WOMEN IN POWER: How Seattle City Light’s Employees Came Together to Empower

This story was published originally in the March 2019 issue of Northwest Public Power Association Bulletin Magazine. Please note: positions and titles of contributors may have changed since the time of original publication.

On ladders L-R: Shaina Cornelius and Koryn Kennedy. Standing L-R: Rachel Berry, Kim Kinney, Leigh Barreca, Maura Brueger, Sarah Davis, Lea Fisher, Paula Laschober, Liz Zimmerly, Debra Smith, Katheryn Mork, Uzma Siddiqi, and Deloris Marks. Seated L-R: Bianca Smith, Hina Arai, Stefanie Johnson, Courtney Adams, Michelle Vargo, and Joan Woods.
Photo credit: Fischer Wallace, Swae Photography.

It started with an idea.
For Seattle City Light’s Sarah Davis, the idea stemmed from attending a Women in Energy conference in 2016. She left the event excited, hoping to return home and find a group to join that focused on empowering women. But after a little reflection, instead of joining a group, better yet, why not start something together with other employees at City Light? After emails and casual hallway conversations, the idea of creating a group at City Light with her coworkers began to take shape. As it turned out, others shared the same interest, felt the same need, and had the same energy around the idea. The idea was simple: create a positive space to empower women (and men) at City Light.

In January 2017, these conversations converged, and Women in Power (WIP) held its first official meeting. The energy in the room was exhilarating and full of possibilities. This meeting established an employee group that has become a champion for equity and has positively impacted people from all divisions across the utility. Today, Women in Power has more than 200 members, consisting of both women and men, and focuses work in three areas: bimonthly meetings; a mentoring program; and Citywide events addressing topics such as gender equity, diversity, and inclusion. WIP’s mission is to foster professional development, better support one another, and address unique issues women face in the workplace. As an employee group, WIP currently doesn’t have a budget, so programming operates solely on members volunteering their time. Based on the work WIP has accomplished, it has garnered support from a large portion of City Light’s executives, directors, and employees.

Seattle takes notice
WIP’s influence in Seattle reached a new level on March 8, 2018, International Women’s Day. Members of WIP and employees from across other City of Seattle departments organized Women in Power: Press for Progress, an event to connect, discuss, and celebrate powerful women working for the City. More than 450 people attended the event (both physically and virtually) at Seattle City Hall inside the Bertha Knight Landes Room, aptly named after Seattle’s first female mayor.

Female City of Seattle leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, Chief of Police Carmen Best, four of Seattle’s six female councilmembers, and City Light representatives participated in panels that addressed the importance of mentorship, being heard, and how to become an agent of change within one’s environment.

The members of WIP were thrilled with not only the turnout but the energy of the event from beginning to end. It was contagious. It embodied what could be accomplished when working together around an idea fueled by passion and vision.

Seattle Department of Transportation Facilities Manager Holly Krejci was instrumental in organizing the event. She connected the organizers with the right resources and helped them navigate the City systems to make this event a reality. It all happened because of a conversation she had with Davis while ordering coffee.

“We didn’t actually know each other, but Sarah had this idea about organizing an International Women’s Day event, and I said, ‘Why not?’” Krejci described.

The event laid the groundwork for the creation of SDOT’s women’s group, Women in Motion, thanks to a little encouragement from Davis. Similar to WIP’s origins, Krejci reached out to SDOT employees to gauge interest, including co-chair, Jessica Alinen. After a few interest meetings and email exchanges, Women in Motion was formed. Today, it has established committees with plans to expand, on a trajectory like WIP. The key to success is determining interest and then finding talented, organized people to make it take flight.

“We’re here to support one another,” Alinen explained. “People are drawn to others who have a passion and energy for an issue. Holly brought that to Women in Motion. As members, we are there to support that passion and nurture it into something special.”

WIP Mentorship Program Cohort

The Women in Power Mentorship Program
WIP attempts to better serve the needs of its City Light colleagues by creating meaningful programs. When someone has an idea and identifies a need, the group encourages them to take the lead and make it happen. Liz Zimmerly, performance support services manager and a WIP vice-chair, and Anna Kim, power resource planner, did just that. Zimmerly and Kim wanted to create a mentorship program that connected employees and enhanced the professional development of the mentor and the mentee. Together, they led a committee of 12 members who developed and managed the program. The six-month pilot launched in early 2018 and included an application process to identify potential matches, multiple events with the cohort, and surveys to better assess the program.

The committee’s work provided these women with an opportunity to utilize and enhance skills outside of their current job description. Professional development for both the cohort and the committee is promoted throughout WIP’s structure and processes. It benefits both the individual and the utility.

“The mentorship program felt like something tangible that we could do to support women’s professional development,” said Zimmerly. “We felt creating our program here along with the other opportunities available within the industry would make mentorship accessible to even more people.”

Based on the success of the pilot, the mentoring program is launching its second cohort. This year, interest was so great that applications exceeded capacity and a waiting list had to be created.

Kathleen Wingers, the executive administrative staff assistant to City Light’s CFO and a program participant, believes the mentorship program created an opportunity to connect with another coworker on a personal level in a way she couldn’t have otherwise.

“What I have appreciated most is the opportunity to build a relationship with someone that I otherwise would not have met in the utility,” Wingers explained. “My mentor and I enjoyed sharing our experiences, both professionally and, in our case, as working moms.”

Creating connections
It’s common for employees to feel as if they don’t have inclusive spaces to discuss potentially sensitive topics or defined channels to connect with others outside of their business unit. The survey results from the mentorship program confirmed what WIP members had already theorized: City Light employees, especially women, were searching for ways to connect with each another. It quickly became apparent that WIP had the potential not only to empower but to help break down the proverbial silos that most organizations have.

WIP’s bimonthly meetings have become an open space to connect and learn. Usually held over the noon hour, meetings are lunch-and-learn style that highlight a speaker and address topics like equity and inclusion, communication styles, and development resources available to employees with speakers ranging from executives to HR representatives. The topics are typically sourced from members, keeping the organic fluidity that reflects WIP’s culture.

Organizing a group around an idea the way WIP has, independent of the utility, provides an opportunity to grow at a sustainable rate. Like the larger Citywide events that WIP spearheaded with other departments, it hopes to continue to link both women and men together across the utility by making it less opaque.

Stefanie Johnson, a senior power analyst and WIP vice chair, believes the connections WIP has created have become invaluable for her job. “Like many employees, I only interface with people in a limited number of roles at the utility,” said Johnson. “Being involved with WIP has allowed me to build a more complete understanding of the utility and to develop professional connections that I can call on when I run into a question or an issue in my work.”

Cover Image from March 2019 issue of NWPPA Bulletin
Back row L-R: Uzma Siddiqi, Liz Zimmerly, and Sarah Davis. Front row L-R: Shaina Cornelius, Joan Woods, Bianca Smith, Stefanie Johnson, and Koryn Kennedy.
Photo credit: Fischer Wallace, Swae Photography.

Executive championship
While WIP is a grassroots employee group, executive support was essential. From the beginning, they received support from City Light leaders, largely through participation. This show of support was especially visible leading up to the 2018 International Women’s Day event when executive leadership, driven by Interim General Manager and CEO Jim Baggs, allowed City Light employees to attend the event without having to use personal or vacation time.

“The group has worked hard to operate in a way that fosters strong positive relationships with our leadership to make supporting the work we’re doing possible,” said Davis. “We are an employee group, but we’re part of the utility. We have wonderfully supportive leadership at City Light, but we also have a responsibility to earn and maintain their trust.”

Participation in WIP by officers and directors is high, with the second WIP meeting consisting of a candid panel discussion by City Light’s three female officers about their experiences in the industry. One of whom was Chief Financial Officer Paula Laschober, who has been with the utility for 32 years. Laschober served as a sounding board and an advocate for WIP, especially in its formative stages. She believes it is her responsibility as a leader to pay it forward by investing in others who want to improve the utility and the industry.

“Women are still a minority in the power industry. In my position, I need to do what I can to encourage other women within the utility,” said Laschober. “Support looks different for everyone, but it can be as simple as a conversation or a gentle nudge in the right direction.”

Power Supply Officer Mike Haynes has also been a strong champion for WIP since its inception. Like many of the employee-led grassroots efforts, he feels that groups like WIP can fill a gap within the utility and can become a vital resource in the future. Haynes believes that executive leadership should be present in its support and should go beyond showing up by actively engaging.

“It’s easy for executives in my position to forget how impactful our support can be. What we’ve learned as officers is that sponsoring bottom-up initiatives like WIP, even if they are not officially tied to the utility, can pay dividends in the future. It enhances our culture,” Haynes said. “As executives, we are responsible for creating an environment where our employees will succeed. We owe it to our employees to foster that healthy environment. If we’re intentional about supporting these issues, we can proactively work together and provide the support they deserve. That way, we can celebrate that work.”

Since assuming her role as general manager and CEO of City Light, Debra Smith has spoken at a WIP bi-monthly meeting and has engaged with its members. “I attended my first ‘Women in Power’ event more than 15 years ago in Washington, D.C. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of participating in similar industry groups, all with a common purpose. I was fortunate to have strong mentors along my career path—some women but also men—and I know the importance of being encouraged by both colleagues and leaders,” she explained. “Grassroots groups, like Women in Power, are especially important because even as its members support one another, they also provide opportunities for personal empowerment,” she continued. “Sarah is a great example of someone who saw a need and made it happen. I’m proud to work with people who understand that it’s our job to create the environment and culture where we can all succeed.”

Providing support
How do men fit into Women in Power? For some, it may seem daunting, or frankly feel awkward to join a group like WIP. They may want to get involved, but don’t know where to start or how to show support. WIP is open to all City Light employees regardless of what gender you identify with and believes that change can only be achieved when everyone is part of the conversation.

“It’s the idea that we support each other,” said Uzma Siddiqi, automation and relay supervisor and mentorship committee co-chair. “It doesn’t need to be just about women or men, but a group who is open in their thinking and supports each other in hopes that it will impact the culture of the organization.”

It’s important to be supportive in your daily work environment as well. It can be eye-opening to take a step back to think about issues that your female colleagues may be facing. Analyzing your work through this lens of thinking can improve how you interact with your coworkers and possibly create spaces to address the challenges they are facing.

“Support can take all different forms,” Davis explained. “A great first step is simply asking ‘How can I help?’ Sometimes it’s as easy as spreading the word to your coworkers or showing up to an event. While it may feel small to you, demonstrating your support speaks volumes to the larger group.”

Organizing your own group
If you were to ask anyone within WIP about how to start a group like theirs, they would all emphatically state that their method is a model, not the model. There are other great examples of employee groups like WIP across the region, each with their own unique structure and origin. Regardless, WIP wants to serve as a resource to women and men across all utilities. These are a few tips to help form your own group.

1. Start with a common goal and grow
WIP started with an idea, but it took working together and utilizing everyone’s talents to help it take shape. The first meetings won’t be perfect, but something as simple as watching a TED Talk can initiate a conversation and open the channels of communication. As your group begins to grow, don’t be afraid to try new things. Give your group the latitude to try something and decide whether it’s worth doing again. The Mentorship Program was intentionally a pilot program for this reason. Be supportive of your members and their ideas.

2. Provide options
When a group is voluntary people aren’t showing up because they have to, they’re showing up because they want to. Provide something for everyone by offering comprehensive programming and a wide menu of options to support varying levels of engagement and interests. Additionally, keep member registration simple. There’s no formal initiation ceremony to join WIP; all it takes is an email to WIP’s Programming Vice-Chair and City Light Program Lead Bianca Smith to be added to their listserv. She encourages other groups to use members as a resource for meeting topics. “Listen to what your members want,” she said. “What’s missing? What barriers are you facing? What skills do you want to learn? Be receptive to that. Show what your utility can offer you in a more comfortable setting to receive this information. We intentionally keep it informal and honest.” If you have members who want to be more involved in the leadership of the group, encourage them to apply skills that may be outside of their daily work. This gives them the opportunity to enhance their talents while being involved, benefiting both themselves and the group.

3. Look for opportunities to connect
With more than 1,800 employees and multiple facilities across the state, it is a challenge to ensure that everyone who wants to be involved can. WIP has live-streamed some of its events and is working to make all its bi-monthly meetings available through Skype. This will help provide another avenue for participation for people working in the field and employees at more remote locations like the hydroelectric projects. While not all utilities are the size of City Light, it’s important to remember that this model can be scaled up or down to any size organization. If you work for a smaller public municipal utility, reach out to your counterparts at other departments like public works or transportation. The more connections you can create expands the conversation and can help grow support for your organization.

This all started with an idea.
Women in Power has become a vehicle for change within City Light and Seattle itself. Its members are proud and even surprised by its progress in only a few years. They hope to continue to help create an inclusive utility culture for all, by working together.

“We’re off to a good start but we have the ability to do more, especially around intersectionality and women in the trades,” said Davis. “But together, we can. This group is a true testament to the simplistic beauty inherent in teamwork. Everyone plays a role; everyone has something to contribute. You just have to decide what that looks like for you, and then take action.”