"It is not just important, it is key". This was IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi's reply today when asked about the role gender parity plays in creating a stronger, equal and more diverse workforce to fuel development and sustainability in nuclear.
He was speaking during an event held on the margins of this year's IAEA General Conference. Joining Mr Grossi in the discussion were Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli, Professor of Nuclear Physics at the Faculty of Science of the Mohammed V University of Rabat, Morocco and Elena Maceiras, Secretary of the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials. Panelists urged for greater efforts to challenge the status quo.
"Having worked with the nuclear sector for many years, I was often impressed by the high caliber of women working in this field and yet troubled to find them in relatively small numbers," said Mr Grossi. "This indicated that nuclear was missing out on a wealth of talent and expertise, which is unacceptable particularly as nuclear is making an increasing contribution to global issues such as health, food security and access to clean energy and clean water."
Efforts to Achieve Gender Parity
In discussions about their own experience, the panellists agreed that, despite a growing consensus on the need for gender parity, there is a long way to go before it is achieved on a global scale. Speaking from Morocco, Ms El Moursli highlighted how prizes and fellowships for women scientists inspire other women to follow careers in science. She noted that having won the L'Oreal-UNESCO 'Women in Science' Award for Africa and the Arab States in 2015 for her contribution to detecting the elusive Higgs boson, an elementary particle, gave her a much-needed visibility.
"When I received the award, it brought visibility for me and my work in Morocco. This enabled me to develop opportunities for other women in the country. This is why such prizes are important - a prize for one woman can bring a future for another."
From a young age, Ms El Moursli was aware of the limitations for girls in science. She now cherishes the opportunities she has to be a role model for girls.
"I regularly visit schools with my doctorate students to talk to children about my work. When you explain the everyday relevance of a subject such as nuclear medicine, the children are inspired to learn more. Through such visits, we can change the mindset of the public and show how women are making an impact in science for other generations to follow."
The scientists noted Mr Grossi's efforts to bridge the gender gap in nuclear science. As a committed member of the International Gender Champions network, Mr Grossi has taken concrete steps towards achieving gender parity in the nuclear sector. Earlier this year, he launched the Marie Skłodowska‐Curie Fellowship Programme to inspire, encourage and financially support young women to ensure more of them pursue a career in nuclear science and technology, nuclear safety and security, or non-proliferation. Closer to home, he adopted Special Measures for the Achievement of Gender Parity in the Professional and higher categories at the IAEA by 2025.
Parity in Leadership
When Ms Maceiras first joined the Argentinian National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA) as a young scientist, a major challenge for her was finding childcare for her son, an experience many parents are all too familiar with. Unfortunately, in many societies and family arrangements, family care is still the primarily responsibility of women, making a lack of childcare something that disproportionately effects women and creates barriers to their participation in the formal labor market, the nuclear sector included.
"It was very difficult to balance career and family [...]. Women didn't have the same time to invest in their careers in order to be considered for promotions. Now, I urge organizations to bring in practical measures to promote flexibility in the workplace for women."
Ms Maceiras believes one solution lies in having more women leaders for others to see as examples. "The IAEA can support nuclear organizations to build leadership training programmes for women to ensure they are present were decision and policies are being defined."
Building the next generation of leaders in nuclear science is something the Agency is working on, Mr Grossi explained during the event. One example is the work the IAEA is doing to support teachers in 17 countries across Asia and the Pacific to introduce nuclear and isotopic science into their curricula. With the early introduction of this science into education, students, including girls, are equipped to pursue advanced studies and, eventually, become leaders in the field. This initiative aims to reach one million students aged 12-18 by next year.
Diversity is beneficial for innovation. By bringing together varied experiences and world views, diverse teams are better able to understand and address a wider variety of needs, and their resulting products are more gender-responsive. The panelists agreed that harnessing this at the IAEA means programmes and activities that more effectively respond to the needs of countries and citizens, both men and women.
Becoming a leading voice for gender
Though there is still some way to go before the gender gap disappears, Mr Grossi was positive about the future for women in nuclear science. "My hope is that with these concerted efforts, the IAEA can be a global voice promoting gender parity and even broader, gender equality, in the nuclear sector."
As she wrapped up the event, moderator Sophie Boutaud de la Combe, Director of the IAEA Office of Public Information and Communication, thanked the almost 120 people who attended virtually and underlined that efforts to increase gender parity in nuclear cannot be implemented without their contribution. "As the IAEA continues to lead the discussion on gender equality in nuclear, ensuring that both women and men can equality contribute to and benefit from the peaceful uses of nuclear, we will need action from you all, at your respective levels, to accelerate the change."