Last week I went up to beautiful Pennsylvania to visit American Crane’s manufacturing facility and the Susquehanna nuclear power plant. I was hosted by two of my closest professional friends from Women in Nuclear (a very cool professional association for gals & allies in the nuke biz), Karen Norheim and Susan Downs. They don’t make ‘em better than these two.
As you might have gathered from the endless stream of articles, books and conferences the past few years- professional women in the 21st century have some big challenges. You’ve certainly also heard of the term “work-life balance” or what I warmly refer to as “JUGGLING ALL OF THE THINGS!” – and it’s true. There are unique challenges and expectations for women, which are (thankfully) evolving very quickly.
In fact, about a year ago I brought up the idea that the nuclear industry might have a gender problem in an online group for nuclear supporters- and was rapidly shouted down by men and women alike. The backlash was so bad that I actually left the group. Change is hard.
Yet, here just a year later the issue of attracting and retaining diversity in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) careers has been widely recognized at every level- from grassroots initiatives to the federal government and everything in between. As it turns out diversity actually improves both science* and bottom lines. It’s really a no brainer.
But the numbers don’t lie. There are real, systematic obstacles for women in STEM. And on the individual level these obstacles can break your heart, leave you doubting yourself and for many, lead you away from a career in STEM. As a woman who actively engages girls and women in educational outreach, encouraging them to consider STEM careers- I have to be honest about these obstacles. Minimizing the hardship women face in STEM, which is something I witness frequently- is extremely detrimental in and of it self.
But here’s the good news: it’s actually an amazing time to be a woman in STEM because it means you can have a real impact in your chosen field, not just in the science, but the culture.
Which brings me back to why going to visit Karen and Susan was so important to me. The only way to work through these challenges is with loads of support. Having women in my life who have figured out how to have full, successful careers, while helping to transform the industry into a friendlier place for women, minorities and young people- well it’s my saving grace. It’s reason I haven’t bolted for greener pastures. Instead I’ve followed in their footstep, working towards a more diverse and equitable nuclear industry for my peers, future nuke workers, and myself.
Okay, I know that last paragraph might seem a little bit like a girl’s club love-fest, but there are very important, specific implications regarding the need for inclusivity and diversity in the nuclear sector. The energy dialogue is turning increasingly to issues of social justice. Last year the film Pandora’s Promise made a very compelling case for nuclear energy in the context of environmentalism and climate change. This week Jim Hopf utilized the language of social justice in his article “Persistent Prejudice Against Nuclear Power”. Understanding and communicating about nuclear energy through the lens of social justice is a huge, positive step.
That said, there is a risk of playing into the prejudice that Hopf wrote so eloquently about, if this approach is taken without a high level of self awareness of our industry’s own shortcoming regarding diversity. The nuclear industry is perceived by the public as large, corporate, white, male, rich, etc. And that perception is not entirely inaccurate. And to put it bluntly, for an industry that hasn’t yet internalized the principals of social justice, it could come across as quite crass and disconnected to claim to be an oppressed victim – even if there is legitimate prejudice in public perceptions of nuclear technology.
In order to have an authentic dialogue about social justice one must acknowledge both privilege and prejudice.
The nuclear industry does have many women, minorities and young people – who are quite fluent and authentic in their understanding of social justice. And the changing tide of the public debate on energy and environment present an opportunity to give these groups more of a voice, which will also help attract more diversity as we move forward. Win, win.
And of course, the industry’s many OWD’s (old white dudes – hi Dad!) should absolutely continue to dig into these issues with an appropriate level of self-awareness. Read, listen, ask questions- and acknowledge that you don’t have the corner on experiences of oppression and prejudice. Use your privilege to help alleviate experiences of prejudice within your own industry. We need you guys to be our allies not our opposition.
If we are going to continue asking the world to embrace nuclear energy for humanitarian and social justice reasons- we need to embrace diversity and inclusion within the nuclear sector at the same time. All of this stuff fits together.
*Diversity researcher Aparna Joshi has executed a study currently in press that looks at diversity and scientific outcomes- keep an eye out for it in the near future. Hat tip to Kate Clancy for helping me track that info down.