Wednesday, August 24, 2011

ANS and Women:

My Early Days in ANS

This posting will be a little off the usual topics of this blog. It is spurred by an upcoming blog in the ANS Nuclear Cafe that will feature the personal stories of several women in the nuclear field. I am pleased to be one of the women asked to share my thoughts there. I wanted to use my allotment of the space on the ANS page to explain why I think volunteer work for one's professional society is important, and not to take up that valuable space with personal stories. Nevertheless, the exercise got me to reminiscing, so I will tell more of the back story here.

My story is not a typical one, and I am not presenting it as a model to follow. Part of this story (along with more than you really need to know about the rest of my career) has already been recounted in the July 2001 issue of Nuclear News, but there is more that I am telling here for the first time.

Most people get involved in their technical societies through their technical work. They present a couple of papers, maybe organize a session--and then later, perhaps, go into governance. My path was a little different.

When I joined the ANS in 1969, I was a grad student at MIT. I really had very little idea of what a professional society did, but I was told I should join, and the student rate was cheap, so I did. But I did not get involved at all in any student section activities.

I finished my doctorate and moved to the Washington, DC area in 1972. The November meeting was in Washington that year, so I prepared and submitted a paper on my thesis, which had been on radiation damage studies using proton channeling. This would be my first paper presented at a professional meeting, and since it was in my local area, I wanted my husband, Mike, to come lend some moral support.

I duly registered him for the meeting, and when we picked up the registration material, we noticed something odd. The badge was pink! In those days, the non-technical program for guests of attendees was called the "Wives' Program." My husband turned to me and said, "You ought to do something about this." And so I did. I complained to the management, and the "Wives' Program" became the "Guest Program" shortly thereafter.

But that incident started me thinking. I had always assumed that the nuclear field was different from all other fields with respect to gender equality. After all, one of the earliest leaders of the field, Marie Curie, was a woman. Somehow, I hypothesized that this should mean that the men in the field recognized the equal capability of women. I decided to ask ANS if I could test that hypothesis by doing a survey of the female members of ANS.

This, of course, required me to ask for approval--and support--for such a survey, and was my first real brush with Society governance. If I would do the work, they agreed to authorize the activity and cover the postage. (There was no e-mail in those pre-historic days, let alone LinkedIn, Google + or Facebook!) In due course, I prepared a survey, ANS sent it out, and I received and analyzed the answers. To my surprise (really!), the results did not support my hypothesis at all. Women in the ANS suffered all the problems that women in other fields were experiencing at that time. There was even one added issue. Because of the effects of radiation on unborn children, some companies were effectively barring all women of child-bearing age from all activities that might expose them to radiation, just in case.

My involvement with the ANS might well have ended there, except that I received a phone call from a stranger one day. She introduced herself on the phone. It was Gail de Planque. She was one of the women who had received and responded to the survey, and now she had a question for me. "What are you going to do next?" "Next?" I replied. I hadn't thought that far ahead. "What you need to do," she told me, "is to put together a special session on women's issues for the upcoming ANS meeting." "How do you do that?" I asked. I hadn't a clue. So she and I partnered and co-chaired a very successful session that covered my survey and a number of other issues of interest to women.

In the course of developing and running the session, Gail introduced me to a number of other active members of the Society, and I was getting to know the ropes. Octave du Temple, the Executive Director of the ANS at the time, made it a point to seek me out at meetings and ask how I was doing. A few years later, Clyde Jupiter asked me to serve as Assistant Technical Program Chair for the November meeting when it was again in Washington, DC. I knew nothing about organizing technical sessions, but he was a patient teacher, and being on the conference committee helped me meet other people in the local nuclear community. Shortly after that, I was asked to serve on the Honors and Awards Committee. I knew nothing about honors and awards either, but I realized that being on a committee helped me get approval from my boss to attend meetings, so I said yes. At the time, I worked for a company whose work was mostly classified, and in any event, was outside the mainstream of ANS activity, so presenting papers on my work was not an option.

Following that, one committee assignment led to another. I used to joke to my husband that the ANS management noticed I had a lot of energy, and was trying to channel my energy where they wanted it and not leave me to my own devices. Perhaps there was some truth to that, but by the time I started chairing subcommittees, then committees, I realized that managing a volunteer activity was a bit tricky. There is no stick, and there is very little carrot! So you really need someone who has ideas, energy, and follow through. You always do professional society work in addition to your day job, so it's nice to work with people who deliver without a lot of nagging. And someone who can produce a good product and meet deadlines is worth his or her weight in gold. Or maybe in uranium!

So pretty soon, I found myself involved in a number of different aspects of ANS. The work was interesting and I got to know a lot of fascinating people I would not otherwise have met. I was awed that I was rubbing elbows with people who were real movers and shakers in the field. Over time, I also learned a lot from side conversations about parts of the nuclear field outside my own. So whenever someone asked me to participate in something new, I always found it hard to say no. I got to know many different facets of the Society--honors and awards, scholarship, planning, program, finance, international. I always started out with very little knowledge of an area, but I invariably developed a strong interest in each area. Although I put a lot of time into ANS, I felt I got a lot out of it, too. I had a chance to do things like prepare proposals and lead activities that I later was able to draw upon when I was faced with doing these types of things in my paying job.

For me, involvement in my technical division (nuclear installations safety) and my local section came after service on a number of the governance committees and on the ANS Board of Directors. That is perhaps the opposite of how most ANS members get involved in ANS, and while I wouldn't particularly recommend that approach as the optimal one, it certainly worked well in my case, leading ultimately to my serving as president of ANS (2001-2). And the skills I gained, the knowledge I picked up, and the connections I made served me in good stead throughout my career as well.

Sometimes, when I reflect back on my service in ANS, the contacts I made there, and the progression of my career, I wonder what would have happened if ANS had not handed my husband a pink badge in 1972!


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