In celebration of Women’s History Month, RE Magazine is focusing on the many women who perform typically male-dominated jobs at electric cooperatives. A request for stories yielded dozens of responses—women from large co-ops and small co-ops, engineers, staking technicians, CEOs, board chairs. All candidates had different journeys, but common themes emerged, including a love of learning, overcoming “old-school” perceptions, and capitalizing on opportunities for advancement. Read on for some of their stories.
Jessica Matlock was the assistant general manager and government affairs director at Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD), the nation’s 12th largest PUD, for 13 years when La Plata Electric recruited her to become the first female CEO in its 81-year history in 2019. Her untraditional early years spent on a ranch in Colorado, serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, and working in Congress “instilled in me the value of hard work, how to lead under extreme pressure, and to persevere when the odds are against you,” she says. Since workplace support is vital, she and Libby Calnon, the first female CEO at Hood River Electric Cooperative in Oregon, were the force behind the Women in Power professional community on cooperative.com. “Hopefully, we are making change happen, and the Women in Power group can be a place where we empower others to build relationships, mentorships, encouragement, and focus.”
A civil engineer by background, Amanda Opp was a cashier at the co-op for two years before moving to the operations department, where she earned certifications in geographic information systems and utility vegetation management. Today, she oversees five three-person tree crews, all of them seasoned arborists. “I let them know from the start: I’m not the expert at your job. I’m going to need your help. I’m not sure that they expected that. I invite their feedback because it’s the best way to be the supervisor they need.” When she started in the new role, Opp struggled with her place in a male-dominated field. “I learned that I had to get comfortable with being myself and speaking my mind. I tell women—find someone in a senior leadership role, ask for opportunities, and be ready to step up when it comes your way.”
Nancy Winters ran for co-op director in 2009 and 11 years later became the second woman to lead the seven-person board. Initially, Winters felt her lack of energy industry experience, while not a board requirement, put her at a disadvantage. Instead, she played up her strengths: community involvement. “Unlike my opponents, I was a well-known member of a large Rotary Club in Jackson Hole, and my years as a business owner provided me an avenue” to interact with the public. Eventually, Winters got comfortable with the industry, even creating orientation packets for new board members to lessen the learning curve. “You need business savvy and tremendous commitment” to be a successful board member, she says. Along with exploring the mountains and caring for her horses, “serving on the board of this wonderful cooperative has become one of my life passions.”
Donna Walker is Hoosier Energy’s first female CEO in its 72-year history. A certified public accountant, she was promoted to CEO after serving 23 years in a range of positions, including executive vice president and chief financial officer. When Hoosier senior leaders asked Walker to lead an improvement initiative at a power plant, Walker accepted, despite not having a background in electricity. That experience was a turning point and inspired her to aim for an executive position. “Women tend to apply for positions they feel they’re qualified for, whereas men have the mindset of, ‘I have a good background, and I can figure it out.’ If something interests you, apply for it. You can figure it out too. You won’t be sorry that you said yes.”
“I didn’t picture myself in this position because the person before me had a GIS degree, and I didn’t foresee him leaving because who leaves electric co-ops? They’re great places to work!” But that’s what happened when Sondra Kats successfully completed her geographic information systems (GIS) certifications and became a mapping technician in the co-op’s operations department in February 2020. A love of learning and the desire for career growth helped her overcome the challenges of mastering a new and complex subject. “I took every opportunity I could to learn about it,” she says. One of two women in the operations department, Kats, a former corrections officer in the Kansas prison system, tells women: “Don’t allow gender to dictate your job. If interest and passion are there, and you know you can be successful, go for it.”
A drive to prove herself, a willingness to take risks, and a way with words have helped Janet Rehberg throughout her career. Her role as emcee of NRECA’s annual meetings in recent years caught the attention of leadership at Tri-County Electric, who encouraged her to apply for their vice president of engineering opening. Before moving to Texas, she was the marketing director for Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives. “I never expected to eventually lead an engineering organization, but my decade of engineering experience at AEP [American Electric Power] equipped me to excel in this new role.” Overcoming career challenges “has made me a better, more resilient leader. Experience is what shapes you into the person that you are. That’s why I’m a huge supporter of [science, technology, engineering, and math] education for girls, because I believe it is important to mentor and pave the way for the next generation of women entering our industry.”
A passion for figuring out how things work, focus, and perseverance strengthened Kara Laframboise’s resolve to stick to her dream. “In college, I had a professor who didn’t support women engineering students and even told me I wasn’t smart enough to be in the program. I’m lucky that I’m a stubborn person and wanted to keep with a profession that I knew I would love.” Laframboise began as a North American Electric Reliability Corporation compliance officer in Minnkota’s engineering department, but she felt she could do even more. “I mentioned to my supervisor that I wanted to work on a design project because I thought it would help me better understand the compliance aspect. I ended up opening an opportunity for myself. Now, our entire electrical engineering department does some compliance and design aspects. It seems to be a good mix for everyone and helps keep us motivated.”
Just a few years out of college, Ayslynn McAvoy is already a valued member of Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.’s technology and security division, with two internships under her belt and her current position focusing on critical infrastructure protection standards across the entire organization. McAvoy says she counteracts self-doubt in her abilities by “forcing myself to admit that I work just as hard as the people around me and the young men I went to engineering school with. I did an incredible job in my first internship so that I could be moved to another team, and I clearly excelled enough to earn the opportunity to kick-start my career.” McAvoy advises young women seeking co-op careers to “just apply for it. Once you’re in the door, take up some space. Take notes, talk during meetings, ask questions—exist in the space the way your male co-workers do.”
It was a turning point when Corn Belt Power wanted Josie Ubben to learn AutoCAD, a software application used in transmission line design. “They were looking for someone to update transmission profiles and modify electrical schematics. They sent me to training, and I caught on fast. I love the challenge of AutoCAD, and I knew I’d dig deep to figure it out.” Shortly afterward, a position opened up. As one of two women in a department of 52, “my biggest roadblock in the beginning of my career was having the confidence to speak up and give information without feeling intimidated. I work hard, and I am thankful my co-workers trust me. The best thing about our co-op is I have a very supportive boss and co-workers.”
Nichole Eshbaugh is one of three female senior executives hired by Tri-County Electric in the past three years. Since 1999, Eshbaugh has worked in the industry on the vendor side, often as the sole woman. Throughout her career, she’s overcome roadblocks using a “proof through action” approach. When stakers balked at using analytics to measure workload, she convinced them such data would be valuable. “After listening to them, and then promising to them to trust me that I will work to make it right if it doesn’t work, we moved ahead.” Women in utility technology careers are the best sources of advertising and mentors. “We need to be bolder and be those ambassadors to get up there and really encourage and talk about what we do and why we like it.”
Libby Calnon has followed her best advice in becoming a co-op leader: “Learn everything you can about your company and your industry, even areas outside of your core responsibilities.” She went back to school in her 40s for her MBA, a second bachelor’s degree, and a cooperative finance professional certificate, all on top of 20 years of industry experience in communications, economic development, and emergency response.
Devin Fisher is the co-op’s first woman in this position and says in her experience the field has attracted few women overall. Fisher and her three children run a 100-head cattle operation.
Angela Bell had a background related to the power industry, but “when I realized there was a career path to become a field engineer, I jumped at the opportunity to further my career.” Nearly 60 classes later, she got hired at Clay Electric Cooperative, where she manages transmission and distribution projects.
Sarah Peterson puts together the Minnesota Valley EC’s construction budget and plans for future growth. She works closely with the distribution designers, linemen, and dispatchers to ensure reliability to members.
Ashley Dull started as an intern before being promoted to an analyst, supervisor of distribution design and then to her current position. Dull grew up in a family of lineworkers, “so I got to know and understand the distribution construction side before starting on the path of electrical and civil engineering.”
Sheryl Fromm has spent most of nearly 40 years in the industry at municipal or investor-owned utilities. During that time, she completed a rigorous, four-year apprenticeship and had to “work twice as hard to prove” herself in the male-dominated field. “I’d love to help another young woman along this path!”
Kaitlyn Farrar’s experience mapping and analyzing data as a wildlife biologist for the state was valuable training for her co-op job. A part-time graduate student, Farrar is also proud of how she built a loyal client base. “In a way, it has almost been more rewarding for me to earn this respect because I know that I worked hard for it.”
An online recruiter contacted Amanda Skubal in part because of her experience working on generation equipment during college. An ability to think quickly on her feet and co-worker support has helped her succeed at the Tri-State G&T, where she conducts field tests and maintenance and troubleshoots at substations.
As a field engineer for an equipment manufacturer, Kendre DiPietro encountered several barriers, including worksites without female restroom facilities, that hindered her ability to perform her job. Hard work and “not letting those experiences affect my long-term goals has allowed me to find a place where I can be productive and develop my career further.”
Cassandra Frysinger specializes in net metering connections for renewables, a new position at Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative that requires “a mix of customer service flair and engineering knowledge.” Outside of her “fascination with solar and electric vehicles,” she coordinates group runs, experiments with new recipes, and helps raise three energetic children.
Suzi Olson has worked at Missoula Electric Cooperative for 20 years, first in the billing and credit department for eight years. “I moved from an office of mainly women into a ‘man’s world’” and had to learn everything from ground-zero, including finding my way in our remote service area.” She credits a “great group of trainers,” as well as GPS technology, for their support.
Before she retired in 2016, Jeanne Barnard was the first female manager of an electric distribution co-op in Montana and one of 18 in the nation when she began in 1996, according to her daughter, Leila Seyfert, an employee at another Montana co-op, NorVal Electric Cooperative in Glasgow. Previously, Barnard was a county assessor and a field agent for the Bureau of Land Management.
Archer joined Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative 16 years ago as a dispatcher before moving to her current job. As needed, she also helps out in the member services department.
During her 24 years at Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative, Julie Morrison’s career has evolved along with technology. Her first job was updating paper maps as a computer-aided drafting operator. Today, she now oversees the co-op’s GIS system, which she helped build.
Jodi Bullinger started at Cass County Electric Cooperative in 1994 as a power control operator and was manager of system engineering before heading the department. She gave birth to her first child a week after presenting a $10.5-million two-year construction plan to directors.
Paula Fode’s career has evolved along with technology. One of her first jobs was gathering field inventory at Northwestern Bell, an experience that helped her get hired at Cass County Electric Cooperative, where she eventually was hired as its first GIS technician. In 2001, she became senior manager and oversees a range of computer applications in the engineering and operation department.
Dee DeGeest started working at Cass County Electric Cooperative part-time in 1993 during a break from a stressful career as a narcotics agent. Within six months, she was hired full-time in the co-op’s engineering department, and the co-op paid for her schooling. “Working in male-dominated fields was nothing new to me,” she says.
Amy Mahlum spends her days ensuring that Cass County Electric Cooperative’s underground distribution plant is working properly. She interacts with members, contractors, and other utilities.
A nine-year employee at Tri-State G&T, Jenni Carron routes, evaluates, designs and manages construction of transmission line access roads in four states. She’s the 2019 recipient of the Rocky Mountain Electric League’s (RMEL) Emerging Leader Award and applied for her current job while on maternity leave with her first son. “I thoroughly enjoy the work I do and am honored to teach my kids, and anyone else watching, that the construction world is not just for men.”
Tara Wille got her start in the power industry as a technician at the Calvert Cliff Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland. At the G&T’s Limon Generating Station, she specializes in instrumentation and control, “but this position is a lot broader and requires a variety of skill sets. We even do the groundskeeping!” Wille grew up about 55 miles west of Limon “and was ready to make the transition back home” when she got hired.
Shannon Newsome worked in the co-op’s billing department for 12 years before moving to the engineering unit. “I have been staking a year and I’m still learning. I’m amazed by the opportunity and strive hard to keep the door open for the next generation of females who want this job.”
Podcast: Along Those Lines: Hear From Women Making Inroads in Male-Dominated Job Roles