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December 4, 2013

Paula Valdés Q&A: breaking the gender mould at Iberdrola

Iberdrola engineer Paula Valdés recently wrote about her experience as Spain's first female maintenance specialist at a hydroelectric plant. In this interview, she discusses her role and offers her thoughts on encouraging more women to pursue careers in the energy industry.

By Chris Lo

Paula Valdés Spanish hydro

The power sector, like many other heavy industries, is working to counteract the skills shortages that threaten to leave future projects struggling to find qualified staff. Given the ongoing labour issue, it’s impossible not to notice that one half of the labour pool – the female half – remains mostly untapped. In the UK, for example, women reportedly account for less than one in ten engineering professionals, many of whom gravitate towards careers in energy generation and distribution.

Encouraging women to pursue careers at all levels of the energy field extends further than fostering equality in the workplace; it could be essential to bolstering the sector’s future personnel, with research suggesting that reducing barriers to female participation in the workforce across all industries can increase GDP by up to nine percent.

Increasing the proportion of women in traditionally male-dominated fields such as engineering is a complex and multifaceted objective, which requires significant changes in workplace cultures, breaking down stereotypes around gender roles and encouraging girls in education to engage with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields from an early age.

Perhaps most important is the need for women who are passionate about energy technology and blaze a trail in fields that have always been demographically skewed towards men. One such trailblazer is Paula Valdés, an engineer who became the first female maintenance specialist at a hydroelectric power plant in Spain – first as an intern and new recruit at the Puente Bibey plant in the Sil Valley, then at the Santo Estevo II hydroelectric plant in Galicia.

Valdés recently wrote a blog on the Iberdrola website about her experience in the role, and we caught up with her to discuss her early studies and career so far.

Chris Lo: What initially inspired you to focus on a career in the power industry?

Paula Valdés: Working in the energy industry was not something I had planned for or had in mind. In fact, I hardly knew anything about it.

What I did know was that I loved the world of engineering and mechanics (as a child I dismantled my toys to see their operation and when they broke down, I tried to fix them) and that was the road that would meet my future career.

When I did my studies in Industrial Equipment Maintenance and had the opportunity to get to know the energy sector, I was fascinated and I was determined to be where I am today.

CL: In your blog, you wrote that people advised you against joining a sector that is dominated by men – did you want to challenge the idea that the energy industry is not suitable for women?

"As a child I dismantled my toys to see their operation."

PV: Rather than breaking stereotypes, I wanted to fight for something that I really loved. I think the profession to which you intend to devote your whole life to has to motivate you to continue learning and improving on daily basis, regardless of the type of profession and whether you are male or female.

Even if, in my case, it meant being involved in a male-dominated industry, it was not something that was going to stop me. When you want something, you have to fight for it.

CL: Could you describe the experience of your internship at Iberdrola’s Puente Bibey hydropower plant?

PV: Puente Bibey was my first contact with employment and the energy industry. The operation centre at Puente Bibey consists of several hydroelectric power plants with vertical and horizontal axis turbines, Francis, Kaplan and Pelton turbines, a reversible generator unit, as well as a power distribution substation.

At such a sophisticated centre, full of experts who have spent most of their professional careers at the site, I had the opportunity to acquire in-depth knowledge.

CL: How helpful were your colleagues during your internship and in the early days of your job at the plant?

PV: The truth is that I met some great professionals who treated me as part of the team right from the start. They explained to me the operation of the facilities and taught me, making my transition to the working environment a lot easier.

CL: Now that you are a full-time maintenance specialist at Iberdrola, could you describe the day-to-day activities of your role?

PV: Together with the rest of my colleagues, I conduct predictive and preventive maintenance of the equipment as well as corrective maintenance when there is some kind of technical fault.

"I met some great professionals who treated me as part of the team."

Temperature, pressure and other readings are collected to make sure that everything is working properly.

Basically we ensure that the facilities are in the best possible condition for their optimal use.

CL: What are the most challenging aspects of your work?

PV: One of the most challenging aspects is that you always have to be prepared for any anomaly or breakdown that may occur. You never know what can happen and previous experience is not always valid for the next malfunction.

CL: During your work, have you ever felt uncomfortable, or been made to feel uncomfortable, because of your gender?

PV: To this day, no, never.

CL: Has Iberdrola been a supportive company to work for, with a positive stance on equality in the workplace?

PV: Certainly from my experience, I can say that Iberdrola is a great company to work for whether you’re male or female.

Apart from the company’s equal rights policy, people I have met have treated me just like any other colleague, neither better nor worse. To me that is very important.

CL: Since you started at Iberdrola, have any other women joined the team?

PV: No, not yet, although in the future I hope they will.

CL: Do you think lots of women are interested in technical jobs, but feel too intimidated to approach the industry?

"To perform any job, one should take into account training, desire, motivation – not whether you are male or female."

PV: I guess there are people who might like the technical work and others who might not, regardless of sex, but I suppose that culturally and for educational reasons, women are more inclined to certain jobs and men to others. Nowadays, I want to think that if a woman is interested in technical work, she does not feel intimidated by anything or anyone

Things have changed a lot in recent years, there are women who drive trucks, some engaged in carpentry or plumbing, something completely unthinkable in the old days. In order to perform any kind of job, one should take into account training, desire, motivation – and not whether you are male or female. However, there is still a long way to go.

CL: What advice would you give to young women who are interested in engineering and the power sector as a career choice?

PV: If they are interested in this type of work and want to pursue it, they should fight for it.

They need to study and get the proper training, and though sometimes they might see the glass half empty, they should not throw in the towel because it’s not always easy. With hard work and perseverance you can achieve many things.

Follow Chris Lo on Google+

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