Women in Energy: Research and Engineering

We're writing a series on women who work in the energy field and thought home energy professionals would be interested to hear their perspective.

Reposted from i.e., the Center for Energy and Environment's Innovation Exchange blog -- http://mncee.org/Innovation-Exchange/ie/

Center for Energy and Environment focuses our research and programs on Minnesota buildings and homes, but advances in energy efficiency impact people all over the world. The United Nations declared 2012 the year of Sustainable Energy for All and is working to empower women to participate in the energy field.

Besides supporting Girls Excel in Math, CEE employs women who play key roles in support of energy efficiency. Over the next few weeks, i.e. will interview women at our organization to recognize their work in energy research, policy, and education. 

For this first installment, I sat down with Director of Research Martha Hewett and Mechanical Engineer Angela Vreeland to hear their perspectives and experiences performing technical work and research.



Anna: How and when did you first get interested in energy efficient buildings?

Angela: I didn’t have an energy focus at first. After college, I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity for a year. I was interested in how to incorporate energy efficiency into the homebuilding process with insulation and mechanical equipment, which went well with my engineering background. Then I went to grad school for natural resources science management, which increased my interest to work with homebuilding.

Martha: The constant thread in my career is an interest in environmental issues of all kinds. I did my undergrad and graduate work in geology and groundwater hydrology- landfill siting, runoff from mine tailings, groundwater contamination. I worked in that area while I was in school and for several years after that, then reevaluated my career interests. I got into energy through a weatherization program, did that for five months, and then went out East to help friends build a house. When I came back to Minnesota, I started doing consulting work in energy, which was possible at the time because no one knew much of anything! In the last of my three years as a consultant, I did a lot of work for the Minneapolis Energy Office [now CEE] and then went to work for them.

Anna: Could you tell us a little bit about your role at CEE?

Angela: I do recommissioning, which is basically an in-depth process looking at commercial buildings, analyzing equipment and systems, optimizing the way they operate to reduce energy use and improve occupant comfort and indoor air quality.

Martha: Currently, I am doing research projects, ranging from energy to indoor air quality research. I work on both field research and survey research, technology assessments, even some program evaluations. By the way, I just need to clarify, I am not an engineer.

Anna: At conferences about building science what is the gender mix like? Do you think it’s changed over time?

Martha: The conferences that I go to most consistently are the ASHRAE meetings. And that is still a small minority of women. Mary Sue Lobenstein and I used to count the preregistration list and it used to be around 3%, really tiny.

Anna and Angela: Wow!

Martha: It’s better than that now but women are still a minority. I don’t notice it unless I make a point of noticing it. And then sometimes I sit in some of the presentations and count noses to see how many men and how many women are in there. And it’s always over 90% men at ASHRAE. I think it’s different at the ACEEE Summer Study and some other conferences.

Angela: Yeah, ACEEE is a little different though, because I think there are more policy and program topics. So that’s a more even mix. But I’ve gone NCBC, which is a building commissioning conference, and that’s almost all men. Probably the same thing, 90% men.

Anna: Why do you think that is?

Martha: At this point it’s maybe partly a historical artifact: if you’re looking at a meeting that includes people of all ages, there’s going to be a higher percentage of men in the older age groups just because the field really was dominated more by men then. But I think more women who study engineering go into electrical engineering (I mean, electronics), not building design.

Angela: Or chemical.

Martha: Or chemical. I just think building engineering, for whatever reason, seems to... What do you think?

Angela: I don’t know. I guess you can’t just say that women are not as often interested in engineering. Can you say that? I don’t know if that’s true or not. Even in my classes, in grad school and undergrad, I was the definite minority. I’d look around a class of 30 or 40 and be the only woman there. Maybe there’s just less interest? But I don’t know why that would be.

Martha: Yeah, maybe more women who are interested in technical subjects go into...

Angela: Medical type fields.

Martha: Medical, or statistics, or math, or something that’s not as hands-on, not as male-dominated.

Anna: You guys are brave!

Angela: Hmm. You start getting used to it I guess, right?

Martha: Yeah. You definitely do start getting used to it. You do.

Anna: Do you think there are any challenges to being a woman in this field?

Angela: Well, from my perspective, I’m fairly young and there are not many women in the field. I do wonder if people question my abilities to be a good engineer. I imagine that’s what people are thinking, but never once has anyone ever questioned me.

But I think, for being such a male dominated field, I have felt a lot of support. Especially here at CEE, and when I talk to outside people, they seem to respect my opinion. So. I guess I haven’t run into too many barriers.

Martha: In many situations, if you’re doing the same thing as a man versus doing it as a woman, as a man you start with the presumption of competence. The people that you’re talking to assume that you know what you’re talking about until you prove that you don’t. And if you come in as a woman, they assume that you don’t know what you’re talking about until you prove that you do. I didn’t used to think that was true, but over time I’ve come to believe that it really is true.

One of my personal heros as a woman in this field is Lynn Bellenger, who was the president of ASHRAE 2010-2011. I admired her because she was extremely competent as an engineer, but she also had great leadership skills grounded in women’s energy. She could lead a group of people and be personal about it, very present as a human being. At the beginning of the Society year, the president gives a speech. Hers included personal elements, some pictures of her family, which was SO outside the bounds of what ever happens at ASHRAE.

Another woman I admire in this field is Mimi Goldberg. She works for KEMA now, which is a big consulting company. She used to work for the U.S. Energy Information Administration and did her graduate work at Princeton, where they had an outstanding building research program. She’s a mechanical engineer and a statistician. Very smart, very competent, and I’ve always admired her. Before this interview I was thinking ‘who are women in this field who are role models for me?’ And it’s not a long list. Are there any that you’ve meet?

Angela: You!

Martha: Oh you’re in big trouble!

Angela: The only other woman recomissioning provider that I know from outside of CEE is Rebecca Ellis of Questions & Solutions, and I’ve never spoken with her. I don’t really know of many.

Martha: Yeah, there just aren’t many. There just aren’t many.

Anna: Are there any efforts to mentor younger women? Has anyone ever reached out to you, Angela?

Angela: Besides the Women in Energy group that gather and collect ideas and things, not that I know of.

Martha: At ASHRAE there used to be a group of women that would sometimes try to get together for a meal or something at the meeting. I’m not sure what’s happened to that group really. Up until recently, I’ve had so many meetings that if there was a gathering I couldn’t go to it anyways. But it wasn’t formal. It was an informal thing.

Angela: I remember in college there was SWE, Society of Women Engineers, but there was no focus on energy.

Martha: I think that’s a tricky thing where. It might be supportive but it’s also somewhat ghettoizing. But you know, there are more women in other energy fields. For example, a lot of utility program managers are women. I guess more of them have backgrounds in business and management. And they’re doing equally critical work related to energy, it’s just not engineering.

Anna: Why do you think it’s important for women to conduct research and do the technical work? Do you think we bring a different voice or a different perspective?

Martha: When I was doing recomissioning, I felt that the building operators saw me as more approachable. That is really important because they know where all the bodies are buried. They just start telling you what their experience is and a lot of times their descriptions form a pattern you can understand. I felt that they never thought I assumed they were stupid or that I thought I was better than them. I’m not sure how much of that is gender and how much is personality.

Angela: One recommissioning project, my supervisor would joke that the building operator basically treated me like a daughter. He did not care whether what he was saying about his building would make him look like he knew how to operate it or not. He was open with me, but whenever he talked to my male supervisor, it was a totally different type of interaction. In the same way. I think he felt like my supervisor was accusing him of not knowing how to operate the building and for some reason I didn’t come across that way. I think that is true. Maybe partly because we’re always feeling like we always have to prove ourselves, we understand that from their perspective, they don’t have to prove themselves to us. We’ll listen to them.

Martha: Yeah! I feel like we’re all in it together. They know stuff that we don’t know and we know stuff that they don’t know. We’re just trying to help them. And I think they feel that.

Anna: Do either of you have any advice for young women who are thinking about going into the energy engineering?

Martha: I think credentials are more important for women than they are for men. I do wish I had my PE. I think that’s probably more helpful for women because it helps offset that initial assumption of incompetence. I guess my only other advice is to look for a place to work where you don’t experience sexisim. Look for a supportive environment and if you’re not in a supportive environment, move to one.

Angela: I’ve kind of stumbled into one thing after another and fortunately have kind of ended up in a somewhat understandable path. It kind of makes sense in the end. But a big part of why I am where I am is because along the way I found people who are really supportive of what I’m doing and helped me, and just encouraged me. From my grad school advisor to my boss here. I think that’s really critical.

Are you a woman in working in energy? Please share your experiences and check back soon for more interviews!


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