A few weeks ago I had the privilege to attend and present at the Annual U.S. Women in Nuclear conference in Chicago, IL. The lovely Susan Downs, a Steering Committee member for the organization, invited me to present on the use of social media in the nuclear industry. Since one of the primary goals of the Nuclear Literacy Project is to promote diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers, connecting with women who have found success in the nuclear industry served as an excellent platform to better understand how to reach our goal.
But why even work towards this goal to begin with? What is the value of promoting diversity in STEM in the nuclear industry? How about quantifiable outcomes?
Studies show that when it comes to complex cultural challenges, like increasing nuclear energy’s market share in the energy mix, groups with a high level of cognitive diversity generate better outcomes than specialized experts. Conversely we also know that STEM fields have relatively low levels of gender diversity in the workplace:
One of the exceptions to the low gender diversity trend in STEM are Internet tech companies like Google, who not only view diversity as a key strength in the hiring process, they also continue to support diversity in the workplace through special groups that celebrate complex personal identities.
And this was one of my big takeaways from the U.S. WIN conference. There is incredible value in creating inclusive spaces for people with similar backgrounds or identities, in the way that Women in Nuclear does. It may seem weird to say that occasionally sub-dividing ourselves helps encourage diversity, but the bottom line is this practice has been shown foster collective problem solving capacity. And we are an industry that takes pride in our science-based decision-making, so this is an easy method to get behind! It works!
Now that we’ve got some background on the science & theory of why increasing diversity in STEM quantifiably increases value, I’d like to share a little bit about my personal experience of being a woman in the nuclear industry and what attending U.S. WIN meant for me.
So, on the very first evening I encountered two women who’s careers I’ve been admiring from afar for some time now: NEI’s Carol Berrigan and Entergy’s Kelle Barfield. While I usually get nervous about talking to people I admire, I was completely floored that each of these women introduced themselves and treated me like an old friend.
Carol Berrigan helped arrange for me to attend the conference on relatively short notice, so I already felt incredibly indebted for her help. When we connected in person she continued to make sure that all of my needs were met and that I was able to photograph, tweet and blog – all while making sure that the conference ran seamlessly & the needs of the 450 other attendees were met as well.
When I encountered Kelle I didn’t realize that she was the force behind one of my favorite resources – the “Women’s Concerns” page on NuclearClearAirEnergy.com– which is based on a groundbreaking study from the organization Women Impacting Public Policy. Basically a huge amount of our collective knowledge regarding how women understand and relate to nuclear energy is fueled by Kelle’s work. As far as I’m concerned she is an outright hero in uncovering the complex challenges the nuclear industry faces in connecting with the public. And until we met at U.S. WIN, I had no idea that Kelle had facilitated that research, despite utilizing and admiring her work for so long. It was such a cool connection to make!
The crazy thing is that despite the fact that these two women are major players in the nuclear industry- one of the most challenging, high stakes industries in the world- they each went out of their way to make me (a newbie on all fronts) feel comfortable and supported in my career. Honestly, these experiences keep me motivated and invested in the work I am doing. Meeting these women, among many, many others, helped me feel like a part of something bigger. This is the fundamental value of an organization like U.S. WIN. To quote my friend Susan Downs, “When we’re here we’re equals. Everyone is so approachable. You could be talking to someone who’s a real force in the industry and have no idea.”
Beyond offering a supportive environment for women in the nuclear industry, there was so much great content for professional development available throughout the conference. Oh yeah- and a super fun dance party! Here is a Storify of all the social media activity documenting some of the highlights of the week.
The lessons here aren’t just about women, but can really be applied to all minority groups as a way to increase diversity in nuclear careers. For instance, last year a group called Nuclear Pride was formed to support members of the LBGTQ community. Special hiring initiatives have been created to get veterans into nuclear jobs. These programs are worth celebrating and put the nuclear industry at an advantage in attracting and retaining talented people, and increasing out collective problem solving ability. I can say first hand that I’ve experienced the warm and fuzzy qualitative value of U.S. Women in Nuclear- and it really does translate into concrete quantitative value for the industry.
A huge thank you to U.S. Women in Nuclear for an educational and inspiring experience! I am already looking forward to next year!