Remarks by President Rumina Velshi at the OECD NEA meeting on improving gender balance in nuclear energy
February 11, 2021
Virtually from Toronto, Ontario
– Check against delivery –
Hello, everyone. I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today – and the invitation to offer my thoughts as we begin our work.
I was struck by an experience I had not long ago.
I came across a photograph of a graduating class from the Senior Nuclear Plant Managers course here in Canada. And it brought back some memories. For those of you who may not know, the SNPM course is a pre-requisite for a senior role at a nuclear facility.
I myself took that course more than two decades ago.
I remember reading the pre-course material and discovering that the dress code was shirt and tie.
There was no set dress code for women – because no woman had ever enrolled in the course. I was the first.
I made the executive decision to wear a scarf instead of a tie, by the way. Every day. For 3 weeks.
I can still remember the feeling of being a pioneer of sorts – pride in what I was accomplishing, but also a certain sense of distance from the men in the course, who saw me as an anomaly or an aberration.
But back to the photograph. This was a group picture of the graduating class from just last year.
The dress code had changed – it was more casual. But something hadn't changed.
There was still only one woman in the group.
That single image serves as a visual representation of a reality that is still all too common.
Too few women in our industry.
Too few women in the talent pipeline.
Too few women in positions of authority and responsibility.
Clearly, we have a lot of work to do.
There was a remarkable piece of journalism published here in Canada just a couple of weeks ago Footnote 1 – two years of research and investigation into what the newspaper described as a power gap between genders all across the workforce in the public sector in Canada.
They found that it’s not just about a glass ceiling for women at the executive level.
There are similar barriers in middle management as well…
… barriers that prevent women – and especially women of colour – from rising into positions of influence and higher pay.
I’ll give you one quote from the series, because it sums up the challenge:
“Women are outnumbered, outranked and out-earned by almost every measure – at the top, on the way to the top, in the middle, in management, and among six-figure earners in general. This despite the fact that women overtook men among university graduates three decades ago.”
I don’t doubt that the story is the same in a number of other countries.
Certainly, it is true across much of our industry.
But here’s the good news as I see it: We are fortunate to find ourselves at a time when change seems possible…
… when new voices and new movements around the world are making progress in the name of equality.
And we are fortunate to find ourselves among a group of people who are truly committed to the pursuit of true equality in our industry.
In many ways, the stars are aligning.
We have more women in positions where they can make a difference – as mentors, as leaders, as policy setters.
We have vocal and influential allies – including a number of men in senior positions throughout the industry. Men such as DG Magwood of the NEA and DG Grossi of the IAEA.
We live in a time with an increased focus on issues of social justice – on the importance of pushing for true equity in society and in the workplace.
And we have a number of governments that are not only talking about greater equity, but acting to achieve it – like in Canada, where we have gender equity in the federal cabinet.
So, we can choose to be dejected by the lack of progress toward true gender balance.
Or we can be motivated by the opportunity before us.
I for one choose to be motivated.
A door is opening.
But now the onus falls on us. We must propose and push for real and meaningful action.
How do we open the door even wider so more women consider a career in this sector?
How do we get a larger number of women into certified positions at nuclear facilities?
What specific steps can we take to make lasting progress toward a genuine gender balance?
With its scope and its influence, the NEA can play a central role in accelerating our pursuit of greater gender balance.
It can contribute by promoting ideas and best practices. Here in Canada, for example, our federal government is using a tool called GBA+ or Gender-based Analysis Plus – to explore and address the changing realities and inequalities of diverse groups of people in the design of new policies, programs or initiatives.
It’s a useful way of both identifying and confronting important shortcomings that previously went undetected.
The NEA can contribute by sharing success stories – so that we are inspired and motivated by the progress of others.
And, of course, it can contribute by convening meetings like this – where we are able to discuss and debate the merits of policy approaches and other possible tactics.
From my perspective, data must be a critical element of any strategy to move forward.
We can’t fix what we can’t see or understand.
So, we need access to the kind of data analysis that helps us to grasp, in real time, where we are in terms of board and senior management and overall representation.
We need to understand that reality in both our own countries – and on a global scale.
The NEA can play a significant role in this.
For another good example of where data can help, let’s think about the pandemic and its impact.
Anecdotally, we know that many women – especially young mothers – have lost career momentum during what has been a very challenging year.
Within our sector, it’s essential that we understand the scope of the challenge – so we can take action to ease the transition of women back into the workforce. And help them regain lost ground.
Beyond that, we need to focus with new energy and intensity on increasing the number of women in our talent pipeline…
… on reconfiguring certain roles so that working mothers can raise their children while maintaining important jobs with complex responsibilities.
… on engaging decision-makers across our industry – licensees and others – to emphasize that they are gate keepers who can make a difference.
… and on finding and engaging supportive mentors.
High-level organized mentorship programs are important and effective.
But every person can make a difference – even if it’s in the life of a single woman in our industry.
There is always someone who can benefit from your expertise, your experience, and your advocacy.
I want to offer one last thought before I conclude.
Thirty-plus years ago, I saw myself as a trailblazer of sorts.
As a woman in a male-dominated field, I had to deal with a lot of resistance, a lot of pushback, a lot of nonsense, frankly.
I had to fight for everything I achieved.
A decade ago, if you’d talked to me about gender equity, I probably would have said something like this:
“Obstacles are there to be overcome. Doing so builds character. If a woman wants it badly enough, she will persevere. Just treat me like you treat the men. Equality is all I ask for.”
Today, I’m much more aware of how overt and systemic barriers and unconscious bias stand in the way of women’s progress.
I think about the certification training program here in Canada – a crucial step in reaching many senior level positions in our industry.
And I think about how that program needed to be completed within a certain window of time or you got booted off the program.
The window, imposed by us the regulator, made no sense. It had no practical relevance.
But for young mothers or those aspiring to be mothers – it made the program almost unachievable.
They had to choose between family and career.
Barriers like this need to be dismantled.
Obstacles need to be cleared away.
Our industry benefits immensely from inclusion and diversity.
If we are to take full advantage of the benefits of innovation, we need to attract the best and brightest to our industry – and allow them to rise to their full potential.
When we exclude – or fail to open ourselves up to – part of the population, we will fall short.
It rests on us – as leaders, as decision makers, as influencers – to do everything in our power to encourage women to pursue a path in the nuclear sector. And to ensure that overt and unconscious barriers to their success are removed once and for all.
That work continues today.
Those of us on this call together: We share the same important goal.
We are willing to devote our time to this important work.
Let’s use that time to make a difference.
Sometimes, challenges like this can seem daunting.
We recognize and talk about the need for change – but where do we start? How can we begin to address such an entrenched problem?
Here’s my challenge to you today: Let’s get moving.
Action is better than inaction.
A measure of progress is better than none at all.
Now is the right time to put in place the kinds of policies that will begin to deliver real change.
And this is the right group of people to help get the ball rolling.
Together, we share a belief in what needs to be done.
And together, we can begin to build the future we all want to see.
I look forward to what we will achieve together.
- Footnote 1
Doolittle, Robyn and Chen Wang, “The Power Gap: Women are Outnumbered and Outranked at Canada’s Vital Public Institutions”, The Globe and Mail, published 21 January 2021, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-power-gap-main.
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