Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Women in Nuclear:

The Changing Landscape

This posting deviates from the usual discussions of technical and policy issues. As someone who started in the nuclear field when the number of women in the field were few and far between, I was delighted to read a recent article in the Boston Globe about women in high level nuclear positions. The article focuses most on nuclear security positions, but the trend is evident elsewhere as well.

One of my few claims to fame is that I was (to my knowledge) the first woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in nuclear engineering. Someone else followed me a short time later. Today, I have lots of company. When I started at MIT as an undergraduate, the entire freshman class (all fields) was only about 5% women. Today, the freshman class is about 45% women. I won't even get started on the remarks thrown at me in the course of my career. One of these days, I may write a book about them.

In the mid-1970s, I did a survey of women in nuclear engineering (published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1975, but not available electronically). I truly thought that the field that had women making key contributions from the earliest days (think Marie Curie and Lise Meitner) would have been more inclusive. It wasn't. I still sometimes find myself the only woman in the room at meetings of senior level people and in specialized groups. At such times, I have fleeting thoughts that things have not yet changed enough. However, in most widely attended conferences and other gatherings today, the demographics look a lot different.

I think that having more women in the nuclear field bodes well for the field in more ways than one. Clearly, it is always good to have a larger pool of talented people from which to draw, and our pool has enlarged now that more women--and minorities--are entering the field.

But the nuclear field, in particular, has suffered from the fact that different segments of society have far different views of nuclear power, and in particular, women have consistently been less favorable toward nuclear power than have men. I can't help but think that having more women in the profession speaking at public meetings, having more women visibly working in the field, and having more opportunities in the field for young women starting their careers may help change this equation.

Of course, there are still hurdles. Another piece of news in the last few days, that women earned more PhDs last year than men, sounded like good news, but really contained a mixed message, as 80% of the engineering doctorates still went to men. Therefore, I was glad to learn that, this past spring, the American Nuclear Society's Northeastern New York Section participated in an annual event at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to encourage high school girls to pursue careers in technical fields.

I look forward to the day when the equal participation of men and women in technical fields will be so normal that no one will even write about it any more.


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