boardroom

Changing attitudes in the power game

Tracey Hickman has made it to the top in an industry where management is still dominated by men. She speaks to Mark Jennings about her role at Genesis, her relationship with local iwi, and sexual harassment.

Tracey Hickman’s office has a very 1970s feel.

The building it sits in was constructed in the 70s and almost nothing has changed here in the last 45 years.

A few metres away from Hickman’s desk, four 60MW turbines hum away as they produce enough power to keep a city the size of Hamilton running.

Tokaanu Power Station near Taupō is about as utilitarian as buildings come, but these days it is control centre for all Genesis's hydro schemes including Tekapo and Waikaremoana.

Hickman – Executive General Manager, Generation and Wholesale at Genesis – oversees the company’s hydro generation “assets” as well as the big Huntly coal/gas-fired power plant.

When she is not working in Auckland, Hamilton or Wellington Hickman spends much of her time in this rather bleak building not far from her Taupō home.

“The way we make electricity hasn’t changed much over the years but everything around it has. The way we sell and trade electricity is very different and so is the way we interact with the consumer,” said Hickman.

“I’ve never felt that being a woman has been a handicap, I just got on with it.”

Brought up in the Eastern Auckland suburb of Howick, Hickman has a Master’s degree in resource management and joined ECNZ (the state-owned organisation that ran most of the county’s power stations) 23 years ago.

ECNZ’s assets were split between Mercury, Meridian and Genesis in 1999. Contact Energy had been spun off from ECNZ some years earlier.

Hickman has made it to the top in an industry where management is still dominated by men from mostly engineering backgrounds.

“I’ve never felt that being a woman has been a handicap, I just got on with it.”

Later in the day, Hickman would talk to me about her own experiences with sexual harassment and issues confronting women in her industry.

Before that she takes me to the nearby Tongariro trout centre.

Yes, trout are bred there but the wild stocks in the nearby rivers and lakes are doing so well that they are not needed. Most of them go into a pond to be caught by kids.

The Tokaanu Power Station near Taupō. Photo: Mark Jennings

Currently, two of the trout races have been given over to “hardening up” one of New Zealand’s most endangered birds, whio (or blue duck).

Chicks born in captivity are taught how to survive in the wild before being released.

Genesis has pumped $6 million into a recovery programme for whio since 2003, $1.6 million of which was a legal obligation as part of its consent renewal for the Tongariro scheme.

The bird’s numbers have been steadily increasing and the population is now about 3000.

We drive to a picturesque part of the Whakapapa River downstream from a hydro intake to look at several families of whio in the wild. The fast-flowing river is strictly monitored and controlled to protect the bird’s habitat.

Major protection also comes from the lines of predator traps and 1080 drops.

It’s obvious that Hickman has a great affection for the whio, but the little duck also has a symbolic importance for her.

“When ECNZ first sponsored the recovery programme they gave out t-shirts with the whio and their own logo on them – most people cut off the ECNZ emblem as a protest,” said Hickman.

“It is powerful what you can do when you stop fighting and start working together.

“It is about balance, the resource we use has multiple uses.

"We need to make sure the right water flow is there not just for whio but for angling, rafting, kayaking and then there is the cultural values.”

Hickman believes that as a country, New Zealand benefits hugely from Māori values.

“I think they are a massive strategic advantage for us as they flow through to our whole culture. Māori have longer timeframes, they don’t look so much for short-term benefits. One local Iwi has a 1000-year vision.

"I was a little blonde girl brought up in Howick, but I’ve learnt a lot and I really enjoy it [relationship with iwi]."

“I feel just at home peeling spuds at the back of a marae as I do wearing heels and going to meetings in Wellington.”

One of Hickman’s colleagues in the Genesis environment team reminds her that this wasn’t always the case when Hickman was negotiating with iwi over consent renewal for the Tongariro scheme.

“Back in the day Tracey got plenty of brickbats.”

Hickman’s smiling response: “I attended about 120 hui and I still blame them for the weight I put on.”

She later concedes that “there were shit fights everywhere”.

“The local iwi did not give their permission for the Tongariro scheme to be built on their land, it was done under the Public Works Act so when we applied for consent under the new RMA it was the first time Māori and other community groups could have their say.

“I learnt to deal with conflict.”

Asked if she is worried who might own the water in the future, Hickman's response is immediate. “I don’t fear it and it is a conversation that comes up frequently with iwi. I think it is healthy to have an open debate.”

She didn’t say it but it is easy to sense from Hickman that she enjoys her relationship with Māori and she talks warmly about the small projects that benefit the local community. Like the iwi business that turns weed removed from hydro lakes into potting mix.

“I feel just at home peeling spuds at the back of a marae as I do wearing heels and going to meetings in Wellington.”

In the car on the way back from touring the lakes, whio habitats, and the pipes and canals that make up New Zealand’s equivalent of the Snowy River scheme, I broach the subject of sexual harassment and the fallout from the Weinstein scandal.

Hickman welcomed the question.

“I think you should ask me about that, it’s important to discuss it.

“In the early days when I was at ECNZ there were lots of examples of inappropriate behaviour. I used to go around ripping girlie posters off the wall of the workshops.

“I am trying hard to get more female engineers and more female executives in the company. It is something that we talk about a lot as a management team and at board level.”

“There is still a lot of work to do in this industry and we need to have the conversations. We need to make sure we are able to have them; now I think men, because of what’s happened are almost too frightened – that’s not good, we need them to feel they can actually talk about it.”

Hickman herself said she had been seriously sexually harassed by a male superior when working for another organisation.

“I don’t really want to go into it but it was serious. To some extent I just ignored it."

So why did Hickman, who these days is regarded as a straight-shooting executive, not call out the behaviour at the time?

“Well I guess I was quite young and didn’t want to make a scene.”

Was she worried that that it might impact her career?

“Yes, I was. I can understand why women in Hollywood, even when they got to a position of power didn’t call it out, I can see both sides of this.”

Hickman also thinks that women need to be careful about how they handle the issue.

“I don’t think we should tolerate it but I don’t think we should become victim to it either. I would hate to see us so sensitive that it becomes an excuse (for non-performance)."

Hickman said much more needed to be done around diversity and pay equity.

“I am trying hard to get more female engineers and more female executives in the company. It is something that we talk about a lot as a management team and at board level.”

Back in her office now the discussion turns to more mundane things like the weather and the likelihood of rain.

“You know what we call a rainy day here? We call it fuel delivery day! Every drop of water counts."

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