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Gender equity isn't only a women's issue – it's a societal issue

By Rumina Velshi

A recent global conference on women in the nuclear sector explored a growing Canadian challenge: the urgent need to improve diversity and pursue gender equity in our workplaces.

The discussion focused on the social and economic consequences of female under-representation, and on ways to attract more women to the nuclear sector. It also took me back to the early days of my career when I was one of Canada’s first female nuclear energy workers – when Playboy centerfolds were taped to the wall in plain view, and safety equipment fit only the men. The typical nuclear workplace was not a welcoming environment for women.

Decades later, I am now President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Canada’s nuclear regulator – exercising leadership in gender equity both domestically and abroad. Much has changed for the better for women: there is a greater focus on gender awareness and equity. But there is still work to do.

The Women in Nuclear Global Conference brought together some of the brightest and most determined advocates for gender equity. While we recognized recent gains, our focus was on the challenges that remain.

Foremost among these challenges is the fact that women are still very much a minority in our sector, comprising less than 25% of Canada’s nuclear labour force. The numbers are equally concerning when you look at the overall Canadian STEM workforce, where – just as in the nuclear sector – only a quarter of jobs are held by women. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely to change anytime soon. Among those graduating with engineering degrees in Canada, only 22% are female. That number has barely budged since the early 2000s, when many believed we were beginning to generate momentum towards equity.

It’s frustrating. But I have made it a personal mission to identify and remove barriers to hiring and promoting women, and encourage girls to pursue STEM-related careers. And I’m not alone. More than ever, we have women and allies in positions of influence and authority – and they are committed to making their workplaces more attractive and welcoming to women.

We all have a role to play and each of us must seize every opportunity to kindle progress. As the Co-Chair of the International Gender Champions Impact Group on Gender Equality in Nuclear Regulatory Agencies, I’ve made a pledge not to participate in conference discussions that lack gender diversity. I also refuse to appear on women-only panel discussions on gender equity, as this situation isn’t solely a women’s issue, but a societal issue.

As I stressed during our global conference: Our efforts are about much more than equity for equity’s sake. This isn’t about symbolism; it’s about achieving our potential. Pursuing equity is the right thing to do – not only morally, but also economically and socially.

If we are to take full advantage of the benefits of innovation, we need to attract the best and brightest. When we exclude – or fail to open ourselves up to – part of the population, we all but ensure that we will fall short. Gender equity needs to be more than a priority. It must be a core value that helps to define the direction of an organization.

At the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, we are making a range of practical changes to promote equity. We are finding and engaging supportive mentors. We are reimagining our workplace to increase flexibility – making it more manageable for everyone to pursue their career goals.

We are also taking a fresh look at our hiring practices through the lens of gender. Management teams have been encouraged to diversify their hiring panels. And we have experimented with a blind application screening process, so that gender is not a determining factor in making it to the interview process.

The naked centerfolds are long gone, but the nuclear sector remains male-dominated. The same goes for other sectors that rely on STEM-educated graduates.

As a country, Canada needs to make careers in the STEM disciplines more appealing to women. What better way to adapt to a changing world than to infuse our most important sectors with new energy and new perspectives?

When we empower women, everyone benefits.

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