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Women in Construction and How They’re Paving the Way (Part II)

September 26, 2018

Roz Bahrami

It is incredibly empowering here at OsgoodePD to be able to speak to such amazing women paving the way for others in the traditionally male-dominated construction and energy industries. As part two of our three-part feature on a ‘powerhouse trio’ of women in construction and energy, we had the pleasure to speak with Shelley Babin, VP, Law & General Counsel at Ontario Power Generation (OPG) who was previously an associate at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP. Shelley obtained an LL.B. from the University of Windsor and a B.B.A from Wilfred Laurier University.

We discussed the experience of women in construction/energy and in leadership roles, how that has influenced Shelley’s work, and how the industry is changing.

As a young lawyer and a former litigator who quickly rose to a leadership role at OPG, how did you get to where you are now?

I have to attribute some of my success to good timing! About 18 months after joining OPG, an opportunity arose to take on the Assistant General Counsel role. And not too long after that, the General Counsel role opened up. I found myself in the right place at the right time.

Of course, the story behind the timing is hard work, solid training, and great mentorship. My litigation practice at a large Bay Street firm gave me the fundamentals that all young lawyers gain in that environment: a client-first attitude, rigorous attention to detail and a mastery of legal concepts. The transition to an in-house role was a leap away from the standard of perfection into the world of pragmatic legal advice that supports business decisions. This new focus suits me; I love learning about the business and the company’s strategic direction, and find it motivating and invigorating to see how the legal team’s work is connected to the big picture. Law firm life doesn’t always lend itself to developing strong leadership skills, so I am fortunate at OPG to have great mentors and role models across the business, and access to leadership training. I’ve learned that hiring, developing and retaining the right people is key to the success of the legal department, and, as a result, I spend a lot of time focused on my team.

Ultimately, being open to new opportunities and willing to take on sometimes daunting challenges has helped me get to where I am now.

What were some of the challenges you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?

Sometimes it’s tough not being an engineer. It means working harder to understand technical issues in order to overlay meaningful legal advice.

I’ve also had to work hard to build credibility as a relatively young senior leader among many seasoned industry veterans. I spent my first six months in this role reaching out to executives and senior leaders across the business to let them know that I am their legal partner, that I’m committed to understanding their business challenges and objectives, and that I’m capable of adding value at the business table. Lastly, I’ve had to adjust to the discomfort of not knowing everything about OPG’s business, our operations and the legal issues that may arise. This is a challenge when a lawyer’s comfort zone tends to be in having an intimate familiarity with the details. I’m learning to have confidence in my team’s ability to climb the learning curve and dive into any matter, regardless of how novel it is to OPG or even the electricity industry.

Can you share your experiences about being a female in a leadership role in a traditionally male-dominated industry?

Shortly after joining OPG, I attended my first meeting with the nuclear team. I was the only woman in the room – and probably the only non-engineer. I felt intimidated and unsure of my ability to contribute. It took me a while to find my voice.

My style has always been to sit back and listen, observe and learn, and then step in when I have the lay of the land. I’ve had to remember in this environment to trust myself and feel confident that I don’t need to immediately jump in and articulate my views in the way that others do. 

a. How has this influenced your work as part of the construction/energy/utility/legal industries?

I ask a lot of questions before I move to advising or recommending a path forward. There are experts all around me in the various fields that impact on OPG’s work, and they are always willing to slow down and explain. If decisions need to be made quickly, I rely on my instincts, my legal training and the knowledge I’ve gained over my three years with the company.

What made you want to participate as a keynote speaker for the OsgoodePD Certificate in Construction Law program?

I don’t have a background in construction law – I’ve been learning on the job at OPG through our work on the Darlington Refurbishment Project and other major projects. Learning by doing is exciting and sometimes daunting. Being a keynote speaker is another opportunity to learn, and also to share with those in the industry some of my key takeaways as my learning journey evolves.

Do you think the energy industry has changed in regard to gender roles in the last 10 years?

In short, yes – I do think the energy industry has changed in regard to gender roles and can speak most intelligently about the changes I’ve seen within OPG over the three years since I joined the company.

In 2015, two women started the OPG Women’s Network as a way for women to connect and share experiences, but also for male executives and employees to show their support for hiring, retaining and promoting women within the company. There are many inspiring women in the organization, some of whom were the first women on the plant floor, before there were women’s washrooms in the facilities. They were the trailblazers. It has been motivating to those starting out their careers in the industry to see how far OPG has come and to feel the organization’s commitment to women’s development.

Today, there are many impressive female leaders across all aspects of the business, from finance to contract management to hydro and nuclear operations to business development, and the number of female VPs has increased by almost 50% since I joined the company. These women are role models to those climbing the ranks of the organization. They also bring an important voice to the senior leadership table. I imagine (and hope!) that OPG’s experience is being mirrored across the industry.

Shelley BabinShelley Babin is the Vice President, Law & General Counsel of Ontario Power Generation Inc. (OPG). OPG is Ontario’s largest energy provider, producing about half the power of Ontario’s homes and businesses rely on each day. Shelley is a Senior Leadership Team member providing strategic legal advice to OPG’s management and Board of Directors on all aspects of the company’s business. Shelley also directs OPG’s legal team, which supports the company in corporate governance, financing, procurement, real estate, pension, regulatory, Indigenous relations and other matters. Shelley is an Accelerate Leader and a Mentoring Plus+ mentor for the development of high potential employees, including those of visible minorities, and she is an advocate for diversity and inclusion initiatives at OPG. Shelley was recently awarded Tomorrow’s Leader (2018) by the Canadian General Counsel Awards.