Viewpoint: Gender diversity in the UK nuclear industry

13 April 2018

With the UK having the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe, at less than 10%, the UK is in a clear need to address this alarming statistic, by looking at ways the industry can become more inclusive and attractive to this integral female talent, writes Anne-Charlotte Dagorn.

For the UK to remain a global engineering force to be reckoned with, we need to ensure that nuclear and engineering projects are deployed on time, delivered to the highest standard and drive continuous innovation. As our global economy advances, engineering will play an ever more increasing and vital role in driving our economy, building infrastructure and creating employment.

In 2015, analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that the gross value added (GVA) for the UK by the engineering sector was GBP433 billion (USD617 billion). This was more than retail, wholesale, financial and insurance sectors combined, yet only 5.7 million employees work in engineering enterprises in the UK, representing just over 19% of total UK employment in all respected enterprises. Something needs to be done.

Moreover, it is estimated that engineering companies need 265,000 new employees per year until 2024 in order to keep up with current projects. Current nuclear projects, such as EDF's Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset, is in need of tens of thousands of engineers. However, current engineering graduate supply falls well short of demand.

Statistics highlight that postgraduate engineering is successful internationally, but the proportion of UK graduates is becoming too low to be sustainable in the long term, in turn hindering the gender diversity balance.

Research clearly shows that the UK is in an engineering skills deficit, but more so for women. The number of men and women in the nuclear sector is extremely imbalanced, especially in leadership roles. While women make up 46% of the UK workforce as a whole, engineering continues to remain a male-dominated industry. In 2017, statistics highlighted that women made up only 1 in 8 of those in engineering occupations and less than 1 in 10 of those in an engineering role within an engineering company.

With that said, gender diversity has dominated both political and media agendas for years, with numerous high-profile politicians, large corporations and notable public figures acknowledging that more needs to be done to work towards closing the gender disparity. It's time we turned this acknowledgement in to action!

As a nation we face unprecedented challenges, whether environmental, technological, political or economic. Our capacity to tackle them will be greatly improved by ensuring a gender-balanced representation of women in nuclear and engineering. With a more diverse workforce, businesses will benefit from a range of different skills and perspectives which can drive business objectives and goals and ultimately service customers better.

Understanding that women not only have as much to offer as men, but just as much ambition, is a major challenge for businesses and our society as a whole. Without being open-minded we risk failing to acknowledge a historic turning point - the key transition from quota-based achievements to an era of driving through diversity.

For this to happen, our political leaders and businesses must make a number of strong commitments. First to guarantee pay equity, otherwise no ambition can sustainably match individual commitment. Secondly, to provide women with an environment and a management approach that factors in the cognitive biases specific to men and women. We can do this by avoiding all forms of stereotyping surrounding women in our industry. In particular, this lies with eradicating beliefs that heavy industry jobs are not for women and instead we need to promote our industry as one that women can work in.

And what this requires is the industry and government to collaborate and better work together to promote and support women in the nuclear and engineering industry, starting in schools. Women should be actively encouraged to participate in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) while at school. But collaboration is key to this. Both at a business and national level, we need to focus more on promoting STEM subjects to women in order to build and grow our industry.

Additionally, with preparation and research, there are opportunities for our industry to work in tandem more than ever before. The industry needs to collectively work towards enhanced opportunities; better supporting industry talent, while driving new, younger talent to enter the ever-demanding industry. Our main aim should be to address the gender imbalance, change behaviours, and promote female leadership in order to have more women at all levels of a corporation.

Here at Assystem, we have launched the #IncredibleWomen programme to promote women across the energy industry. The programme is aimed at promoting scientific and technical subjects among female students and giving them career opportunities within the group. Centred around the theme of ambition, the programme’s aim is to empower women within the company. We’ve launched the programme in France, and will be rolling out the programme in Switzerland, Belgium, United Kingdom and the Middle East in due course.

As more companies strive for equality, there is hope that those discoveries will lead to women achieving long and fruitful careers in the nuclear and engineering sector. One thing remains certain, we can already see change here at Assystem across the board. In 2010, only 22% of our recruits were women, compared with 30% today, and by 2020 our aim is to make this 40%. Additionally, in 2010, only 11% of our managers were women but this has since increased to 16%. We're working hard to ensure that these figures increase. In the meantime, we urge our industry to come together and actively support and promote women in engineering and nuclear.

Anne-Charlotte Dagorn

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Anne-Charlotte Dagorn is head of Assystem's Gender Diversity Programme.