The world´s nuclear industries, like many others, have long been a man´s world when it comes to job opportunities and advancement. But times are changing – women are breaking through proverbial "glass ceilings", and rising to top positions.
Six of the nuclear industry´s most powerful women met in Vienna this week at a Senior Regulator´s meeting, as part of the IAEA General Conference. They comprise the seven women who head Nuclear Regulatory Authorities in Argentina, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Canada, Spain, Slovakia and South Africa. They are responsible for overseeing the use of radiation and nuclear energy in their States and enforcing safety regulations.
Ms. Louisa Zondo, CEO of the National Nuclear Regulator, South Africa, welcomes the changing face of the nuclear industry. "Based on our historical experience the nuclear industry in South Africa has essentially been white male. Those are things we are working on. The focus is on keeping the expertise but transforming the institution," she says.
Ms. Zondo comes to the nuclear industry from a background in human rights law. "As a woman who is also not a scientist, I have particular challenges of being understood and accepted in the leadership position I am holding. I find things are progressively improving. There is a lot of work ahead but we are making good progress."
For Ms. Linda Keen, CEO and President of Canada´s Nuclear Safety Commission, gender has not been a barrier in her work as chief regulator. Ms. Keen has one of the largest mandates of any regulator in the world – she is responsible for overseeing and issuing 4,500 licenses, which cover 22 nuclear reactors, Canada´s uranium mines and hospitals. "There has to be visibility to the issues of women going forward," she says. "If you are interested in gender equality then you have to make some bold moves, and that's not just the job of human resources. That´s the job of the leadership of the organization."
Asked why nuclear regulators have a rising proportion of females heading their ranks, Sweden's chief Nuclear Regulator, Ms. Judith Melin, says the skill sets of regulators and scientists are different. "Regulators do not necessarily have to come from a scientific background. They can have a broader education and work history, with strong management and leadership skills," she said.
One who does come from a science background is Argentina's Nuclear Regulatory Authority chair, Ms. Diana Clein, whose background is in chemistry. She says with hard work today's women can have it all. "My message to young women in the nuclear profession is to work hard, and if you want it, you can make it to the top and still have a family," she says.
And why not? After all, the founding "mother" of nuclear science and technology was a woman. Marie Curie helped discover radioactivity and later radium and how to measure its atomic weight, winning two Nobel Prizes in 1903 and 1911 for her efforts.
Despite the changing workforce, the gender imbalance in the nuclear profession remains evident. A report commissioned by the European Union in 2000 found a lack of women, particularly in top jobs in science, throughout the EU. Of the professional staff at the IAEA, less than one in five employees is female. Just over 12% of professional women (funded from the Agency's regular budget) fill the scientific and engineering posts. The Agency's Member States have called for measures to improve the balance, and a wide range of steps are being taken to raise the representation of professional women at the IAEA.