THE BLOG

Ending Nuclear's Pale, Male and Stale Image Starts in Our Schools

24/11/2014 17:28 GMT | Updated 24/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Much has been written about a skills gap in my industry. Nuclear has an ageing workforce and we desperately need to get more young people to see it as a place where they can grow a career if Britain is to remain at the forefront of the industry worldwide.

Central to that is our ability to convince young women that it can provide them with the secure, diverse and fulfilling career they deserve. At Sellafield Ltd our recent intake of apprentices was 25% female. That's an impressive start considering that the average is less than 4% in the engineering sector but there's still a huge portion of the talent pool that we aren't getting to.

Recently I took part in a company leader-to-leader programme. One of the things we looked at was young people's perception of the nuclear industry. What really struck me was the number of children who'd already made their minds up about their future by the age of 14 - and we're not even on their radar. It's clear we need to learn to influence those under 14 more effectively.

Sadly, I don't think most kids even know what engineering is. They see it as people in greasy overalls, not the brains behind an iPhone or satellite. The professional status of engineering in the UK needs to be raised to the level it is in Germany for example where it is on a par with law.

Our industry must get better at providing young girls with appropriate role models. When you look across the great and the good of nuclear they are somewhat pale, male and stale. It's about time something was done about that - starting at the grass roots. I've seen how enthused young girls can be about engineering when they listen to our apprentices and young graduates speak passionately about what they do. Perhaps they are our most effective ambassadors.

When I look back at my school years - I wasn't the best at the sciences by a long stretch - but I did always savour them, enjoying the challenges they offered and the logic behind them. When I decided I wanted to study sciences to A-level the options simply weren't there for me. I ended up having to leave my all-girls school and move to an all-boys one. I was the only one to make the move and knew where my interests lay, but it's an example of the type of challenges I faced as a teenager. Once at university I discovered material science and, a PHD later, a career in the nuclear industry.

While overt barriers like I had at 16 may not exist anymore, I'm not convinced that attitudes have really changed. I'm not sure whether it's due to conditioning or other factors but the fact is that far too many girls are totally switched off to STEM subjects by the time they're 14. Not long ago I attended a Women in Nuclear event at parliament. The crowd was bright, bubbly and enthusiastic - probably not the sort of crowd people would expect to find at a nuclear event. It's essential as women in the industry we get out and change both people's perceptions and the reality.

There seems to be an inherent self-doubt amongst women when it comes to progressing our own careers. I know I'm generalising - but it's a personal observation that when a promotion comes up, women will question whether they have the qualifications and experience while men will just 'have a go'.

It's a particular issue for women coming back from maternity leave. But, speaking from experience, I can tell you that the trials, tribulations and challenges of motherhood have certainly made me better at my job and it's time more women realised that. If we're going to inspire the next generation of young women to come on board we need more women at the top. Perhaps it's less about breaking the glass ceiling and more about getting our feet off the sticky floor.

However we manage to do it we need to get more young women into our world because nuclear is a sunrise industry in an exciting phase, with a lot of opportunities. In my 21 years at Sellafield I've had multiple careers with 14 or 15 roles because the opportunities are so exciting and diverse. Now it's time to spread the word and make sure that tomorrow's nuclear industry benefits from the influence and talent of young girls today.