Growing Inclusion in UVMIndustry Training + Development
By Supervisor of Research and Development Sarah Lilley
Five years ago, I started my career in utility arboriculture as a consulting utility forester. Within the first two weeks, I called my supervisor and asked what the policy was for responding to harassment from the public while out patrolling. It was baffling to me why passersby felt the need to comment on the appearance of a utility worker wearing a hi-vis vest, boots, and hard hat. It was also off-putting when someone commented on how old they thought I was—either by bluntly posing the question, asking if I had just graduated high school, or joking that I was a trick-or-treater out early. And while rare, it was maddening when a homeowner would request to speak with a supervisor of a different gender.
While all employees working with the public may occasionally come across someone with whom they just don’t see eye to eye, some employees may not fit the general stereotype of a utility worker and face additional judgement for their gender or appearance. When thinking about this article, it was difficult to get my thoughts on paper since I don’t really consider myself to be a stereotype-buster, being a white, middle-income American with a decent college education. However, comments from working in the field made it clear that some people find women working in utilities to be an oddity. While those comments were annoying and easily brushed off, there is still that nagging doubt that any of my successes may be due to favoritism because of my gender and how I look.
I know that my experiences are trivial compared to what others have endured. The scrutiny and psychological hurdles are greater for those whose ancestry is considered foreign or who may not identify with gender norms. How can an employee focus on producing quality work if the police are called on them, surrounding and inspecting their vehicle? How can an employee feel safe to work independently if they constantly hear news stories about people like themselves being killed for no reason? And how can an employee feel secure enough to apply for that promotion if the world at large is telling them that they don’t belong?
The reality is that the utility workforce will become more diverse in the future, and it would be wise to act now to welcome that change.
While stories of negative encounters with the public are all too common, most of the time an employee’s gender or appearance are not remarked upon, or when it does happen, it provides an opportunity for positive discussion. I’ve spoken with older women who are delighted that I can tell them what lines are on a utility pole, and I’ve had homeowners express relief when a female utility worker shows up on their property. And where I live in Southern California, it is hugely helpful to have coworkers who speak a variety of languages—just like the customers we serve. The reality is that the utility workforce will become more diverse in the future, and it would be wise to act now to welcome that change. A continuously larger percentage of women are opting to work, more people are feeling comfortable to identify as LGBTQ+, and the ethnic makeup of the country is becoming more diverse. You can start with the employees that you already have. Let them know that they are heard and supported for their differences and that their safety is paramount.
Finding qualified applicants is a seemingly constant battle in utility forestry. Capitalize on that by presenting career opportunities to more diverse groups and welcoming applicants from all backgrounds. It’s always beneficial to seek out training on harassment, discrimination, and implicit biases. These can aid employees at any level. Anyone can use a refresher. To follow up on that training, take a few minutes for self-reflection to identify if you exhibit any discriminatory behavior or have biases to overcome. And finally, strive to have an open atmosphere of discussion at your workplace so that you can learn about the struggles that others may have experienced and learn how every employee’s different background makes your company’s culture richer and more resilient.
If that seems like a lot to think about, it is! And there are many more actions that you and your organization can take to foster diversity and inclusion in your workplace. But instead of being overwhelmed with all of the work to be done, embrace taking action in any way you can and see it as a path of continuous self-improvement.
For all of the trauma that came out of 2020, it should be everyone’s priority to be more inclusive, caring, and supportive of each other in the future. Hopefully over time, the scrutiny and inequalities based on people’s differences will diminish and we can then direct our full attention on safety and doing the best work possible.