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For These Women Who Help Lead PG&E’s Grid, It’s All About Courage, Asking Questions and ‘Knowing I Can Be the Voice of My Team’

By Jennifer Robison

As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month in March, we sat down for a virtual panel discussion with five female leaders who hold integral roles in the operations of PG&E’s transmission and distribution grids:

  • Stephanie Carstairs, director, Business Applications, with PG&E since 2013
  • MaryAnn Dillahunty, interim director, System Operations & Control, with PG&E since 1996
  • Sandra Ellis, interim director, Transmission Grid Operations, with PG&E since 2004
  • Marge Landreville, senior director of IT, Grid Systems & Smart Meter Operations, with PG&E since 2012
  • Elaine Reusing, director, Integrated Grid Platform, with PG&E since 2008

Although the group has diverse experiences—MaryAnn has spent her entire career in Grid Operations, while Sandra has an engineering background, and Elaine made a mid-career jump from consulting—they agree that contrary to popular belief, the utilities industry is a great career choice for women.

Here are highlights of a wide-ranging conversation that ranged from what stereotypes they love to shatter to how everyone can find and cultivate mentors.

This panel discussion was edited for length.

On Women in Utilities

Q: Why do you think Grid Operations has attracted so many women leaders?

Elaine: I tend to not think of it as a women’s thing. I think of it as exciting. I am in a project that is implementing new technologies within our grid. Every day, there’s new technology and new advancements that improve PG&E’s ability to operate the grid and improve our customer experience. My job directly impacts the customer, and that’s exciting.

Stephanie: Grid Operations is fast-moving. I get to work with a whole bunch of different folks at different levels of the organization. You’re working with frontline employees at the heart of what we do, and working with engineers, and with other partners across the company. It's never boring. As soon as you think something is wrapped up, there’s a new technology or technique, and we learn and adjust. It’s always busy and there’s always something going on.

Marge: California is at the forefront of environmental policy to promote clean, renewable resources. That’s a very exciting place to be. That’s what attracts me—what’s going on in California, and the difference this team in the grid space can make as we adjust to everchanging environments.

Q: Utilities tend to be male-dominated. Why is the utilities industry actually a great career option for women?

Sandra: As Marge pointed out, there is a lot going on. You have the opportunity to work in the field, to look at design work and to focus on technology. Then you have the operational, real-time aspect.

Q: Sandra, you mentioned earlier that sometimes, as an African American woman, it’s still a struggle to be “the only one” or “one of a few.” How have you addressed that challenge?

Sandra: I always look at it as an opportunity to grow. A lot of people have a certain image of what an engineer or someone in STEM looks like, and when you don’t fit that image, you realize that early on. I take that and try to show up well. It keeps me motivated and striving to improve myself and to be that role model.

Q: Stephanie, you said the men you’ve worked with allowed you to help shape their ability to lead women. Can you elaborate on how?

Stephanie: I lower my guard, which allows them to lower their guard. I’m very honest and upfront, and I ask the questions they may not be asking. That helps them understand where I’m coming from. Sometimes, folks are afraid to ask questions, or they don’t know what to ask. I just put it out there to encourage dialog. My hope is that as they work with other women, they can go forward with the knowledge that it’s OK to ask questions.

Dispelling Myths About Women in the Workplace

Q: What assumptions about women in the workplace do you love to disprove or contradict?

Sandra: Through most of my career, when I walked into a room, people assumed I wasn’t an engineer. I didn’t take offense, because when they found out that I was, they were sometimes embarrassed. I’d just have to laugh and let people assume whatever they want to assume. When we start talking, they realize, “Oh, you’re an engineer.” And you just keep going.

Marge: When I first took a job in utilities, the question I got was, “Why? That’s a man’s job.” People relate utilities to people they see in the field, and it is highly male-dominated. But not only do you have to bring technical competencies, you have to bring leadership competencies and interpersonal skills. Women have a nurturing, empathetic side that augments the team. Utility work may be highly technical, but there are other skills sets you need for a diverse team.

Our customers are not just male. They’re of every gender and race. Bringing the technical and interpersonal skills together in a diverse team helps us give customers a better product and better support.

Q: How long ago was it when people seemed surprised that you were going into a “man’s job”?

Marge: About nine or 10 years ago.

Q: Wow! So pretty recently.

Marge: Yes. And as we’ve gone on recruiting events, it’s been a revelation to women to hear about all the things we do. I think it’s a perception issue. I do think we need to bring education and awareness to get more women interested in the industry.

Stephanie: It’s funny when folks assume the next person to be awarded a role is going to be male—and it ends up being a female. Beyond that, like Marge, I got a lot of questions about why I would go into utilities. Folks don’t see that it’s a big company with space for everyone. There are probably a few myths we need to dispel. There are so many roles, and if you are qualified for a role, it’s available to you.

Q: What can PG&E and other utilities do to dispel those myths?

Marge: We attend STEM and hiring events at universities and colleges to spread the word. We could probably use social media more, perhaps to educate people about what utilities have to offer.

Stephanie: What MaryAnn and I have found during the interview process is that people don’t know what roles are available until they have family or friends in that role. We tend to campaign for recruits in traditional places, which is not where women are always looking. Through networking, women could see folks in many different roles.

Building Confidence

Q: Maryann, you’ve said that you initially worried about not having as much experience or knowledge as your male colleagues. How did you learn to build self-confidence?

MaryAnn: I didn’t start in an engineering role. I was an operator, and I came from the bottom up through the ranks. I always compared myself to leaders. “He’s been here for 50 years, and I’ve only been here 10,” or, “He was a lineman, and I wasn’t.” It was just my own self-doubt.

That changed when I realized that if I don’t try to become a supervisor, they won’t hear my voice. I knew I could be the voice of my team, and I wasn’t sure who else could fill that void. I realized that my experiences helped in my roles just as much as anybody else’s experiences helped in theirs.

It wasn’t so much trying to find validation. It was more like, If I don’t do it, who might, and what will that look like for me?

Q: Sandra, you said building self-confidence helped you rise above situations where people questioned your qualifications. How did you go about gaining that belief in yourself?

Sandra: I am typically the only Black woman in the room, so I needed to make sure I had a positive support system.

It’s also a matter of self-awareness of what you don’t know. I spent enormous time building technical expertise and credentials and parlaying that into leadership. That was a matter of looking to see what others were doing and setting goals for myself. I would ask people how they achieved certain things and from there set out what I wanted to do and how I would get there.

Marge: I’ve found that teaming up with the right mentors is important. When I found a mentor who I felt comfortable with, I could share the good and the bad, and that helped me build confidence because they would give me honest feedback and I felt that they were trustworthy.

Also, women can be hard on themselves. We feel like we have to do everything perfectly. Sometimes, you doubt yourself. But early in my career, whenever I got recognition for doing a good job, it built my confidence. It helped me to realize that not everything has to be perfect, and to get direct feedback from others.

The Best Advice You Got, and You Give

Q: How did you find your mentors?

Stephanie: My most important, early mentors were my bosses.

With my first mentor, I was in a job where I was lifting heavy cases. He shared with me right off the bat that he had never hired a woman and he didn’t know if I physically could do the job. When he was honest with me, I felt I could be honest with him. I lowered my guard to allow him to coach me.

I think my second mentor could see his mother, his sisters and his daughter in me. When I could see he truly wanted to help me, I lowered my guard there as well.

Sometimes, people don’t recognize the mentor standing in front of them. When he was helping me through challenging scenarios managing people, I would look over my shoulder and he would laugh, because he knew I finally got it. He passed away a few years ago, but I still think of him every day—how can I do better, and how can I pass it on to the next person?

MaryAnn: My first mentor was my first supervisor. I didn’t realize he was mentoring me because he was trying to teach me a specific lesson. He took a small bit of time out of his day to make sure I understood that something that I didn’t feel was important was actually very important. That left a lasting impression.

Based on that experience, if I see someone struggling with something specific—maybe they need feedback on a sentence that will get their message across cleaner, or someone I’m interviewing who asks for help—I usually follow up and provide guidance.

A lot of times these days, mentors are people I reach out to for sanity checks. “Elaine, if I don’t call you right now and blow off some steam, it’s going to end badly for me.” (Laughter all around.)

Sandra: Throughout my career, I’ve had supervisors mentor me. But joining professional societies has been a gold mine. They introduce you to people you see once or twice a year, but you see them throughout your career. I also feel it’s important to not only understand what’s going inside the company, but across the industry.

Stephanie: I want to add that all four of these ladies have mentored me in a different way. They bring a lot of value to my life and what I do. They’re amazing.

Marge: Thank you! Ditto.

Elaine: I was going to add the same thing. It is amazing when you look around. Including Patti (Poppe) as our new CEO, there are a lot of strong women in utilities, so how are women in the industry not going to be successful? We’re definitely going to be successful.

Q: What is the single best piece of advice a mentor gave you?

Marge: Have the confidence and courage to speak up, even if you’re the only woman in the room.

Elaine: Your decisions don’t have to be perfect, but you need to put in the due diligence to make sure they’re defensible.

MaryAnn: If you don’t know the answer, ask the question. You’ll be in a better position to help people around you.

Sandra: Develop the ability to communicate with anyone, and most importantly, the ability to ask the right questions, regardless of who you’re working with.

Stephanie: Be authentic. Be your true self.

Q: How do you mentor today?

MaryAnn: I ask people what they want me to mentor them on. Some tell me they want to achieve a specific title. I tell them, I can’t mentor you into a position. Instead, tell me where you are. What are your skills and where are your gaps? I can help you fill those. But I can’t mentor anyone into a specific position.

What would be a more effective way for someone to state their goals to a potential mentor?

MaryAnn: Where I have been successful is in helping people who want to improve leadership skills, networking skills or get over their internal blocks to make the next step.

Becoming a Leader

Q: What should be on the “to-do list” for women aspiring to lead?

MaryAnn: Be prepared. Know where you are. Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to find somebody you can reach out to or learn from. I’ve learned something from everybody on this call just by listening.

Sandra: Be courageous. Be self-aware. Learn how to use positive and negative feedback. Learn how to collaborate and build relationships.

Stephanie: Network, network, network. Also, cultivate emotional intelligence. I think we as women are emotional. Being able to capture it, control at and apply it at the right time and location is phenomenal.

Elaine: I would say networking as well. It’s something you should learn at a young age. I encourage my daughter to build her network now, because I think that was a gap for me. To Sandra’s point, the organizations she’s involved in are great sources for networking.

Marge: Be the best you. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Have courage and confidence in yourself and accept everybody for who they are. Don’t have biases.

Q: What would you tell your 21-year-old self?

Sandra: Be willing to make a move. I had to move to New York and then California, and I probably should have done it earlier. When you have an opportunity that requires a leap, go for it.

Marge: Don’t be stuck in your ways. I’ve always wanted to help people, and I didn’t realize at first how much we do that for California and our customers. Don’t be closed-minded to the opportunities out there.

Elaine: Don’t try to grab it all at once. There was a point when I got overwhelmed. I was trying to be a wife and a mother and expand my career, and I was in school for my MBA. I was trying to do it all at once. It’s not a sprint. Plan it out.

Maryann: Similar to what Elaine said, realize what you can do. Utilities are dynamic. There’s a lot going on. It can be chaotic. Recognize when you can change something but realize there will be a lot that you can’t change and try not to churn on those. I used to spend time on stuff that was out of my control and all it did was make me spin my wheels. You’ll be more successful if you focus on where you have control.

Stephanie: Eat healthy. Stay out of the sun. Every step you’re taking will build you, so don’t be afraid to take that step. Learn from everything you’re doing. Lastly, invest in more stocks.