For nuclear technologies to participate safely and effectively in the crucial project of global decarbonisation, current and future skills shortages in the sector must be addressed. So says the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in a new report, Gender Balance in the Nuclear Sector, which takes a deep dive into some of the reasons why such skills shortages exist.

‘There is a demand for more scientists and engineers with the capacity to support new projects, effective regulation, and advanced research and development, and who can also serve as key leaders in the future. The need is great and the fact that women are severely underrepresented in [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] STEM and leadership roles shows that many countries are losing access to a vast pool of talent,’ the report’s authors admonish, concluding that the sector’s lack of diversity ‘represents a loss of potential innovation and growth and a critical threat to the viability of the field.’

The report focuses on answering the question why, when women have made and continue to make important contributions to the field, there simply aren’t more of them in it – and why, where women are part of the workforce, their visibility in leadership roles is limited. This is especially true in STEM roles, the report found.

In 2021 the NEA polled over 8,000 women in the nuclear workforce in 32 countries and collected human resources data from 96 nuclear organisations in 17 countries. Gender Balance in the Nuclear Sector presents the first publicly available international data on the topic, with the aim of understanding workforce representation, career trajectories, and challenges facing women in the sector, especially in STEM and leadership positions.

Women in the workforce

Women make up 25% of the nuclear workforce in NEA countries. Just one of the 32 countries surveyed – Norway – has a majority-female nuclear workforce, standing at 60%, although the report’s authors point out that Norway also has a significantly smaller total workforce. The country with the next-largest female nuclear workforce is Hungary, with 45%. France, the UK, Canada and Japan represent workforces with below-average numbers of women – even though France, the UK and Canada are in the top five countries in terms of their total workforce numbers.

Women are underrepresented in STEM and leadership roles across all 32 countries, the numbers show. Just 21% of the sector’s STEM workforce is female, while the situation for senior leadership roles (executive and upper management) is even more dire, with women making up just 18%. Non-STEM positions such as communications, HR and various support roles feature significantly more women, with almost half (48%) of non-STEM ‘professional’ roles – where the employee most likely has a university degree – going to women, contrasting with STEM ‘worker’ roles that typically do not require a degree, which stand at 16% women.

In general, although the report points out that not all countries follow this trend, women represent around a quarter respectively of lower (28%) and middle management (26%) positions, while fewer than one in five upper management and executive roles is occupied by a woman.

Of new nuclear-sector hires, almost 30% are women – but women are, again, better represented in non-STEM (41%) than STEM (25%) new hires. The rate of women hired for STEM roles is higher than the number currently in role (21%), a positive trend, and women are also being hired for management positions at a much higher rate than current numbers. But the authors note that even the management levels with the highest rates of female new hires remain well below parity – and thus the increase will not result in balanced management if current trends continue.

Of the 26,378 total employees who left their jobs in 2021, just 24% were women. Fewer women left their jobs at the middle management level and above, with the highest attrition levels at non-management and lower management levels. As the report points out, this attrition ‘represents leakage from the leadership pipeline’ and will ultimately result in a smaller pool of women at the upper management level. It may also have something to do with the fact that women’s promotions were ‘particularly poor’, says the report, for STEM workers in jobs that do not require a university degree. Just 17% of these promotions went to women, compared with 35% for non-STEM workers: women in non-STEM professional roles were promoted at a much higher rate (61%).

While the average man’s salary was calculated at US$56,445 and the average woman’s at $53,514, pay parity varied considerably between countries, the report found.

The salary differential ranged between 0.7% and -28%, while women’s salaries were 19.5% less than men’s overall. The single exception was in France, where the difference was small and actually favoured women by a narrow margin.

How women see nuclear as a career

Attracting more women to work in the nuclear sector will be crucial to rebalancing the workforce. While a majority (59%) of women working in the sector said they would recommend it to other women, the data offer a somewhat mixed message with geographical disparities – for example, 72% of female nuclear workers in northern Europe would recommend a nuclear career to another woman, compared to just 27% in Asia and Oceania. And a third (33%) of survey respondents said they would neither encourage nor discourage their women friends and family from taking up a nuclear career.

When asked to rank various factors’ importance for a decision to pursue a nuclear career, the survey respondents said improved visibility of women in the sector, including in STEM and leadership positions, was the most important. This was followed by a more woman-friendly workstyle, including flexible working, and by more support for and value of women’s contributions in the workplace. And, when asked how to recruit more women into the sector and improve their opportunities for development and advancement, respondents ranked family-friendly workplace solutions such as childcare and extended maternity leave as most crucial, followed closely by pay parity and mentoring programmes for women at all professional levels.

While barriers exist for women aiming to take up a nuclear career, less than half (43%) of respondents believed them to be particular to the sector. Barriers identified included a lack of women in leadership positions, social preconceptions that certain roles are reserved for men, the need to balance family responsibilities, and unsupportive work cultures. Indeed, the report noted that two-thirds of respondents said ‘stereotyping, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and male-dominated work cultures inhibit women’s full contributions and negatively impact their career trajectory’.

Although 58% of respondents said women are supported, encouraged and valued in their workplace, the geographical variation was substantial, from 76% agreement in Northern Europe to 38% in Latin America. Just half of respondents working in power generation or decommissioning felt positively included and valued, while those in regulation (72%) and at new nuclear reactor build sites (65%) felt the most positive.

Disturbingly, workplace sexual harassment (experienced personally or by a colleague) was reported by 45% of respondents, and over half said they had experienced ‘hostile behaviour or attitudes to women in the workplace’. These responses ‘were particularly acute,’ the report noted, ‘in Latin America, Northern America and Northern Europe, at nuclear power plants and international organisations, among minorities, and in STEM roles, especially those requiring fewer educational credentials’.

Women’s visibility in leadership and STEM roles varied widely by geographical location and type of organisation, the report found, with the highest visibility in regulation, at new-build sites and within government. In general, 51% of respondents said visibility is ‘widespread’, but this also varied with age – those over 54 agreed more than younger women. And just 37% overall said there are female role models and mentors in their workplace.

Responses to other workplace culture questions – such as management’s commitment to gender balance, opportunities for career advancement, effective development programmes and fairness in performance appraisals – showed wide geographical variation, with employees in Northern Europe and North America and at certain types of workplaces (international organisations, regulators, academic institutions, fuel cycle organisations) tending to respond more positively. And to a question about whether career opportunities are equal, just 40% of respondents identifying as members of a minority group said they were.

Part of the widespread perception of gender inequality may be due to 71% of respondents believing that pregnancy negatively impacts career trajectories, including promotions. Just 44% of survey respondents believed the impact of parenthood was the same for women and men, falling to 35% among women belonging to minority groups. Encouragingly though, menopause was not generally seen as having a career impact.

Looking ahead

As the report puts it, ‘much remains to be done to achieve a workforce representative of society that is able to make best use of all available talent.’ However, if things continue as they are, the report would seem to show that the nuclear sector’s gender imbalance will not be altered soon, or possibly ever. Without improvement, the authors say, the current women’s recruitment rate of 29% cannot effect much change in the longer term.

The problems undoubtedly lie deeper in society than the nuclear sector, which has already implemented numerous programmes and initiatives – reported by the survey respondents as in place and ongoing at their organisations – to try to address them. Overall, the report points out, nuclear’s gender diversity is still about the same as that of other engineering-focused sectors, with an overall gender balance that includes many non-technical roles and thus papers over a serious imbalance in the central technical areas. And, while nuclear workplaces may appear to treat women and men equally, the report showed that women lack confidence in management’s commitment to creating inclusive working environments, encouraging career development (and mitigating the impacts of parenthood and family on career paths), and improving gender balance.

Given all of this, what can be done to address the many underlying issues? What the authors term a three-pillar ‘Attract, Retain and Advance’ Framework in relation to female nuclear sector employees is the report’s recommendation for addressing current challenges: Attract women into the sector; Retain and support them in the workforce; Advance and develop them as leaders and enhance their contributions within the workplace.

To attract more women into nuclear sector roles (and in an acknowledgement that the underlying problem reaches well beyond the nuclear sector), the report first recommends public communications campaigns promoting gender balance. These campaigns would be designed to change perceptions about gendered careers and to promote STEM and nuclear science and technology as careers for girls and women. Next, and in the same vein, the authors recommend educational initiatives aimed at encouraging girls to pursue STEM studies. Gender-balancing recruitment and hiring processes – including implementing policies to identify and eliminate barriers to women’s hiring – follow. Recommended are targeted recruitment campaigns; adopting gender-neutral selection criteria; and ensuring pay parity through regularly reviewing policies, practices and outcomes.

Once hired, women in the nuclear workforce must be retained and supported. The report recommends offering increased flexibility, such as flexible teleworking, to support employees with family responsibilities; offering childcare in the workplace; offering attractive parental and family leave policies; and supporting employees returning from such leave while mitigating its effects on career and pay progression. One sector-specific idea recommends examining the need for non-standard hours in nuclear roles, particularly in operations, and how they relate to career advancement. Alternate career pathways should be offered, the report says, if an employee is unable to work during these hours.

In order to eliminate harassment, build inclusive workplaces, and address stereotyping and unconscious bias, the report recommends inclusivity training, targeted strategies promoting diversity, and independent assessments to identify negative patterns. HR policies and career development programmes, among others, should be regularly assessed to root out unequal impacts. Unconscious bias training as well as inclusivity training for all, and especially for those responsible for hiring and promotion, is next on the recommendations list, followed by leadership and career-advocacy training for female staff, and training for managers on how to encourage diverse staff to advance their careers.

To address management’s perceived lack of commitment to gender equity, the report recommends that executive- and manager-level compensation be linked to quantifiable objectives promoting gender balance. “Executives and managers should be responsible for improving gender balance and building an inclusive work culture,” the authors state.

In order to advance and develop women as leaders, the report says, regular national surveys should be conducted and should include information on salaries, pay rises, bonuses and promotions, career development participation (especially in training programmes leading to promotion to management or executive) and the impacts of family leave on career progression. Organisations should put in place policies on gender balance, including pay equity and parental leave, and should share examples of success and best practices.

Whether this framework, if implemented – and keeping in mind that such implementation depends on budget constraints, workplace cultures and much more – will result in a significant shift in nuclear-sector workplace gender balance is difficult to say, as despite the sector’s best efforts the deeper societal problems which underlie the current imbalance fall outside its scope. But as William Magwood, NEA Director-General, said in his preface to the report, “The moment is ripe to realise the nuclear field’s full potential as a diverse, creative home for the world’s brightest minds, whose gender and backgrounds reflect the societies that it serves.”

This article first appeared in Nuclear Engineering International magazine.