Women in energy: a conversation with Tiffany Bluemle

Kristin DearbornCustomer Support Specialist
Insulation & Air Sealing

*Update: Since the original post was published in 2014, Tiffany Bluemle has gone on to a new role as Director of Change the Story VT, where she continues to work on behalf of women in Vermont.

March is Women’s History Month and we decided to celebrate with Tiffany Bluemle, the executive director of Vermont Works for Women (VWW). We talked about some of the work that goes on at VWW and how to get more women engaged in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers and the trades. VWW works with women and girls in Vermont to recognize their potential and explore, pursue and excel in work that leads to economic independence. From rock climbing winter break camps with middle school girls to a law enforcement career prep course for women, VWW has been making Vermont a better place for women since 1987.

What inspires you to do the work that you do and what gets you excited about doing your job at Vermont Works for Women? I was attracted initially to the job because the fruits of my labor as a teacher had been difficult to measure from day to day. VWW measures its impact in terms of employment placement, wage gain, length of time on the job, etc. It felt so tangible to me.

In my work as a teacher I saw girls change pretty dramatically between sixth grade and tenth grade in terms of their willingness to participate in class, to take intellectual risks, to voice their opinions. I saw a real connection between what VWW was doing in preparing women for non-traditional careers and what I wanted so much for the young women with whom I was working in a high school and middle school setting. Over time the VWW board and staff have allowed the organization to adapt to changes: changes in the economy and changes in terms of opportunities within the workforce. Because VWW remains curious about the landscape within which we conduct our work we’ve been allowed to question our assumptions and that keeps it all very much alive. There’s nothing more exciting to me than seeing somebody who discovers a passion for something and who is really good at it.

I was lucky to stumble upon this job—a place for myself in which I could use a range of my skills and connect deeply to my work. I want that for other people. Our organization has exposed me to the realities of the lives of women who live in poverty and how hard it is to move beyond a perpetual state of chaos and the absence of security.

One of the hardest things for me to accept but one of the most important lessons I learned is the fact that progress doesn’t occur on a straight-line trajectory. All of us move a couple steps forward and a step back. We learn from each of the mistakes that we make or each of the dead ends that we run into and hopefully it will set us in a different direction or a better direction. I have learned to let go of things I can’t control. I’m a little less hard on myself when I stumble as well. You have to take the long view, and that’s why I’ve been here 16 years. Because you know I am in it for the long haul.

There’s been a lot of talk about not having enough women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers and trades, like energy efficiency. What’s your take on that and what are you seeing in terms of your work at Vermont Works for Women?

It is incredibly depressing to realize that the percentage of women working as plumbing and automotive technicians has not budged for at least two decades. We are having the same conversations that we were having three decades ago about the need to get more women in science, the need to get more women into IT. There are a lot of reasons why more women are not employed in those fields, why they don’t even enter them.

Without a systemic approach we’ll get pockets of achievement where maybe three girls go into an engineering program at a technical high school because a teacher has made an effort to do the kind of recruitment one needs to change the face of a field. But we haven’t recognized that if we’re going to attract more girls and young women into a field, we need to do more than hold the door open. We need to actively seek them out and encourage them. We get our ideas of how we’re supposed to live and work from the people around us. From the images that we see on television. From characters in books. From people we meet in the field.

People in engineering and IT firms have told me that as they consider candidates, that gender clearly plays a role in choices that people make. In the 1970’s and 1980’s professional orchestras started to revise audition policies and began to conceal the identity of the candidate from the jury. This has increased the gender make-up of orchestra hires by about 30%.

This tells us something. These biases that we don’t even recognize affect the way in which we assess a candidate’s ability: how well they’ll fit in, how well their experience matches what we need, etc.

There aren’t enough mentors in the STEM fields to encourage women as they make their way through these professions. Studies have discovered women aren’t leaving STEM careers because they are having babies, as had been presumed. It was because they felt really isolated. They didn’t know how to move up. The environment was clubby and they didn’t have mentors—the kind of mentors that Sonia Sotomayor talks about in her autobiography as being so critical to pushing her to go for that promotion or try this new thing. We all need those mentors in our lives, they really make a difference.

If a company sends an employee to a high school physics class to talk about careers, send a man and a woman so young girls get to see a woman in the field. It can make a big difference. As Marie Wilson, founder and president of the White House Project said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Some people can. Sally Ride hadn’t seen any women astronauts and she decided she wanted to be an astronaut.

There are many pioneers like her, but not everybody is Sally Ride. Not everyone is as bold, is willing to take risks and go into a non-traditional role. As parents, as teachers, as colleagues, we need to do more to reach out to the young people in our midst to encourage them.

Do you have any stories to share about the work that you do and women getting into green energy jobs?

Maybe six years back VWW launched Fresh Energy, a company designed to train new employees in weatherization skills. After gaining experience, they would cycle out and join the workforce. The goal was for Fresh Energy to be self-supporting through the weatherization sales we generated. We launched it right at the time that we thought there would be an incredible surge in weatherization and would be some money for it. The economy tanked, and construction jobs dried up. Those who were in construction began to diversify and get into weatherization too. We launched the program and did great work. We trained a total of ten women for weatherization jobs and they have all stayed in the field.

We closed the program when we were ahead financially but could read the tea leaves. Many of the people who were left went to work for the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO), in their Weatherization program, and currently work there. I’m really proud of that because they’re doing quality work for a great organization and working in homes where it really makes a difference. I choose to see Fresh Energy as a success. We got ten more women into the field who can help change the assumptions about who works in the weatherization field

What are some of the challenges and opportunities you see on the horizon in terms of engaging more women in STEM careers?

Each of us has an opportunity in every conversation with a young person to ask them questions about their interests. We must challenge and encourage them to think in the broadest terms about how they might use their talents. Every day you and I have a number of opportunities to make a difference, as do teachers and all professionals who can serve as mentors. The economy hinges upon getting more women into STEM jobs. Unless we make the best and highest use of every drop of talent in this state the economy suffers.

Unless we are willing to commit ourselves to concrete goals and designate funding, willing to approach this in a more systemic way, we’re not gonna make a difference in terms of changing the face of STEM careers. We live in a culture that thinks short term. You guys know this. The sum and substance of what Efficiency Vermont is trying to do is change behavior so that we can save the planet. Here we’ve had a really cold winter. Are people not gonna see the strangeness of this weather as a sign of climate change? Well, some people will. but some people will look at it and say, “The lake’s frozen over for the first time in twenty years. That can’t be global warming!”

We must call this a priority not just because of the opportunities for women but also because the economy depends on it. I couch it in these terms now as opposed to, say, matters of equity, access, social justice or women’s poverty. These are all are a part of the rationale for the work that we do, but as it stands we don’t have enough people to fill the jobs that are emerging.

We must do something to prepare young people to fill those jobs. We’re currently writing off half the population. We haven’t been willing to recognize that it’s a long term commitment. I’m willing to and I’m really hopeful through publishing this report Enough Said and gathering a task force that we can inspire other people to get committed too.

Thanks again to Tiffany Bluemle for spending some time chatting with us. Want to get involved? On May 2nd, VWW is hosting Lunafest, a series of short films by, for and about Women. VWW has lots of other volunteer options on their website.

What do you think about women in the trades or in STEM careers like energy efficiency? Do you have a story to share? Tell us in the comments.

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