Despite ongoing efforts, women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. This gender gap has considerable implications for the future of nuclear energy in NEA member countries, all of which need new generations of specialists to ensure the continued safe and efficient use of nuclear technologies for a wide range of industrial, scientific and medical purposes. Therefore, attracting and retaining more women into careers in STEM is an important goal that many NEA member countries are pursuing.
The NEA is supporting its members to achieve this goal and exploring new and creative approaches to improve gender balance in the nuclear sector. As part of these efforts, the NEA convened a second high-level working meeting on improving the gender balance in nuclear energy on 11-12 February 2021. The meeting kicked off on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and brought together experts from 13 NEA member countries, as well as representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the European Commission.
During her keynote remarks, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) President and Chief Executive Officer Rumina Velshi underlined the urgency of making significant and sustained progress to improve gender equality in the nuclear field. “It rests on us – as leaders, as decision makers – to do everything in our power to encourage women to pursue a path in the nuclear industry, and to ensure that overt and unconscious barriers to their success are removed once and for all,” Velshi said.
Among NEA member states, a number of initiatives have been launched to promote STEM education, and several countries have initiated policies on gender balance. The participants at the meeting discussed these initiatives and exchanged information regarding the status of women in the nuclear sectors in their home countries. While many countries reported continued difficulty in attracting and retaining women in the nuclear sector, it was noted that that many lack data to effectively inform policy approaches.
The participants also discussed what practical steps might be taken to address the challenges related to the participation of women in nuclear energy activities. They reflected on short‑term efforts to increase the number of women the nuclear sector, as well as on strategies that could be applied at the international level.
“Unlocking the full potential of women to participate in the global nuclear workforce supports economic growth and boosts prospects for a clean energy future around the world,” NEA Director-General Magwood said. “NEA countries could benefit from working together on this common challenge in order to develop policy recommendations and guidelines for a diverse nuclear workforce that will strengthen economies and ensure a vibrant clean energy future.”
Director-General Magwood also highlighted NEA initiatives on capacity and gender balance that focus on the younger generations who are interested in pursuing studies and careers in STEM fields, including the Nuclear Education, Skills and Technology (NEST) Framework, the Global Forum on Nuclear Education, Science, Technology and Policy, and the International Mentoring Workshops.
The meeting included a special session on the younger generations. Rebecca Ferris, Engineering Manager at EDF Energy, spoke at this session. Sharing her personal experiences in nuclear science and technology, Ferris addressed the perspective from the next generation of nuclear professionals and emphasised the importance of role models for junior professionals. “Improving our gender balance is a key part of enabling nuclear energy to contribute to our net zero aspirations,” she said. “We must make full benefit of all our current talent and encourage more to join us.”
The delegates agreed to review existing efforts to determine the data gaps and needs on the international level to inform further collaboration and engagement. There was strong interest in developing joint data collection instruments to identify the barriers and challenges confronting women in NEA member countries, in order to develop targeted policy recommendations.
Fiona Rayment, Chief Science and Technology Officer at the United Kingdom National Nuclear Laboratory who chaired the meeting, concluded on a note on the importance of diversity of thought. “Bringing diversity of thinking, problem-solving enables innovation and creates optimum solutions,” Rayment said. “Gender balance will be a key component in enabling diversity of thought and it’s fitting that we address this challenge now as we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.”