Q&A with Jesse Fernandes Deason8 December 2014
A relatively new member to the hydropower industry, 28-year-old Jesse Fernandes Deason, a regulatory specialist at HDR Inc, has been instrumental in setting up a new group for women in the industry to broaden their networking opportunities. IWP&DC talked to her to discover how she became involved with hydropower and why she thinks the industry needs to value the skills that women can bring
Could you briefly explain your current role, and any previous experience in the hydropower industry?
I have worked for HDR for about two years as a regulatory specialist, involved in the areas of licensing, relicensing and compliance. I also help put together dam safety training materials for the company. Previous to this, I worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers as a federal fellow, where I had an opportunity to complete a detail with FERC doing hydropower work. That's really how I became introduced to the industry.
What initially inspired you to focus on a career in this sector?
I fell into hydropower by accident. A couple years ago I was considering a move to the northwest US from Washington, DC, and also thinking about changing from federal service to the private sector. I had made a contact at HDR in Seattle during my time working for FERC, and I reached out to him when I began looking for jobs. The rest is history.
What are the most challenging aspects of your work?
I have to deal with many different stakeholders with different priorities, agendas, and personalities. It certainly keeps it interesting!
The industry is seen as being very male dominated - what has been your experience as a woman in such an integral role?
I've had a positive experience as a woman in hydropower. I find that most people are tremendously friendly and will often go out of their way to help you. Any unconscious bias that I've experienced is difficult to parse out from me being a female or me being young. Sometimes people equate youth with naivety. This is probably the same in any other industry.
You set up linked in group 'Women in Hydropower' - what motivated you to set this up?
I came from the windpower industry which has its own industry non-profit geared toward women. I couldn't believe hydropower didn't have one! Last fall, I reached out to two women on the Northwest Hydropower Association's regional board with an idea to start a women's industry group. They were thrilled to help out, and a few months later we had our first Women in Hydropower Professional Group meeting at NWHA's annual conference. We had a terrific turnout - men and women from across the western US with a variety of roles in the industry. From there WHPG helped plan a women's event at NHA's annual conference. In Seattle where I live, we have quarterly networking events, and there is a group now in Portland, Oregon, who is doing the same thing. The LinkedIn group is more like a clearing house or bulletin board where folks are welcome to post event information or interesting articles.
What do you hope to achieve with the group? How do you see it developing in the future?
I hope this group helps women to broaden their networks and establish new relationships. Also, have some fun! WHPG is looking forward to starting a mentorship program in the next couple months. This could be a great opportunity for younger women looking to enter the industry as well as offer the chance to interface with senior women in the sector.
Are there any particular women in the industry who inspire you, and why?
Lisa Larson, a VP at HDR. She has a high responsibility job at HDR, is mom to two girls, and trains for marathons. I don't know where she finds the time.
Why do you think there is such a small percentage of women in the industry?
I think women are underrepresented in engineering industries in general, beyond hydropower. I think this can be traced to girls being underrepresented in STEM classes and degree programs. In hydropower, I find that a lot of women are congregated in certain areas, such as environmental or planning roles - there are not so many in engineering jobs.
How do you think we could attract more women to the industry?
As a culture, we need to value the unique strengths and skills that women bring to the table. Once the industry begins to embrace those assets, and can appreciate how those assets are reflected in productivity and in the bottom line, more women will be hired. The same can be said for minorities, who are also underrepresented in engineering.
Also, our workplaces need to offer benefits and work environments that support both moms and dads in achieving a better work/life balance.
What advice would you give to young women, or young people in general, who are interested in engineering and the hydropower sector as a career choice?
Meet as many new people as you can, including those outside of hydropower and engineering. Introducing yourself to strangers and making small talk definitely takes practice, but is a skill that can be learned. You never know where the people you meet today may be headed in their careers and their lives - someday you may be able to help them, or they may be able to help you.
The Women In Hydropower Professional Group welcomes new members, both in the US and internationally. To sign up please visit the linked in page.