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Posted on June 19, 2017

Karen Tomcala: A PG&E LGBT Employee Group Pioneer

By Tony Khing

Back in 2003, all but one of PG&E’s employee resource groups had two executive sponsors who provided the ERG leaders with advice and guidance.

PrideNetwork, one of the nation’s oldest LGBT employee organizations, was the one without an executive sponsor and never had one since forming in 1986.

Karen Tomcala, now retired, calls her time with PG&E's PrideNetwork incredibly meaningful.

That is until Karen Tomcala, vice president of regulatory relations, volunteered to be the organization’s executive sponsor in 2003 — 17 years after the group’s debut.

Tomcala was the sole PrideNetwork executive sponsor for just two years. But her leadership was felt by PrideNetwork membership and throughout the company.

Tomcala worked with PrideNetwork leadership to have all employees with domestic partners receive the same benefits as those in traditional marriages. Her efforts helped get those benefits extended to transgender employees. As a result, PG&E received a 100 percent score from the Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, an organization dedicated to achieving LGBT workplace equality.

“It was much easier to get things accomplished with an officer,” said Tony Abdulla, a PG&E sourcing supervisor and one of PrideNetwork’s first members. “Before Karen, it was a struggle to get ideas reviewed and approved.”

Today, PrideNetwork has three active and engaged executive sponsors.

Tomcala left PG&E in 2005 and is now retired. Recently, she recalled her time being a pioneer among PG&E officers.

It surprised me and didn’t make sense that PrideNetwork had no executive sponsors. I wanted to sponsor an employee association (as employee resource groups were known then), so I volunteered to sponsor PrideNetwork. At the time, my daughter had just come out as being bisexual. I felt like I’d be working on issues meaningful to my family, my company and my country.

Karen Tomcala was the first executive sponsor of PG&E’s PrideNetwork.

I was welcomed with open arms by the members. My sponsorship of PrideNetwork was totally accepted by the other officers.

The PrideNetwork was a group of people who’d been through some difficult times. They formed an organization at their own peril to support each other. Having no officer sponsor sent a message to them that wasn’t good. When I stepped into that role, my message to the membership was, “You are valued members of the company and I will fight for you.”  

That started to change the tone from PrideNetwork feeling like an outsider organization to one of complete inclusion and participation. That’s the most important transition that occurred during my time there.

Being involved with PrideNetwork was a two-way street. I supported people and created a tie to an organization. I looked at it as bringing organizational support and knowledge to the members while telling employees about issues or good things with PrideNetwork. I facilitated information flow.

We worked on everything from professional situations for LGBT employees to the personal. Some of the issues included ensuring that employees outside of San Francisco could participate in Pride events and feel welcomed and included, concern that LGBT people were not allowed to donate blood during annual blood drives, immigration status of domestic partners and how best to coordinate with and support the broader LGBT community in our service territory.

My door was always open. I had regular office hours where people could stop by and talk about anything. I spent a lot of time with PrideNetwork members at happy hours, weekend retreats and socializing outside the office. Some of my deepest personal relationships that have stayed with me since leaving PG&E have primarily come from PrideNetwork.

I look at my work with PrideNetwork as being on a trajectory of increasing inclusion and acceptance and making the environment better. It’s an ongoing task. 

I’ve seen how the baton has been passed to wonderful new leadership that has great ideas and is making things happen. I’m stunned from what has taken place over the last decade. It’s an indescribable feeling that what was started by this small group of marginalized people has grown into something so active and positive. There’s no fear for it any more. It’s big and has its own momentum.

I loved working with the organization. It was an incredibly meaningful experience for me.

Learn more about the history of PrideNetwork through this 30th anniversary oral history and video produced last year.

Email Currents at Currents@pge.com

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