Every year, we recognize International Women’s Day on March 8. It’s a day we celebrate both women and girls who inspire others by demonstrating leadership in the choices they make in their day-to-day lives to contribute to the social, economic, cultural and political spheres. It is also a day to recognize that action is still needed to achieve gender equity.
Women are integral to the success of CNL. As a STEM-based (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) organization, the sustainability of our continued success includes recruiting and empowering women in their roles, recognizing the impact their work, mentorship and leadership has – not only on their co-workers, but on the next generation of nuclear workers here in Canada. It was only natural for us to engage two of these women: Head of the Advanced Reactors Directorate, Dr. Rosaura Ham-Su and Head of our Isotopes, Radiobiology and Environment Directorate, Dr. Marie-Claude Gregoire to share their perspectives on the changes and challenges for women in STEM and the role women leaders can play to support women in STEM careers.
Q: What has changed for women pursuing careers in STEM?
Dr. Ham-Su: So much really. In Canada, it’s no longer “odd” to see women in STEM careers – the expectations have changed in education, families, and society in general. We see teachers promoting all career options to women, family members supporting women’s choices….society has shifted. We’ve moved to a model of thinking where women can do anything they choose and industry, government and the education system are actively promoting opportunities for women in STEM.
Dr. Gregoire: We are experiencing more progression with respect to women entering the STEM workforce and developing their careers but there is still work to do! We see this most in organizations where there’s a strong executive commitment to diversity and gender equity. Case in point, my own division at CNL is supported by two great female leaders and managers – Candice Didychuk is overseeing our Health projects and Jen Olfert, our Environment projects.
Q: What do you believe are the challenges women face in pursuing a STEM career?
Dr. Ham-Su: Primary caregivers – for their own children or a family member – are very often women. STEM careers, or any career, can be much more challenging for primary caregivers because of the sustained focus demanded by both activities. It is especially challenging when management level positions are reached. Balancing work and home lives can be stressful and requires decisions that are difficult to make.
Dr. Gregoire: I agree with Rosaura, and would also add that although more women are pursuing STEM education (43% according to Statistics Canada), there are still factors at play holding them back. Statistics show that girls with higher mathematical ability are less likely to pursue STEM fields at university than boys with lower mathematical ability. Additionally, women in Canada are still the minority among STEM degree holders even though they represent the majority of university degree holders in most fields of study. In fact, most of the narratives around STEM jobs are very focused on the mechanics of projects and technologies developed. Multiple surveys have shown that women, when choosing or pursuing a career, are motivated by a narrative that links their work (current or future) to a broader picture that includes benefits for society and/or the community. We need to better understand how we can communicate STEM opportunities in response to this motivation.
Q: What role do you believe women leaders play in furthering women in STEM?
Dr. Ham-Su: Our role in mentorship is very important. I’ve been approached by many women at different points in their lives to share my perspective on a big decision they have to make – whether it’s to take the next step (position) on the ladder or take the time for their family. In fact, a great deal of the advice I am asked for is on the topic of family/career balance. We need women in STEM to know that a pause from work is not necessarily an end in their career growth, nor should there be an expectation that women have to pause their careers if they do not want to. We also need to be visible in job fairs, academia, and conferences. Being there reinforces it is normal to have women in STEM.
Dr. Gregoire: As women leaders and women in STEM, we also play a role in inspiring younger generations. We can take opportunities to participate at career days at our children’s schools or speak to a class about the work we do to give them real life examples and stories and help them connect the value of the math and science they are learning in class to the careers and social benefits that they could produce. More and more, organizations are recognizing the value of this participation in our schools and our team is certainly dedicated to providing these opportunities. We also recognize that STEM workplace career pathways need to include better options for flexibility and diversity, whether this would be to support family or other personal pursuits. It is clear that the workforce is changing and the new generation of talented workers is more inclined to pursue careers in companies that allow them more freedom to develop their personal and professional endeavours. This is particularly critical in Science and Technology.
Q: What is your advice to women and girls interested in pursuing a career in STEM?
Dr. Ham-Su: Keep up with the math, do not be afraid of the workload and have fun!
Dr. Gregoire: Focus on your studies with an eye on the positive contribution you can make to the community and connect with peers, young and old. If you have the chance to participate in a female mentoring program, take it!
Q: Despite the challenges that exist, what helped you to pursue a career in STEM?
Dr. Ham-Su: The initial push came out of the feeling of joy in learning how things work. I had very supportive parents that celebrated that joy, even if they were not that interested in the topics I was. Next, teachers, professors and fellow students made physics, math and materials not only interesting but welcoming. Society plays an important role in our perception. Being welcomed into a conversation, exposed to experts, and encouraged to participate is key to creating a positive image of a profession or set of professions. I found inspiring mentors and role models in the workplace; I have been fortunate to have family, community and colleagues support throughout my career.
Dr. Gregoire: The inclusive teamwork and enthusiasm of my peers and the support of a number of executive managers (men and women) who were advocating for women leadership in STEM.
Dr. Ham-Su has worked more than 25 years in Science and Technology. She has specific technical experience related to advanced reactor technologies having spent many years doing research in materials, nuclear fuel and fuel cycles. Her scientific expertise is centered on the influence of processing and manufacturing in the performance of materials and components. Within AECL/CNL, she has had many leadership roles including Section Head of the Fuel Assembly S&T Section, Manager of the Fuel Development Branch, Advanced Fuel and Fuel Cycles Centre of Excellence Lead, Director (acting) of the Fuels, Materials and Design Division, Head of Directorate (acting) for Reactor Fleet Sustainability, and is now the Head of Directorate of Advanced Reactors. She has actively represented CNL and Canada in multiple international working groups. Dr. Ham-Su received her B.Eng. in Engineering Physics from the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico, and her Ph.D. in Materials Science from McMaster University, Canada.
Prior to joining CNL as the Head of Directorate for Isotopes, Radiobiology and Environment, Dr. Gregoire spent 14 years at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), where she assumed several managerial roles such as Head of the LifeSciences research institute and Leader of the Human Health Research Theme. She was responsible for research in understanding the effect of radiation on health as well as optimizing and using Nuclear Technologies to deliver better health through improved environmental, preventive and therapeutic strategies. She was the executive sponsor for the ANSTO successful application to the Athena Swan Bronze Award – Athena Swan Charter | Advance HE (advance-he.ac.uk) – and co-director of the Graduate Institute at the heart of ANSTO Innovation Precinct. She also spent 11 years working for the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France where she held several research and leadership roles in the country.
Her expertise and main research field is the development of methods in molecular imaging technologies such as Single Photon Emission Tomography (SPECT) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) for pre-clinical and clinical research. She holds a PhD in Systems Control obtained in France and also holds an Adjunct Professor position at the University of Sydney, Faculty of Medicine & Health.