“‘Large Maine corporation seeking attorney, 1-3 years’ experience.’ That’s all it said.” When Sarah Verville answered the vague employment ad, she was 29 and had a year under her belt at a small law firm. “In 1984 it was hard to get hired as a female attorney. It was chance that I got the job at Central Maine Power,” Verville says.
Though she knew nothing about electricity, she was assigned to represent CMP in the licensing of hydroelectric projects, working closely with the male-dominated engineering department. “My first day, one of the engineers saw me and said, ‘Who’s that?’ His coworker replied, ‘That’s the little girl lawyer from upstairs.’ I thought, oh boy, I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
During her 12 years as in-house counsel, Verville’s confidence grew. “I was given a lot of autonomy, and I was surrounded by smart, qualified people who mentored me.” Still, she remained mindful of being one the few professional women at CMP. “I was cautious about when I spoke up. Women who were outspoken often met condescension. I didn’t hold back, but I waited, and I became more forceful as I gained credibility.”
In the late 1990s, deregulation of Maine’s electricity supply forced changes at CMP. By then, Verville was an expert in her field. She joined an energy consultancy as a project manager with clients across the country. “It was one of the first virtual offices,” she explains. “I was a single mom raising two kids, and it was a great opportunity.” But there was a lot of travel, which got harder as her kids got older. “The work-life balance is very difficult. It’s one of the barriers that keeps women from reaching senior positions.”
After seven years at Long View Associates, Verville joined Pierce Atwood, a large Portland law firm representing numerous energy clients. Despite decades of experience, she never walked into a meeting unprepared. “My male colleagues could come in and wing it. I didn’t feel like I had the leisure to do that.”
Verville, who is now 62, would eventually move on and retire from TRC Solutions, an environmental and engineering consulting firm.
“I loved my career, and when I left TRC there were as many women entering my field as men. I still don’t see significant numbers of women reaching senior positions in the environment and energy field, and that is disappointing.”
Is she optimistic about the future? “I am hopeful. This is a really rewarding field, particularly with the emphasis on renewable energy. That conversation will dominate our industry for decades, and hopefully there will be many opportunities for women to make more progress.”
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.