why they are the way they are, I’ve been able to have some really insightful conversations. These conversations have often ultimately led to good guidance along my career path. Many of them work within the energy industry. Many are men and women that I could look up to.

Anna: That’s really solid advice. Thank you for your time!


Related posts:


Women in Energy: Research and Engineering

Introduction to Nancy Lange
 

Photo credit:


0 Comments

No comments yet. Be the first to post a comment!

Leave Your Comment