The female network

2 December 2014

A year ago two young nuclear executives set up the first UK branch of Women in Nuclear, with a goal to improve the industry’s gender diversity. The response has been overwhelming. Will Dalrymple interviews Rebecca Holyhead and Miranda Kirschel

Rebecca Holyhead (left): It was all the fault of the Nuclear Industry Association. They lured Miranda and I into a conference room. We were talking about women in the industry, and were saying 'Wouldn't it be a great thing if there were a UK branch of WIN.' And that became, 'let's do it'; that's the kind of people we are.

Miranda Kirschel (right): There had been previous attempts to form a WIN group in the UK that had not been supported; women here don't want favours to get ahead in the industry.

RH: Now people are recognizing the importance of gender balance, whether it's because of politics, industry developments, or the skills shortage.

There is a cohort of women that came in when the nuclear industry woke up. Now we are no longer in graduate programmes, we are in the early stages of senior management. Maybe - and this is just a hypothesis - there are now enough women in the trenches for an awareness to come through: "Hang on, perhaps there is something to look at".

MK: Over the past year we did focus group meetings around the industry where women work. The feedback was positive.

RH: But many of them said, 'I'm comfortable with the idea as long as it includes men.' So that is a big thrust of WIN: it is not women- only. We eventually found that we were pushing on an open door. The challenge has not been drumming up interest; it has been managing the amount of activity that has been coming through. We have been overwhelmed by positivity from the sector.

Three goals

MK: The organization has set up three programmes. The first goal is the attraction of skills into the industry - from women, from men, and in general. Women in the industry go out to schools, career days, and encourage people into the industry.

RH: The second area is retention: this is about career progression for women already in the industry, where there is not just the glass ceiling - employers have a duty to make sure that they are avoiding unconscious bias, by setting up systems and processes– but women are also affected by what we call the sticky floor: a lack of mobility into new positions. We help with one-to-one mentoring, but without fixing an idea of what an enriching career looks like: is it about promotion, or flexibility, or an interesting role? We won't dictate that.

MK: Another thing is public dialogue. Polls have shown that women are far less favourable toward nuclear than men, whether it is about risk aversion, waste, concern about future generations. We want to encourage women in the industry to be its new face, to reassure the public that the industry does hold the concerns of women. All three of these programmes are synergistic: we have been thinking hard about how they all fit together.

"We want to do more to balance the mix, to encourage women in the industry to come forward, but also be encouraging to men, who are ultimately still the decision-makers"

MK: We had another two launch events in June, one in London on International Women in Engineering Day, chaired by Baroness Verma, and another in Warrington at the start of the Nuclear UK conference, part of the International Festival for Business. Something interesting that we noticed during the Warrington event was that the room was full of women -- we targeted 50 and got 100 -- so it was very colourful. As our event ended and the main conference started, the room drained of colour and became a uniform grey, as our event's delegates left and the Nuclear UK delegates came in. That was very revealing about the gender imbalance of the industry.

RH: We are reaching out to a different kind of person, who isn't on the normal conference circuit. We want to do more to balance the mix, to encourage women in the industry to come forward, but also be encouraging to men, who are ultimately still the decision- makers and the authority. We want to encourage men to be part of WIN as well, so that they can implement changes.

MK: After we launched we worked to set up an executive board from a cross-section of the industry, from Tier 1s to the supply chain, supporting academics, Horizon, EDF, and small-to-medium enterprises, including one-man-bands.

RH: We have had interest from all of the key industrial organizations, including the Office for Nuclear Regulation, who is deciding how to be engaged, to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, who has appointed people.

Now we have a great executive board. For example, Liv Thompson at the National Nuclear Laboratory has organized, off her own bat, for 200 16-18 year olds in technical subjects to tour Springfields and NNL, and at the end of it they get to do a project and an experiment in the lab. Alex Hulme at Westinghouse has organized our speed mentoring activity (to give individual advice) and has been rounding up mentees. Claire Gallery-Strong at Sellafield is insightful and inspiring. All of these women should be on Newsnight talking about how great the industry is. We have 20 people on the board, and each of them is fabulous.

At each executive meeting, which are monthly, generally in London or Manchester, we look at a forward calendar of events and consider getting a WIN representative to speak; we want that visibility.

RH: Being a woman in this industry, there is an opportunity; you get noticed. If you say something, everyone listens. That can be a boost, but if you are not confident, it can be intimidating.

MK: On the other hand I have definitely had the experience of having something I said be ignored, and then hearing the same idea, repeated by a man, listened to."

We meet at the new offices shared by the Nuclear Industry Association and the World Nuclear Association in Southampton Street, London. The choice of venue is not entirely a coincidence; each woman worked in one organization. Holyhead managed WNA working groups before moving to PwC as a management consultant; Kirschel worked in government relations at NIA before moving to CH2M Hill and now Atkins in business development.

MK: "When you have an industry-wide perspective covering the UK industry, you think you ought to get involved with developing the industry. Thanks to my career I now have the ability to be able to pick up the phone and reach the top of a company, to ask executives if they would get involved. Having those contacts is instrumental; it cuts through what might have been a really difficult uphill struggle.

RH: There are now over 400 members of WIN UK, and that is growing. We've never done a proper push for members. Another point that came from our engagement work is that recruiting women in the industry is not just about engineering - although our foundation is science and technology - but also communications, HR, legal, procurement, even management consultancy! They bring in all the different facets of the industry.
Then we can start to ask questions like, 'Do diverse teams bring extra safety benefits?'

The goal of WIN UK is to improve gender balance in the industry. But there is no specific target. There is a general mission. We see that there should be a shift, but we don't want to decide what the shift should look like; we want to facilitate, and help the industry get there.

On January 20 we have a major conference (at 1 Victoria Street, the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills Conference Centre, London), which will be a balance of men and women at all levels. It will be a conversation to see if we can work towards a statement of intent, or a charter. We know that there are some organizations setting targets and quotas of women on the board or in management. If the industry does not want those mechanisms, what can we put forward that they will sign up to?

RH: Working with our executive board has showed us that the female talent in the industry exists; it is just a matter of capitalizing on it. The WIN UK work gives our board members extra visibility, and through their activities it empowers them, and it puts them into contact with new people. As a result their own network will grow, and this will give them career opportunities. There is no disadvantage."

WD: Except a lot of work?

MK: Yes, that's true. On a Saturday afternoon you'll be able to see us meeting at Carluccio's in Waterloo station to try to get through it.
RH: But it is so satisfying having women coming forward who say things like, 'It's good to talk,' 'It's not just me,' 'I'm not going crazy.'

Our focus on eliminating unconscious bias in the industry is not just about women; it is about diversity across the board. For us, it is very inspiring. We put a lot in, but we get a lot out.

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WIN UK executive board members WIN UK executive board members
Rebecca Holyhead (left) and Miranda Kirschel (right), founders of the UK chapter of Women in Nuclear Rebecca Holyhead (left) and Miranda Kirschel (right), founders of the UK chapter of Women in Nuclear

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