Climate Champion: Ellen Dragotto

Engendering Utilities for a Better Tomorrow

This blog (posted in March 2016) is in memory of Ellen Dragotto, who passed away peacefully on Thanksgiving Day, 2016, after a courageous battle with cancer. She continued until late in her illness to travel and see through the implementation of her beloved program that promoted the inclusion of women in electricity utility operations. Ellen launched the USAID Engendering Utilities program for which she was recently awarded the Laura W. Bush Award for Excellence in the Advancement of Global Women’s Equity.

A desire to protect the environment – and make it a focus of your career – can be sparked by many things. Ellen Dragotto was in her 30s working for a small organization in Washington, D.C., when she had that “aha” moment.

The Scranton, Pa., native was tasked with helping several companies and Asian countries develop guidelines to tackle wastewater treatment. She became increasingly concerned about sustainability.

“It definitely made me think about the global environment,” she said of her seven years with the U.S. Environmental Training Institute. “It made me aware of the use of water and energy. The more water you use, the more energy you use.”

Hired by USAID in 2001, she has worked on energy-related issues ever since. She has been effective in using a degree in human resource management and experience as a training specialist to strengthen the capacity-building work of the Office of Energy and Infrastructure. In her 15 years with the Office, she has overseen contracts worth over $730 million - ranging from helping countries develop sound energy policies to transferring clean energy technologies.

Dragotto is now managing a project that she is particularly passionate about. For the past year, she has criss-crossed the globe for the Engendering Utilities program. This program is aimed at boosting the presence of women in the power sector in developing countries. Doing so, she believes, will improve both women’s career prospects and utilities’ bottom lines — and ultimately make the sector more sustainable in the face of climate change.


A program survey in 2015 found that in participating countries - Jordan, Georgia, Macedonia, Nigeria and Kenya - women made up only about 13 percent of the workforce and only half had received any training. Dragotto and her contractor have met with the heads of participating utilities and suggested ways they could improve this.

“We help them highlight successes - ways they are meeting gender goals -and share these with the other utilities so they can learn from each other,” Dragotto said.

We are empowering women and diversifying the utilities’ workforces.

The Engendering Utilities program includes training, mentoring and networking opportunities. Each utility’s executives have already expressed a desire to hire more women and integrate them more fully. “We are empowering women and diversifying the utilities’ workforces,” she said. “We need to move women up to the manager level.”

Doing so, she said, will also boost companies’ bottom lines: There are cost advantages to retaining employees. “And because men and women problem solve differently, you will get optimal solutions by having them jointly participate in decision making.”

More women in boardrooms also means more corporate philanthropy - including in environmental initiatives, studies show. Companies participating in the program decided to inaugurate a Bring Your Daughter to Work Day this year. The hope is that the girls will learn more about energy - from how it is sourced to the amount flowing through sockets in their homes - and lead them to improve their own families’ efficiency.

Asked if she thinks the program will help prompt utilities in the five countries to tap more clean energy sources, she nods yes. “I’m optimistic. Women are better caretakers,” she said.

Dragotto hopes to add a leadership development component to the program. And, looking beyond it, to “do what I can to help preserve the natural environment.” She’s also committed to keeping up a more personal goal: to visit at least one new country a year. She’s at 67 so far.

Ellen Dragotto presented on Engendering Utilities at a GECCO webinar on women's participation in the energy sector on March 22, 2016.

Energy, Adaptation
Strategic Objective
Mitigation, Infrastructure, Gender and Social Inclusion, Clean Energy

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