Gender imbalance in the nuclear sector

The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) – a professional, not-for-profit network for support and development for women engineers – celebrated its 95th anniversary this year by setting up National Women in Engineering Day, held on 23rd June. This post by Indrayani Ghangrekar is part of a series by ScienceGrrl reporters who attended various events.

I attended one of the events – a Parliamentary lunchtime seminar hosted by Baroness Verma on behalf of the new UK chapter of the global Women in Nuclear (WiN) network. WiN aims to attract more women to choose a career in the nuclear sector, support retention and career progression of women in the industry, and promote dialogue with the public about the nuclear industry.Women in Nuclear UK logo

The aim of the event was to bring government and industry together with perspectives from panelists followed by discussion to identify the issues that may be affecting gender balance in the nuclear industry, and try to address them. The overall idea is to normalise STEM careers.

The discussions raised concerns similar to those in ScienceGrrl’s Through Both Eyes report, so people are coming to similar conclusions about what the problems are, and the report brings those ideas together and has recommendations about how to overcome the problems.

It is good to celebrate and communicate that we understand better what the barriers to diversity are. But even though we may see progress, we need keep that positive momentum going until we have clear evidence that there is equity for both genders. Identifying and understanding the barriers doesn’t meant that those barriers will crumble. There has to be action, big or small – whether that is through showing your support for the cause, being a role model to young people, or supporting campaigns to policy makers about making changes.

Baroness Verma

Baroness Verma

So, it was great that WiN brought together industry and government to listen to the issues faced in the nuclear sector. Baroness Verma opened discussions and the panel consisted of Kenna Kintrea, Sue Fearns and Paul Spence.

Baroness Verma, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change and former spokesperson for equality and women’s issues, has a good understanding of the issues that women face in the nuclear industry. Along with her support for WiN UK, in June, Baroness Verma co-founded and launched the POWERful Women (PfW) Initiative, which aims to advance the professional growth and leadership development of women in the energy sector.

WiN UK revealed some of the stark reality of the state of engineering in the UK – only 6% of students in the UK are studying engineering or technology, under 10% of the UK’s engineering workforce is female, and only 9% of women in the UK public claim to understand the nuclear industry. These stats make it clear why we need initiatives like WiN, WES, and PwF – raising the profile of engineering will help people to understand its importance and necessity, and show the possibilities and opportunities available to women and men to increase the number of engineers, which we need to help solve the technological challenges we face.

Kenna Kintrea talked about her journey from starting off as an engineer at Ford, to Deputy Director of Venues and Infrastructure for the Olympic Delivery Authority, to her current role as Assurance Director for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Kintrea’s experience was very positive – she knew what engineering was because her father was an engineer. On finishing her degree, Ford solicited her to work for them and offered her an attractive contract that had supportive policies for flexible working. There was a huge diversity imbalance in the construction industry, but the Olympic Delivery Authority tried to actively address it. A point she made about working at Ford, where there were support structures in place, was that they wanted a workforce that was representative of their consumer base in order to understand and respond to it better. I don’t know how often this is actually the case, and how many companies try to do it, but it makes a lot of sense.

Kintrea did not feel the pressure of a glass ceiling preventing her progression, which is clear from her CV. And because of this, while training, she felt that things were changing. But 30 years on, the stats haven’t changed much. Now, Kintrea believes that we need to act to increase the number of people in STEM, including a more balanced representation of women.

Sue Fearns from the independent trade union Prospect, which represents professionals, scientists, engineers and other specialists, told the audience how they try to support their members. They ran a poll earlier this year that asked members, ‘If you could persuade your employer to make one change at work, what would it be?’ The top three themes that came out were more flexible working hours and arrangements, irrespective of gender and caring responsibilities; more accessible career paths through training and learning opportunities and parity of promotion; and fairer and better pay to protect standards of living and reward development of skills. These themes were already represented in Prospect’s charter for women in STEM, and they are working towards political support to implement the charter.

Paul Spence from EDF Energy discussed EDF Energy’s efforts to support diversity. He believed that engagement had to start early, and EDF run a schools outreach programme to achieve that. EDF also has a subsidised women’s network that has been running since 2009, which aims to support development, retention and recruitment.

Coming from an academic background, I didn’t know much about industry, especially the energy or nuclear sectors. So it was really interesting to hear about the diversity initiatives in these private companies. Industry will also have apprenticeships to offer, as well as roles to those from the academic route. But students at school trying to make choices about their future won’t necessarily know what ‘engineering’ or ‘working in industry’ entails, so it’s great to have initiatives like National Women’s Engineering Day and the efforts of WES and WiN UK. I’m looking forward to seeing the expansion of activities and interest from schools, industry and the government for next year’s event!

Indrayani Ghangrekar @IndrayaniG

Indi is ScienceGrrl’s London Chapter lead. She has done lots of schools and public engagement projects because she loves to share her excitement about science with others. Indi has a background in researching the body clock in relation to development, and also worked in public health at Cancer Research UK.