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A Changing Nuclear Industry Creates Opportunities for Attracting Women

A panel discussion explored gender equality and the workplace during a side event held on the margins of the IAEA’s 63rd General conference. (Photo: H. Boening/IAEA)

Awareness raising, mentoring and networking initiatives, and changing the narrative can help attract and retain qualified women to science and the nuclear industry in particular, participants heard today at a panel discussion about ‘Gender Equality and the Workplace: How to be an Employer of Choice for Women,’ held on the margins of the IAEA’s 63rd General Conference.

“While we see more and more women around the table, more needs to be done to make women and girls aware of the benefits of a career in the nuclear field,” said Cornel Feruta, IAEA Acting Director General, during his opening remarks at the event. He emphasized the need to connect with young generation and the importance of education. He also stressed the Agency’s effort for mainstreaming gender in its programmatic work.

Understanding how to create a workplace that enables both women and men to reach their full potential is important, said Mary Alice Hayward, Deputy Director General and Head of the IAEA’s Department of Management, who moderated the event. “We need to focus on more than just improving the numbers — we must also create an environment that genuinely values gender diversity in the workplace.”

Women at the IAEA

The IAEA is taking active steps to create a workplace that enables both women and men, Hayward said.  “We want to make sure that the IAEA is an employer of choice for women. In the IAEA’s Gender Action Plan, we committed to establishing an enabling environment for gender equality, and we are accountable for delivering it.”

Representation of women at the IAEA is at the highest rate in the Agency’s history, with women currently making up 30.2% of staff in the Professional and higher categories. Two of six Deputy Directors General are women.

Times are changing

“It is a lonely place when you are the only woman. The picture is now quite different, and we are creating opportunities for women to share experiences and motivate each other,” said Donna Connor, Head of Education and Skills at Sellafield, the United Kingodm’s largest nuclear decommissioning site. When she joined in 1993, she was the only woman in her department, she recounts. 

While the representation of women in the nuclear sector varies among countries, China, with a rapidly expanding nuclear sector, has a unique experience to share, explained Lili Xiao, Deputy Division Director for Nuclear Affairs and International Organizations at the China Atomic Energy Authority.

“Women are seeing the work opportunities offered by the quick growth of the nuclear sector in China and are eager to contribute,” she said.

There’s still work to be done

But while much progress has been made, “attracting women to scientific careers remains challenging,” noted Carol Berrigan, Senior Director of Federal Programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute in the United States. “While more women are taking on leadership positions in the nuclear field, they still remain underrepresented at the technical level.”

One of the major career challenges women often cite, highlighted the panellists, is combining work and family responsibilities. “As important as it is to grant flexibility to allow women — and men — to take care of family-related responsibilities, it is also important to ensure that women find a welcoming environment when returning to work after being absent or to full employment after working part-time. This shows women that they are supported as they go through their career,” Berrigan said. 

Attracting more women to science

The panellists discussed ways to attract more women to scientific careers in general and to the nuclear field in particular. They spoke about the importance of policy making and fact-based awareness raising by governments and industry, as well as how changing the narrative about the nuclear field can play a part.

“Decommissioning, which is an area I work on, appears to have the air of something that is dying out, while in reality, it is a fascinating and challenging environment,” said Connor. “We need to change our terminology to attract professional women interested in issues such as environmental protection.”

Getting the message out to different communities, such as teachers, can help familiarize more people, particularly youth, to the nuclear industry. Such an initiative by the American Nuclear Society was highlighted as an important bridge between the nuclear sector and young people.

“We need to get information about the nuclear industry into the classrooms and have people from the nuclear sector share their passion for their work with students at an early age,” Berrigan said.

Networks, such as Women in Nuclear (WiN), also play a role in raising awareness about women’s contributions in the nuclear field and the challenges they face. They can also help women connect with mentors, build confidence and develop in their careers.

“It is important for women to reflect on their own value,” said Berrigan.  “Women who are part of a network can coach each other through key milestones in their careers, such as salary conversations.”

Mentors can also share their experiences with women starting their careers, and through them, inspire women to take on new challenges. “It is important for us women not to hold ourselves back and to maintain our core competitiveness, daring to break cultural barriers and stereotypes,” said Xiao.

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