Living Women's History: Marie Gillman

We're celebrating Women's History Month by talking to strong female leaders within TVA. In this exclusive Q + A, Marie Gillman, general manager of TVA Nuclear Projects, talks about being a role model in a what is still a male-dominated field.

What changes have you seen in your career?

When I started there were very, very few women in nuclear power, especially in technical positions. I was one of only three in the first plant I worked at. But now, the numbers are coming up and women are in positions that traditionally were all male jobs. I see a huge improvement there.

You work in a male-dominated field. What helps you navigate that world?

I’ve never worked in any other environment! I have always been the only woman in most groups in my career—it’s normal for me. As the years went by, I never questioned it. Now, I look around and I think we could do better. We—society as a whole—could do more to encourage girls to enter fields like this. Highly technical fields—engineering, physics—those fields still have fairly low percentages of women.

Your job requires a lot of overtime. Has it been hard to balance that with family life?

The utility industry is a demanding industry on your life and your family. You can be on call 24/7; you work nights, you work weekends, you work holidays. It’s tough balancing that work and a family. For the times that it does not all balance, you need a good support network—my husband is and was wonderful. He encouraged me, supported me, and was always there. My kids became very independent with both parents working in nuclear.

I’ve yet to see a limit of what a woman can be in this business; when you believe that, it is a reality. I have had many male colleagues say to me, “You’re the role model for what my daughter can be. Set the stage for them.”

Who has been an influence on you?

My parents—there were never any limits expressed on what I could achieve. I was taught that if there’s a job to do then jump in and do it—don’t wait to be asked. Be an independent woman. That was very important to my dad. My parents came from Ireland—they had very traditional beliefs in some ways, but my dad felt it was critically important to be independent and to get an education. He taught me to push myself, to go to my absolute maximum potential.

I was born here, but grew up and went to school in Ireland—I moved back to the U.S. when I was 20. Education is of primary importance in Ireland—academic excellence is very much valued, and getting good grades was of paramount importance. In Ireland, sports were only games—academic performance is what mattered. There were also fewer stereotypes to overcome there, because women were equally as represented in the technical subjects as men.

What is your advice to female employees?

I tell them to push themselves. When they come to me for advice with career plans, for example, that say the next step will be taken in five years or 10 years, I’ll tell them, “that should be a year, two years.” Don’t limit yourself and think you have to take 20 years to learn something before your next promotion! If you want to be noticed, you have to be above ordinary. Volunteer at every opportunity and get engaged in ways help the whole team—don’t just do your job. If you want to get promoted, earn it, work hard and be excellent; promotion is not a right.

Don’t limit yourself—get educated, get experience, get something that will make you more marketable. And I think it’s a good idea to find a coach or a mentor to be your champion.

What could help women be better communicators?

Understand the topic—while we work hard to earn our seat at the table, respect is easily lost. Come to meetings prepared, do the homework in advance and know your audience. Don’t just talk for the sake of talking. Conversely, if something sounds and feels wrong, it probably is, so have the courage to speak up, recognize the value of a diverse opinion. When you’re new to a group, being able to listen is really important; understand the group dynamics, interactions, and politics. Pay attention to good communicators for behaviors to emulate.

In Nuclear, we tend to value the contrarian view. It’s very important and valued to be able to identify problems freely. If everyone is nodding their heads and just saying everything is great—that’s not the way to improve an organization. Diversity of opinion, diversity of gender and of race—these all add value to an organization. Because Nuclear is a technical field we tend to be very technical, so having someone with a whole different background can add a lot of value.

The Employee Resource Groups being formed in TVA—I think it’s wonderful to see support organizations. Women Empowered, U.S. Women in Nuclear—those are helping women to get together to collaborate and mentor, and I think that’s very important to have that support network. There are things we can help each other with. Use these organizations to build relationships with peers, find mentors, people that you can trust to provide feedback.

Final thoughts?

I’m really excited about the women I’m seeing come into TVA and Nuclear. They’re high energy, smart, ambitious. I think this is an exciting time for TVA to mentor and guide the next generation—all of them—but I’m especially excited about the women I’ve met in the last year or two coming into the organization. They have so much potential. They’re coming up with good new ideas to challenge our paradigms. I’m so proud of them. It’s very important for us as managers and leaders—not just women, all leaders—to foster that and to help them grow.