Celebrating Women Leaders in Energy Efficiency

As an all-female staff, every month is women’s month for the VAEEC. However, as March comes to a close we want to honor Women’s Month and highlight some of our formidable female leaders on our board. The VAEEC board consists of 14 people including three women: Cynthia Adams, Lesley Fore and Carla Dix. Each of the women on our board offer experience and expertise in leadership, management and technological innovation within the energy efficiency sector.  Cynthia Adams is the former chair of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council and current CEO of Pearl Certification, a company that certifies energy efficiency in homes. Carla Dix is Lead Performance Analyst for Warm Wise, Columbia Gas of Virginia’s energy efficiency program. Lesley Fore is the Executive Director of the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) and is one of our newest Board members.

We asked them about what it means to be a female-leader in the energy efficiency sector and why gender diversity is important for our sector to be fully successful. Their responses show varying approaches to the energy efficiency field and offer insight to the challenges of diversifying, how technology has changed since they began their work, as well as advice for women as they advance in the energy efficiency field.

How has the energy efficiency sector diversified since you began working in it and what challenges remain?

Cynthia: My entre into the energy efficiency industry came via my work as a green builder fifteen years ago, and there certainly weren’t many women involved in construction then. The sector has diversified some since I first started, but we have a long way to go. As more women get degrees in engineering and architecture, the number of women in energy efficiency has increased. Some women become supporters of the industry through other professional channels, such as journalism and markeing, which is great. The better we get at talking about the benefits of energy efficiency, the more uptake we can expect to see. I’ll note that when the VAEEC first launched, I was the only woman on the Governance Board. We’ve made good strides since then. Pay equity is yet a challenge; it’s been well-documented through multiple sources that young women in STEM fields earn about a third less than their male counterparts.

Carla: There have been some great new technologies since I began working in the energy efficiency sector.  Smart thermostats, for example. These have advanced features, such as occupancy sensors, learning capabilities, and even give users the ability to control their thermostat using a smartphone. Columbia Gas of Virginia received approval to offer smart thermostat rebates in Phase 3 of our energy efficiency program and reached the 3-year participation goal within the 1st year!   

A challenge that remains is the ability to engage small business customers to participate in utility energy efficiency program offerings.  It has been difficult to reach the decision makers of these businesses to educate them on the value of energy efficiency.

Lesley: I joined the energy efficiency sector in 2010 working for LEAP. While, like most job sectors, there were more men than women, I was pleasantly surprised that there were plenty of women working in this space, though mostly on the less technical side.

As far as challenges, I’ve been aware of a substantive difference in what the men were paid as compared to with similar job responsibilities and titles. At times, I’ve seen women out-performing their male colleagues, but not being equally compensated. Pay discrepancy remains a problem to this day, unfortunately. Another challenge I see in this industry is the lack of African Americans and Hispanics in programmatic or leadership positions. Energy efficiency is a topic that affects us all, no matter race, gender, or background. It would be ideal to see a more diverse cross-section of individuals in this sector representing not only their companies, but also their own unique perspective.

Why does gender diversity in leadership matter?

Cynthia: Gender diversity in leadership matters for the same reasons that cultural and ethnic diversity matter – a team that has different backgrounds and perspectives is better equiped to provide unique and innovative solutions to problems. It’s important as well for our next generation of women to have strong role models to inspire and support their own educational and professional efforts.

Carla: Gender diversity in leadership is important because men and women have different viewpoints, experiences, and insights.  Having individuals at the leadership level that possess a wide range of experiences allows for better problem solving, ultimately leading to enhanced business performance.

Lesley: When does gender diversity in leadership ever not matter? Remember the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus? Men and women think differently in some respects, and bring different capabilities to the table. Without one, the other is only half complete. As a society, we’re still addressing women’s issues that have existed for centuries, but progress is definitely happening, and working your way up to a leadership position is an example of how that progress is happening.

Is there any advice you can give to women who want to advance as leaders?

Cynthia: All good leaders have good mentors, so my first piece of advice is to find a good mentor. That said, seek out a woman mentor in particular. She’ll be able to give you frank and important advice that speaks to specific challenges women in the workplace must overcome. 

Carla: Get involved – take advantage of opportunities for learning, networking, and building relationships with others.

Lesley: You’ll likely have to work twice as hard as your male counterparts. It’s the world we live in. And, ask for what you want. It is easier for men to be heard for the very simple reason that their voices are often deeper and carry further. Even today, in 2018, some women are less likely to express an open in a room filled with men, who seem so comfortable with engaging and sharing their thoughts. You don’t need to be aggressive by any means; just make sure you’re heard. Don’t be discouraged when your input doesn’t seem to take hold. Try and try again.

What’s one thing women who are beginning work in the energy efficiency space should know?

Cynthia: In my experience, the energy efficiency industry isn’t markedly different from another technology industry with respect to gender. Yes, there are fewer women in it, but that doesn’t mean women can’t advance. The hardest thing women must work through from a career perspective is juggling family life with work – especially when children are very young. Preparing and planning for those years is so important when it comes to creating a fulfilling professional and personal life.

Carla: There are some very technical and complex topics you may be involved with – EM&V (evaluation, measurement and verification), cost-effectiveness tests, etc… but don’t be intimidated!  It’s great to be involved in the energy efficiency industry.

Lesley: You’re entering a sector where a lot of very smart people have dedicated a lot of time and resources to cracking the nut to increase energy efficiency adoption. It’s proved difficult, but we are making a difference. At the end of the day, making that difference leads my passion to do this work, because we’re helping families, we’re helping businesses, and we’re helping the environment.