U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Federal Women’s Program Advisory Committee (FWPAC)
March 13, 2019, 12 p.m.
Remarks – Rumina Velshi
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It’s a pleasure to be here with you to honour Women’s History Month. People around the world have benefited greatly from the American women who have fought and continue to fight tirelessly to move the needle on equality. There are several subtle differences between our countries, but I’m happy to see there are so many of us who are on the same page when it comes to advancing issues of equality – because no matter where you are, when we empower women, everyone benefits.
I’m sensitive to the fact that when some people hear about creating gender balance, they fear it means opportunities for women will be achieved at the expense of men. So, I would like to begin 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.
But still, there are those who will question why we should care.
At a very basic level, hiring and retaining women is an economic imperative. That’s why 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 International Atomic Energy Agency event about gender 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. An example I use in Canada is parental leave. There would be no paid paternity leave if women had not fought so hard for maternity leave. I know that battle is still ongoing in many countries, including this one.
Sometimes it feels like we are always fighting – that the job to push for gender balance falls solely on the shoulders of women. But that’s simply not true. Men can, need to, and do play an influential role when it comes to achieving gender balance. But in order to do this, we first need to acknowledge the deep-rooted cultural biases that put up barriers for us to reach equality.
These biases take hold at a young age and their consequences can last a lifetime.
One of my personal passions is promoting STEM careers – especially for young women. You don’t have to look hard to see there is still an entrenched societal 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 gravity, every day is a bad hair day."
A CNSC colleague, Gerry Frappier, recently 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 pursuing 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.
Looking back, I can now see my own education has been touched by unconscious bias.
When it came to my future, there were no expectations from my parents. They just encouraged me and my sisters to pick careers in something we were good at. For me, that was science and math.
I wasn’t sure exactly which field I wanted to work in. I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, but that was about it. While I was researching the type of work I might want to do, I remember stumbling across a newspaper article about the history of the Brooklyn Bridge that captivated me. Due to health restrictions, the chief engineer enlisted the help of his wife to play an essential part in supervising the construction project. Math calculations, building materials, the foundations of construction: she not only understood it all, she put these skills into practice to ensure the now-iconic bridge was safely built. I was so impressed. This was really something I could get into. The universe was sending me a message … I was going to be an engineer. It was as simple as that.
But while I have had a very successful career as an engineer in the nuclear sector, I never did become a structural engineer like I first imagined. This is partially because when I had to take drafting and graphic design courses I found it challenging to see things in three dimensions. I really struggled and found those spatial skills weren’t that well developed. As it turns out, I’m not alone.
Another engineer named Debbie Sterling looked into this very issue. She too struggled with drafting courses while she was a student at Stanford. Later on, she realized that she may have been at a disadvantage when it came to that course, as studies show that girls tend to have underdeveloped spatial skills compared to boys. Is it nature or nurture? After digging deeper, it became clear to Debbie that it is nurture. The kids with better spatial skills are the ones who grow up playing with construction toys like Lego. And these types of toys have been marketed towards boys for over 100 years.
Debbie found her life’s goal – to disrupt the pink aisle at toy stores. Her plan? Develop toys to ensure the next generation of girls would not face the same challenges that she and I both experienced. Before creating prototypes, she watched girls play with existing construction toys. Often they would become bored and Debbie would ask them to show her their favourite toy. Time and time again the girls would bring her a book.
This led to her "aha" moment. Debbie had the simple idea to put construction sets and stories together. She developed a character called Goldie. Through stories, children help Goldie solve problems by building simple machines using different engineering concepts.
Since using Kickstarter to get her idea off the ground, Debbie has been named one of Business Insider's 30 Women Who Are Changing the World and the Toy Industry Association named GoldieBlox the 2014 Educational Toy of the Year.
While Debbie’s toys may not have directly benefited those women who are already adults, I’m happy to say I’ve observed that many universities now offer extra courses for first year engineering students who need to catch up on their spatial skills. This accommodation might seem like a small step, but it is meaningful. It not only acknowledges cultural biases against women, it does something about it – and everyone benefits. Those men who didn’t have the opportunity to play with Lego growing up also now have the opportunity to gain ground. When we make accommodations for women – everyone benefits. And the room continues to grow brighter.
Accommodations for women
But as we know, STEM journeys don’t end in the classroom. And there are still many barriers that await women after graduation, such as equal access to research funding. A recent study in Canada found that women are less likely to receive research grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research if their applications are evaluated based on who the lead scientist is, rather than the project they are proposing. Even in the field of public health, where women submit more applications than men, men are still twice as likely to receive funding.
Knowing that there is an entrenched societal belief that men are better at science than women, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it is imperative we do something about it because the consequences go well beyond any one women not receiving a grant. Just like the working world, the more experience you get, the more opportunities await you in the future. How are women supposed to compete against men who continue to receive funding if the funding is based on previously obtained grants? Not to mention the potential benefits of the research produced from a woman’s perspective that we all might be missing out on.
Who is responsible?
So we know there are major issues. 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.
I’m proud to work for an organization that values diversity and inclusion. The CNSC is committed to building a highly-skilled workforce that is reflective of Canadian society and we have policies and programs in place that use everyone’s strengths to achieve our goals.
But reaching gender balance takes more than approving policies and processes. Follow through is imperative. Commitments like equity, diversity and inclusion policies are great in theory, but they mean nothing if action isn’t taken to ensure they are making a meaningful difference at the working level – and we all have a part to play.
As Canada’s nuclear regulator, the CNSC needs to share in the responsibility of addressing any inequalities faced by our licensees. In one recent example, we experienced pushback from the head of one of our licensees about the validity period of certification examinations. They rightfully identified 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.
The licensee 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 we’re doing so.
I’m happy to report that I have seen the nuclear industry make significant strides over the last 30 years. Last month I took a tour of one of our licensee’s facilities and I was asked to submit a urine sample before I could go inside the vault. Well, wasn’t I pleasantly surprised that the urine containers for women were a larger size than the ones for the men. I think the leadership team who had organized the tour for me were quite taken aback when I complimented them on the size of the women’s urine sample containers.
But this seemingly small accommodation for women in our workplaces is meaningful. It acknowledges that they are 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 the organization … and most likely because there is now an environment that would be accepting of that feedback.
Addressing such systemic biases can mean real consequences for retention, too. If we put up obstacles, women might seek employment elsewhere or in other fields.
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.
What can we do?
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.
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.
I was recently at an International Women’s Day event hosted by a CNSC licensee where one woman shared a story that highlights how even the smallest accommodation can make a big difference.
Late in the day, this woman’s manager sent her a request to attend an executive-level meeting the next morning. She was new to the organization, and this was a great opportunity for her career. But there was one problem – the meeting was at 7 a.m. and she had no one to look after her children. Getting a sitter at that late hour would be almost impossible. So she called it out. She let her boss know that she would be unable to attend because she requires more notice to arrange daycare. And guess what? He understood. He acknowledged that childcare wasn’t something he had considered, and he would provide her – and everyone else in the workplace – at least 24 hours’ notice next time there was an early morning meeting.
This is an accommodation that not only helps working mothers – everyone in the organization benefits.
All it took was one person to 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 to do better.
The Canadian Forces recently came under scrutiny for a Facebook ad aimed at recruiting more women. The ad was a close-up picture of a young blonde woman with a caption reading “Can I wear makeup while in uniform?” It was a well-intentioned attempt to answer a frequently asked question. But it backfired.
The response in the ad said yes, women can wear makeup but “Canadian Armed Forces members are ambassadors for Canadian society, so a minimalist approach is the standard.” And what does this say about women who do wear a lot of makeup? Are they are poor reflection of Canadian values? What does the message say to women looking to join the armed services in general? Does the military really think that physical appearance is the most burning concern on the minds of those who want to enlist? It is these continuing examples of tone deaf ads that promote stereotypes that greatly bother me. The campaign has since been put on hold.
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.
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 your government is disproportionally giving out research grants to men: 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.
If gender balance is candlelight, we must all do our part. We all have the ability to enlighten and be enlightened. We can all make the room brighter by sharing our knowledge and our stories. And we can all be ready to listen, learn and act when someone else offers to share their light with us.
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