Speech

Powerful women

Speech by Baroness Verma at the launch of the Sellafield Ltd Women’s Network

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Baroness Verma

Good afternoon, I am delighted to be here for the launch of the Sellafield Women’s Network. I would like to commend Dr Donna Connor on developing this inspiring initiative.

Encouraging more women to enter the energy sector is a subject particularly close to my heart. Throughout my time in Government, I have campaigned to promote fair treatment and opportunity for women in the industry. Working in a male dominated sector can be challenging, there are barriers to break through, and having the right support is crucial.   In my own life I have to remind myself that I have actually broken through a great many barriers - often against backdrops of the almost impossible.

Growing up in Great Britain, I faced a battle of wills with my father; trying to live a life that satisfied my family’s cultural values while meeting my own expectations as an ordinary young woman. This experience provided me with an armory of tools that equipped me to take on and challenge anything that prohibited or blocked my way to progress.   At 19, married, with a small baby in tow and a mortgage, I took the decision to start a business with my husband, in high fashion manufacturing. I became very much involved in local activities, especially supporting victims of domestic violence, with an emphasis on speaking up on gender issues.

The overt and covert prejudices that I have experienced throughout my life, whether on the grounds of colour or gender, have always strengthened my resolve to ensure that others are supported in fighting the challenges that sadly we still have to address.

As with all things that have arisen in my life, along with the challenges have come excellent opportunities. But I couldn’t have reached my current position without some incredibly supportive people.

When I reflect on this, I realise how important the right support network will be to any woman entering a male dominated profession such as the nuclear industry.

There has never been a more important time for women to be involved in the nuclear industry. If all goes to plan, we stand on the verge of the largest expansion of the civil nuclear industry in generations. 16 gigawatts of new nuclear power will help to meet the UK’s energy needs by 2030.   The scale of this ambition is difficult to comprehend. Business will need to invest an estimated £45.7 billion in the construction of the various new nuclear plants. The latest estimates suggest that we will need to expand the workforce involved in the nuclear industry from 70,000 now to 98,000 by 2021, when demand for skills at the various new nuclear sites will peak. At the same time, many are retiring from the field. As a consequence experts believe that we will need to train and recruit more than 8,000 a year into the industry over the next six years.

At the same time the vital work of Sellafield and other sites will continue. The decommissioning, reprocessing and nuclear waste management work at Sellafield remains the most complex in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that your work is helping to secure a safer future for the UK.   In West Cumbria in particular, the work of Sellafield coupled with the development of the Moorside nuclear plant will require a huge increase in workforce. As a result there are enormous amounts of career opportunities, it is crucial for companies, for Government, to ensure that the opportunities, the support, the will is available for women to pursue successful career paths and reach roles – making heading for a position on Boards a norm and not an exception, if that is the choice that women make.

There are sobering statistics about the role of women in the nuclear workforce. Research is still on-going but available data suggests that only 11-24 % of the nuclear industry is made up of women. And there are currently six times more men than women working in the science industries with only 10% of STEM managers being female. This needs to change. We need to welcome, celebrate and encourage the contribution women play in the industry. These figures throw into sharp focus the need for women to be better supported to enter the nuclear industry.

This is a challenge that we must address, starting early in education and then looking at the employment process. Learning and enjoying STEM subjects at school lay the foundation for those subjects being taken on in older years. We must ensure when subject choices are made that there is a wider debate on the benefits of studying STEM subjects.

The nuclear universities and nuclear education have come a long way in the last ten years and are now a thriving part of the education system. Many newly qualified students have already registered as STEM Ambassadors. Crucially the work such as in Sellafield, where there are over 360 volunteers who aim to inspire and educate the next generation, that the UK nuclear industry will provide both men and women a challenging, stimulating and, most importantly, a long lasting career, with a large number of avenues to pursue.   Beyond education, a wide range of nuclear related companies are also doing more than ever before to encourage females to join the workforce, and we are beginning to see positive results.

So for example, EDF Energy, which operates of eight of the UK’s nine generating nuclear power plants, has more than triple the proportion of women in its intake of new graduate engineers - up from 6% to 20% of the company’s apprentices. Similarly, I was pleased to learn that a quarter of the Sellafield Ltd workforce is female – a figure which inspires confidence in our work.

But there is still much more to do. That is why the Nuclear Industry Association has recently set up the ‘Women In Nuclear’ initiative to address the industry’s gender balance, improve the representation of women in leadership and engage with the public on nuclear issues. ‘Women In Nuclear’ will formally launch in January, I look forward to witnessing that and the impact it will no doubt make on the lives of women in the sector.

But supporting women in the sector is also about ensuring that women not only enter the industry but continue to progress once they are in.   The ‘POWERful Women’ initiative was established – to advance the professional growth and leadership development of women in the energy sector.

‘POWERful Women’ brings together a mix of industrial, academic and political leaders spanning exploration, energy generation & supply, energy efficiency, technology, government and consumer issues. It works to support and encourage energy companies to appoint more women to senior roles as part of building stronger businesses and adapting to changing markets. The ‘POWERful Women’ initiative, although also in its early stages, is already matching industry leaders with professional women to provide guidance to help overcome challenges and build opportunities for greater female leadership in our energy sector.

Alongside these national initiatives, the Sellafield Women’s Network has a vital role to play – to ensure we support one another to gain equality for our gender and promote powerful women who can capitalise on the significant opportunities available in the sector. I am sure that it will help to inspire women to pursue long and successful careers in the nuclear industry.

Many women are already grasping these opportunities and I’d like to highlight some of them now.

You all know about the fantastic work Donna has done setting up the Sellafield Women’s Network, but I wanted to talk about three other women making a powerful impact to Sellafield.

Firstly, you’ll later hear from two inspiring sisters, Stephanie and Lynsay Kelly. They are both employed at Sellafield and have both won separate work-related awards. Stephanie, a trainee at Sellafield, was crowned ‘Apprentice of the Year’ at this year’s Golden Apple Awards, while Lynsay won the prize for ‘best technician’ from the Nuclear Institute for outstanding performance in her role as a control systems engineer. I would personally like to congratulate both.

Secondly, I would like to mention another inspiring young woman who’s here today: a nuclear graduate, currently in placement at the NDA, called Lucy Miller.

Lucy provides an excellent example of the opportunities that exist in the industry. As a successful graduate in the commercial and strategy side of the industry, Lucy is currently writing the NDA’s business plan. Her strategy will help to minimise the costs to the taxpayer of decommissioning - work which will make a huge impact on the industry as a whole. Lucy has also been involved with the Women in Nuclear initiative and recently chaired a session with nuclear graduates.

These powerful women serve as an inspiration to all of us. I’d like to congratulate you all on your efforts.   And now it’s your turn.

There are huge opportunities for us to shape the nuclear sector in the future. I hope you will all play your part in ensuring that the sector is fit and adequately represented for this incredibly exciting decade of innovation and change.

To achieve this aim we need to attract more women to choose a career in the nuclear sector; we need to build capacity of women within the industry; and we need to raise the profile of women in the sector too.

It is important that the sector works together to ensure positive change place.

I, from my own personal experience, believe that everyone at senior level recognises that there is a distinct absence of diversity throughout the sector, but becoming very very evident as you rise in the ranks, however, is that I have not had resistance for change – in fact, if anything, senior figures are asking what it is they can do, to help drive change.

My advice is simple – if you are a senior figure at the heart of decision making – please reach out. And if you are an aspiring, ambitious woman waiting to reach the highest levels, reach in.

Finding mentors, sponsors, friends to help navigate through the pathways is something we all need to get better at. Look at aspirational figures, like one of our speakers, CEO of Mitie, Ruby McGregor Smith.   I have no doubt that the Sellafield Women’s Network will be a huge success and will dramatically help in achieving these goals for Sellafield. I look forward to hearing about its valuable work long into the future.

Thank you.

Published 12 December 2014