Bringing Feminine Energy to the Energy Sector

Wednesday, April 03, 2019


There’s no getting around it: energy is a male-dominated industry. And that gender gap comes at the cost of innovation, according to Kelly Tomblin, CEO of an energy infrastructure company called INTREN and a former President and CEO of Jamaica Public Service Company Ltd. In an interview with the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), Tomblin argued that the energy sector needs more women—and more diversity in general—to bring a more balanced perspective to today’s challenges.

“Anywhere there’s an imbalance, you need to say, is this imbalance serving us?” The research on this subject, Tomblin stressed, is clear and conclusive. “Companies with diversity in their leadership ranks and on their boards perform better. I always say this question has been asked and answered.”

In a 2018 book she co-authored with leadership consultant Kathleen Sullivan—100 Days of Doing Power Differently: Change Your Leadership, Change the World—Tomblin describes leadership styles traditionally associated with men and women and writes, “Leaders who do power differently recognize the need to balance the feminine and masculine energies throughout the organization.”

Diversity and the Bottom Line

In its 2018 report Delivering through Diversity, McKinsey & Co. found a positive correlation between diversity and financial performance, based on a study of more than 1,000 companies around the world. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability. (That probability was even higher, 33 percent, for cultural and ethnic diversity.)

It’s important to avoid stereotypes; after all, Tomblin noted in the interview, even though working collaboratively is a style more associated with women, some men are good at it too. But by having more diversity, an organization can better capitalize on people’s different strengths and incorporate a range of perspectives and feedback into decision-making.

Women tend to take a holistic approach and consider the impact of decisions on different stakeholders, Tomblin said, adding that they also tend to have better communication skills. They also are more attuned to culture, she said—not just the task at hand but the overall work environment. As Tomblin sees it, having women fully participate “helps balance the being and the doing, and it helps balance short term and long term.”

On a purely practical level, it just makes sense to try to bring more women into the energy sector—especially now, at a time of labor shortage, Tomblin said. “Women are 50 percent of the workforce. To not invite them,” she said, “you’re cutting your knees out from under you.”

While the advantage of having more women in the executive suite and the boardroom has been well documented, Tomblin has seen similar benefits at other levels too. “One of my best linemen in Jamaica was a woman,” she said. Among the pluses women bring to such jobs, she added: greater attention to crew safety and better interaction with the public. Changes in technology and industry practices, she noted, mean that the work is less physically demanding than it used to be.

“My utilities now tell me that they want to see crews that look like their customers,” she said. INTREN, the company Tomblin now heads, builds infrastructure for electric and gas utilities in 13 U.S. states. The company, which has more than 1,900 employees and revenues of $500 million, was founded by Loretta Rosenmayer, who now chairs the board, and is certified as a Women’s Business Enterprise.


Advice to Young Women

For young women starting out in the energy field or contemplating a similar career, CEO and author Kelly Tomblin encourages them to take risks and learn to take criticism. Here’s a sampling of her advice:

  • Figure out what you want to do and then pursue it. Don’t assume you have to climb some corporate ladder to be successful. “Just go where it looks more interesting.”
  • If you do want to reach the executive level, take some career risks and get some operating experience. “Get out and get your hands dirty.”
  • Be an active participant. “Make sure you’re raising your hand and weighing in.” And when you do speak up, do so confidently. “You’re better than you know you are.”
  • Accept negative feedback constructively and avoid looking fragile. “You have to look like you can take it, and take it well.”
  • Don’t be intimidated if you are the smallest person in the room. Tomblin, who is petite, notes that some studies have shown that tall people tend to be perceived as more powerful. “We all have subconscious programming about things. Our job is to wake up from that and help change the story.”


Some Progress—But Not Enough

Women have risen through the ranks in many U.S. utilities, according to Tomblin—a result of decades of “diversity training and intentionality,” as she put it. When utilities began to deal with deregulation, she explained, they looked for new and creative thinking.

“That really prompted utilities to take risk, when utilities are not known risk-takers,” she said, adding that they began to consider nontraditional job candidates—including women who had not come up through the engineering ranks. Tomblin herself came to the industry after working as a lawyer. (She has both a law degree and an MBA.)

Despite the progress, equality remains a challenge. The EY Women in Power and Utilities Index, which has been tracking gender equality in the industry for the past five years, reported this year that the representation of women in utility leadership remains “disappointingly low.” Worldwide, women make up 17 percent of total board members, 21 percent of non-executive board members, 6 percent of executive board members, and 15 percent of senior management. These figures have edged up by only 2 or 3 percentage points since 2014.

And among companies like INTREN, Tomblin is still an outlier. “I am still the only woman in that group running infrastructure and construction for utilities,” she said.

That was also the case in Jamaica; during her time as head of Jamaica Public Service, from 2012 to 2017, Tomblin would be the only woman at the CEO meetings she attended. Female executives are still few and far between in the Caribbean, she said, though women tend to be well represented at the managerial level. (In fact, a 2017 study by the International Labour Organization—Women in Business and Management: Gaining Momentum in Latin America and the Caribbean—found that Jamaica has the highest proportion of women managers not just in the region but in the world, at 59 percent.)

The good news for women in energy is that the renewable sector has opened up more opportunities for women to rise to higher levels, according to Tomblin. She attributes that to renewables being a newer field in which management is less entrenched and succession plans are not already in place. “Newer industries are more open, I’ve found.”

For the energy industry to become more innovative, it not only needs more women at the table, but it should reflect more diversity overall, Tomblin emphasized. “You need young people at every table, you need people from different backgrounds at every table.” Companies should ask themselves key questions, she said: Do you have enough perspectives? Do you have enough feedback? Is there a way to be more balanced?

Women in the industry, meanwhile, should “build community” with other women to strengthen each other and advance the conversation about diversity, said Tomblin, who spearheaded an initiative called Women in Energy when she was in Jamaica. In a male-dominated field, it’s important to keep asking, “Why aren’t more women here? Why aren’t more young people here?”

For her part, Tomblin promotes diversity by drawing attention to the data and advocating for legal and regulatory change where necessary. In her own company, she looks at gender balance to make sure women and men are being paid the same. Those who are in a position to effect change, she said, need to “make sure that we are using our power to level the playing field.”