20. Gender balance in the nuclear sector

Florence Maher

Women scientists and engineers pioneered the nuclear and radiological fields, with leaders and innovators such as Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Lise Meitner, among many others, establishing the foundation of modern nuclear science and technology. Women continue to make vital contributions to the field, but female representation in the sector remains limited. This is especially the case in STEM-related positions and leadership roles. The lack of diversity in the nuclear sector represents a loss of potential innovation and growth and a threat to the future sustainability of the nuclear workforce and viability of the field.

In 2021, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) collected data on gender balance in the nuclear sector in NEA countries to understand workforce representation, career trajectories, and challenges facing women in the field, especially in STEM and leadership positions. Specifically, the NEA gathered qualitative data on workplace experiences and possible solutions from over 8 000 women in the nuclear workforce in 32 countries as well as quantitative data on human resources (nuclear sector workforce, new hires, attrition, promotions, salaries, and participation in career development programmes) from 96 nuclear organisations in 17 countries. Based on the findings, a comprehensive policy framework is proposed to support countries to better co-ordinate and leverage government influence over the nuclear sector to improve its gender balance. This chapter discusses the main findings of this analysis, presented in more detail in NEA (2023[1]).

Women are less than a quarter (24.9%) of the overall nuclear sector workforce in NEA countries (Figure 20.1), adjusted for national differences in the size of the workforce. Only one-fifth (20.6%) of STEM roles in the nuclear sector are held by women, and women represent only 18.3% of senior leadership.

Women constitute less than a third (28.8%) of new hires in the sector. Although this proportion is higher than their representation in the nuclear workforce, it also marks the upper limit of future representation of women in the sector if the proportion does not increase. In addition, the percentage of women among new hires is still larger for non-STEM positions (40.7%) than for STEM roles (24.6%). This will not only entrench the gender divide between STEM and non-STEM roles, but is also likely to perpetuate the gender imbalance at the highest management levels due to the preference in the nuclear sector for executives with a STEM background. The data also show a pay gap between men and women in the sector, which is likely to persist if higher-paid STEM and management roles continue to be held predominantly by men.

Trends for female promotions and attrition, while encouraging, are not sufficient to change the gender imbalance in the sector, especially in STEM roles. Although women currently constitute 27.1% of promotions in the nuclear sector – higher than their representation in the workforce – this will not significantly transform women’s representation in the leadership pipeline. Women in the sector are better represented (but still a minority) in non-STEM roles, which is also where their retention and promotion rates are highest (61.4% of promotions for non-STEM roles requiring a university degree are awarded to women). In addition, women constitute 23.9% of the nuclear sector’s 8.1% attrition rate (the rate at which employees leave an organisation over a period of time). Although this is lower than their workforce representation, it will not significantly impact the current gender imbalance.

Figure 20.2 shows a model with two scenarios. The plain line is the projection of future female participation in the sector according to the current representation of women in hiring and attrition, assuming no change in the size of the workforce. The dashed line models the scenario in the case of balanced future recruitment. The curvilinear shape suggests that significantly increasing the percentage of female new hires could have a major impact, especially if combined with an increase in the size of the nuclear workforce in response to new investments in the sector. However, since a STEM background is often a prerequisite for senior management positions, a larger female intake may not result in a greater percentage of women in leadership positions if their recruitment and promotions remain concentrated in non-STEM roles.

The modern nuclear sector has its origins in many countries in the use of nuclear science for military purposes. The legacy of Cold War-era security culture persists in the peaceful application of nuclear technologies and continues to colour the sector as opaque and masculine. Women in the sector face issues that may also be present in other STEM-centred industries, but the nuclear sector presents unique challenges to women that – in combination with broader societal gender-related issues – produce barriers to their full participation in the field.

As shown in Figure 20.3, the results of the NEA’s international survey of women working in the sector suggest that the work culture is not sufficiently supportive for women. Indeed, women surveyed indicate that they experience hostility in the nuclear workplace, in addition to sociocultural perceptions that jobs in the sector are for men. The masculine image of the sector deters women from entering it, and once inside women’s careers are stymied by organisational cultures that have not normalised women in STEM and leadership roles. Approximately two-thirds of the 8 000 women surveyed say that male-dominated work cultures inhibit their full contributions, and a similar share report that gender stereotypes, microaggressions and unconscious bias negatively impact female career trajectories in the sector. 41.7% of survey respondents believe that women are not valued in their workplaces. Only about half of the women surveyed hold that salaries, performance appraisals, and career opportunities are equal between genders. Reports of sexual harassment in the workplace (including personal experiences and second-hand accounts) are high (44.7%), as are reports of hostile behaviours or attitudes to women (52.2%). Women who are members of minority groups, in STEM roles, and in roles requiring fewer educational credentials experience higher levels of hostility.

Women in the sector are pessimistic about the commitment of their managers and organisations to make positive change and to better support their career development. Only 32.5% of survey respondents consider that their managers engage on or express commitment to gender balance. Only 41.7% agree that robust mechanisms exist in their workplaces to support women, and a similar minority expressed career satisfaction and optimism when considering their organisation’s gender balance policies. Some 57.4% highlighted barriers to retaining and promoting women in their organisation (see Figure 20.3 for a list of the main barriers to the retention of women specific to the nuclear sector as identified by survey respondents). Few respondents reported having female role models and mentors at work (37.0%), and the presence and visibility of women was apparent to only 50.9%. Despite these findings, however, women in the sector would generally encourage other women towards careers in nuclear energy (59.0%) albeit with a high level of reported ambivalence.

Work-life balance issues also play a central role. Women surveyed overwhelmingly agree (over 70%) that pregnancy, maternity leave, parenting or other family and caregiving responsibilities negatively impact women’s career trajectories in the nuclear sector. Career advancement in nuclear power plants often requires roles that entail on-call and shift work, which may be challenging for nursing mothers or those with young children. Also, nuclear facilities are often located in areas lacking spousal employment opportunities or easy access to family support. These challenges make up two of the top five nuclear sector-specific barriers to women according to the results of the NEA survey. This may explain why female retention rates are lower in non-management and junior management levels in the sector. The lower retention at this stage in the leadership pipeline may result in a smaller pool of women eligible for progressively senior positions.

Many countries, whatever their energy policies, have a growing need for nuclear expertise. Medical and industrial applications of nuclear technologies continue to expand; a large number of nuclear facilities must be decommissioned and the waste managed and disposed; and as the world faces a tremendous challenge to alter society, policies, technologies and practices to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century, the nuclear sector can play a vital role in supporting this objective. At the same time, many countries face serious skills shortages that must be addressed in the next decade and beyond if nuclear technologies are to be applied safely and effectively. There is a demand for more scientists and engineers with the capacity to support new projects, effective regulation, and advanced research and development, and who can also serve as key leaders in the future. The need is great and the fact that women are severely underrepresented in nuclear sector leadership roles shows that many countries are losing access to a vast pool of talent. Furthermore, the sector’s ability to meet the increased demand for nuclear technology and to contribute to addressing global challenges requires high-performing organisations that are diverse, inclusive and innovative. In addition, the current lack of women in the nuclear sector is an important element in the gap in understanding and perceived values between the sector and the broader society.

In this context, attracting, retaining, and supporting more women engineers, scientists and leaders in its workforce is highly relevant for the nuclear sector’s sustainability and ability to contribute value to society. The talents of women scientists, engineers, and technologists are needed to develop innovative solutions for clean, reliable energy to power economic growth and mitigate climate change. Even more importantly, gender-balanced leadership is essential in laboratories, boardrooms, and on the public stage, and it is required to build lasting coalitions for long-term socio-economic decisions and technological solutions that hold stake with the whole of society and benefit from the contributions of all.

The NEA has developed a policy framework to tackle the key barriers mentioned above and to support a better representation of women in the sector, support their career development, and enhance their contributions. Recommendations for direct, practical actions are organised around three pillars (Figure 20.4) and undergirded by a reporting regime for data and accountability. The goal of these pillars is to provide an overarching, strategic framework through which governmental institutions and other nuclear sector actors can develop context-specific policies and programmes.

Each pillar anchors targeted recommendations developed from the data findings in order to address the needs and challenges of women in the sector:

  • attract women into the sector through public communications campaigns, enhancing the educational pipeline, and balanced recruitment and hiring

  • retain and support women in the nuclear sector workforce by eliminating harassment, building inclusive work environments, addressing impacts related to familial responsibilities, assessing the disparate impacts of policies and programmes on men and women, linking executive management performance to progress on supporting and advancing women, and by conducting regular national qualitative surveys on workplace experiences

  • advance and develop women as leaders and enhance their contributions to the sector by eliminating unequal impacts for women’s career recognition and advancement and by conducting regular national surveys on women’s participation in the nuclear sector workforce.

All the above actions need to be supported by evidence. It is therefore fundamental to provide data and accountability through goal setting, regular reporting and designating resources and senior-level individuals to implement the above actions.


[1] NEA (2023), Gender Balance in the Nuclear Sector, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://www.oecd-nea.org/jcms/pl_78831/gender-balance-in-the-nuclear-sector.

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