Remarks by President Velshi at the OPG Women's Leadership Forum
“Balance for Better in the Energy Sector”
February 22, 2019
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Thank you, Lisa and Jeff, for your kind introduction and for inviting me to participate in this incredible event. I’m honoured to be here with you today to discuss a subject that is not only dear to my heart, but also one that I believe is important to ensuring a successful future of the energy sector in this province … because when we empower women, everyone benefits. If I could go back to the early 1980s and tell myself that I would go from being one of a handful of women working in a nuclear power plant to standing in a room full of highly skilled, talented women working in energy, I’m not sure I would have believed it. Although it is certainly something I would have hoped for.
Today, I’m not going to focus on the barriers that women in this industry have faced in the past. Thankfully, many of them have been overcome. But I do want to talk about the subtle and fundamental obstacles that still exist in our everyday lives. The cultural and systemic biases that exist and what we can do about them. This is especially true for male-dominated fields including science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM. I know there are many people in this room who do not work directly in STEM, but I want you to know you are included in these words. Gender imbalance hurts all of us – that goes for men as well. These cultural biases take root at a young age, and their consequences can last a lifetime.
Our society still has an entrenched belief that boys and men are better than girls and women at certain things like math and science.
For young girls, the problem of gender stereotyping begins much earlier than I think many of us realize. Gender stereotyping starts to tell girls very early on that certain careers are not for them. Studies show that by the tender age of six, they've internalized those messages.Where are they getting these messages? From all around them. For example, a recent study in the UK analyzed children’s science picture books in public libraries. The research found that men were pictured three times more often than women, reinforcing the stereotype that science is a man’s pursuit. The women were also generally depicted as passive, lower status and unskilled. In a book on astronauts, the picture of the female astronaut was not next to any of the information about the work or training astronauts go through. Instead, her caption read "in zero G, every day is a bad hair day."
Last month a CNSC colleague, Gerry Frappier, told me a story about his young granddaughter. She came home from school and showed him a picture of a clown she had coloured. Gerry complimented her on the bright colours and told her she did a great job. But she wasn’t happy with it. When he asked her why, she said that “I wanted to colour a robot. But the teacher said no, girls get clowns. Robots are for boys only.”
This is what I mean by cultural bias. That teacher probably had no idea that what they were doing might have been harmful. That, down the line, it might discourage Gerry’s granddaughter from pursing a passion that is seen as “male”. Perhaps this teacher even thought they were doing the right thing by giving the girls something other than a doll to colour. This goes the other way as well. What kind of message are we sending to the boys in the class who would have preferred a clown? It’s insidious, but it may not be intentional.
Today is about working to achieve gender balance for better. It’s about recognizing these cultural biases that prevent us from reaching gender balance. It’s about calling out these biases and doing something about them when we see them. At the most basic level – it’s about giving little girls access to robots.
So what can we do about it?
Being here and hosting this event for the women and men in your organization is a terrific start. Having worked at OPG for many years, I am so pleased to see how far this organization has come in creating awareness and taking action for gender balance. You’ve taken some big steps such as partnering with organizations like WiN Canada, and becoming an Equal by 30 signatory to work toward gender equality by 2030. You’ve also made a significant public commitment to promote the values of diversity and inclusion. I applaud your commitment to the Electricity Human Resources Council Leadership Accord for Gender Diversity. I look forward to asking about the progress on these points at upcoming Commission proceedings.
But reaching gender balance takes more than grand gestures. It’s imperative to follow through on these commitments. Splashy promises and signing commitments are great in theory, but they mean nothing if action isn’t taken to make a difference in the small things, in the day-to-day lives of women. I am happy to say I have witnessed firsthand some areas where OPG’s commitments have made small – but important – strides.
Let me give you an example.
Last month I took a tour of the Darlington facility and I was asked to submit a bioassay sample before I could go inside the vault. Well, wasn’t I pleasantly surprised that the bioassay containers for women at Darlington were a larger size than the ones for the men. I think the OPG leadership team who had organized the tour for me were quite taken aback when I complimented them on the size of the women’s bioassay sample containers.
But this seemingly small accommodation for women in our workplaces is meaningful. It acknowledges that OPG is thinking about women’s needs. And it is leaps and bounds from what I experienced as one of the first female engineers working at the Pickering station where there wasn’t even a proper women’s change room or radiation area clothing for women. I will go out on a limb and suggest the need for larger bottles was probably first raised by women in your organization … and most likely because there is now an environment that would be accepting of that feedback.
It’s only when you start to engage with women and listen to their needs and struggles that you can start to take action. And when you do, you’ll see that the little changes here and there can make a significant difference overall.
On a side note, the gloves at Darlington were huge and were falling off me … so you’re not quite off the hook.
Balance at the leadership level
But who is responsible for taking steps toward real change?
The answer is simple. We all are.
We hear a lot of buzz about the need to achieve balance at the leadership level by ensuring women are well represented on boards of directors, advancing into executive positions and elected to office. This is certainly true. But this isn’t a numbers game. We also have to make sure that these achievements are also making a meaningful difference for women at the working level – and we all have a part to play.
For my part, since becoming CNSC President last August, I have been hosting roundtable discussions with staff across my organization to see what their day-to-day reality is like. These conversations with the women at the CNSC have illuminated the need for us to continue to evolve the way we do business to achieve balance. They are reinforcing that there is a real need to address the differences in the way men work from the way women work. More than one member of my Executive Committee has told me that since my arrival, the swear jar that existed has disappeared from executive meetings. It doesn’t mean that team members can’t say what they want to say. It just means that they are being more thoughtful about how they say it.
As Canada’s nuclear regulator, the CNSC also needs to share in the responsibility of addressing any inequalities faced by our licensees. In one recent example, we experienced pushback from Jeff Lyash about the validity period of certification examinations. Jeff rightfully identified to me this as a potential systemic barrier imposed by the CNSC. On the surface, the policy seems reasonable – people in certain nuclear power plant positions who have a direct impact on the safe operation of the facility must be certified by the CNSC. Of course we want to make sure that employees are fully qualified. To become certified you must complete training programs and a number of certification exams. These exams are only valid for a certain number of years. If a candidate is not certified before all of the exams expire they must retake the exams that are no longer valid.
Jeff raised these exam timeouts as a potential deterrent for women to consider entering the program. Think about it. If you were planning to start a family but knew you might have to retake some certification exams once you returned to work after your leave, you might think twice about signing up for that job in the first place. Employees at this level may not realize the career impact this could have since being a certified worker is one of the paths to senior leadership positions. Eliminating potential barriers to women in the personnel certification program may increase representation of women. It needs to be addressed. And the CNSC is now working with industry to look into this issue while still ensuring safety. Thank you, Jeff, for bringing this to my attention.
On that note, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Jeff as well for his valued leadership, and for championing safety, diversity and inclusion during his time with OPG. Jeff, I wish you well in your future endeavours and look forward to seeing how OPG builds on your legacy.
Retention, accommodation and why we should care
Addressing systemic biases can mean real consequences for retention, too. If we put up obstacles, women might seek employment elsewhere or in other fields.
This is something we should all care about.
At a very basic level, hiring and retaining women is an economic imperative. That’s why the CEOs support diversity and inclusion in the workplace. In part, it’s self-serving – they realize they need the talent. There are all kinds of shortages and we need diversity in thinking and different perspectives.
One of the key messages that came out of a recent IAEA event aboutgender parity was that improving diversity increases innovation and productivity, and results in improved company performance. Having women in the workplace simply means a better workplace for everyone. And not only by eliminating swear jars. Just think about parental leave. There would be no paid paternity leave had women not fought so hard for maternity leave.
A paper published a few years ago by the American National Science Foundation looking into retention of women in STEM careers, cited that while women in the U.S. earn nearly half of all STEM PhDs, women only represent 21 percent of full science professors, and only roughly 25 percent of the STEM workforce. So if women are receiving education, why aren’t they getting jobs in STEM and staying in those roles once they are hired?
Well, another report published last year by Pew Research may offer a glimpse. It shows that most women working in STEM jobs in majority-male workplaces have experienced discrimination at work due to their gender. The most common form of gender discrimination shouldn’t come as a surprise: women say they earn less money than their male counterparts for doing the same work. Other women say they have experienced being treated as if they weren’t competent on the job or feel like they receive less support from their superiors than their male coworkers. Women who are also visible minorities are especially vulnerable to discrimination.
Would you stay in a job where you feel undervalued, underpaid and unappreciated? These are major barriers to job satisfaction. Like the teacher who wouldn’t give the girls in the classroom a robot to colour, employers and coworkers may not even be aware that they are putting up walls for women.How many of you have heard of the "hashtag I Look Like an Engineer" campaign? The campaign was started by software engineer Isis Wenger who appeared in a recruitment campaign for her company. She quickly became the target of a barrage of negative online comments that blamed the company for hiring a model who was clearly too pretty to be a real engineer. The ad had attracted accusations that she wasn’t “remotely plausible” as a picture of "what a female software engineer looks like". She started the successful hashtag campaign to tell people that she actually is an engineer, and to do her part to break stereotypes about the industry. The hashtag has allowed female engineers and people working in STEM more widely to share their stories of prejudice in their fields. Clearly, we still have a long way to go to address both the direct sexism many women face in the workplace and the wider cultural bias that suggests that certain careers aren’t for women.
So, what can we do?
Call it out.
When you see someone interrupt a co-worker midsentence in a meeting: call it out. When someone takes credit for your colleague’s idea: call it out. When you see someone make a sexist joke, when you’re overlooked for a position because you have kids, or when the bioassay containers at Darlington don’t work with the anatomy of half the population: call it out.
The more women and men who raise their voices to sound the alarm, the more other women will feel like they are not alone.
I would like to challenge everyone in this room to spend the next few days thinking about the following questions:
- What are the smaller things that I can do in my daily life to help disrupt this cultural bias? and
- What are the bigger things that we can tackle together?
In my opinion there are three areas that we can address in the near term. First, we can raise awareness that there is a cultural bias in our society. Second, we can be mentors to support girls and women as they go through their careers and STEM journeys to ensure that they are supported the whole way, not just in school. Finally, we can begin to rethink and reshape our current work environments and professions to make them more appealing and welcoming to future generations of women.
Let me expand a little.
The first thing I think we can do both individually and collectively is to help raise awareness that this cultural bias still exists.
Individually, each of us can raise awareness among our children and our families, in our schools and communities, and in our workplaces. There are multiple ways to do this. For example:
- We can be conscious of the toys and books we purchase for children, both girls and boys.
- We can be informed of the facts so that we can have conversations with teachers, neighbours and colleagues – simply spreading the news of women’s accomplishments in the workplace and in STEM can make an impact.
- And we can be ready to share our own stories of discrimination or prejudice – and call it out when we see it – to ensure other women know they are not alone and to help our organizations enact change.
Call it out: turning errors into opportunities
Even with all of this, it still doesn’t mean that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But why don’t we turn those errors into opportunities and stories to share.We have our own example at the CNSC where cultural bias crept into naming one of our outreach tools. It was a video game that was created to teach people some basic radiation protection principles. The target audience was kids in the eighth grade. Our staff worked to come up with a name that would grab the attention of students in both English and French. They even polled French immersion classes to get feedback from kids on what they think the game should be called. The name they came up with: The Ion King / Le roi ion. The Ion King. To me, this automatically sends the signal that learning about the science of radiation is for boys. Girls can’t be kings. One of our VPs, Jason Cameron, was the one who raised the flag that we needed a gender-neutral name. We ended up calling it Gamma Gear and it has been a huge success.
The Ion King is a catchy name for a product. Jason could have chosen to ignore that it was problematic and gone ahead with it anyway. But instead, he chose to call it out. I am challenging every man and woman in this room to be an ally and do the same.
In closing: inclusive means men, too
I’m sensitive to the fact that when some people hear about providing more opportunities for women in STEM and creating gender balance, they fear it means achieving these goals at the expense of men. So, I would like to conclude today by offering a way to reframe the way we think about gender balance. Some people have told me they have a genuine concern that men will get left behind in all of this. Maybe this is due in part to that word “balance.” When we think of balance, we think of a scale that can be tipped one way in favour of another. If we want to bring women up to level of men, the men would have to also come down in order to reach equilibrium. When you think about it that way, of course some are fearful. But that’s not really the way gender balance works.
So instead of a scale, I would like you to think about gender balance like candlelight. When you use one candle’s flame to ignite another, the original flame doesn’t diminish. Instead, there is twice as much light. The more light that is shared, the brighter the room becomes. That’s the message we should be thinking about when we talk about achieving equality. We need to share the light with women so the room can shine at its brightest. Gender balance isn’t about making room for women by squeezing men out. It’s about making space for everyone by increasing the size of the room.
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