Women's Leadership in Nuclear Energy

Ciani Green
May 19, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Gender differences of select high school students' perceived threat of nuclear energy to society by academic discipline. (Source: C. Green, after Drottz-Sjöberg and Sjöberg. [6])

As the number of women who work in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields has increased, so has the number of women leaders in the nuclear industry specifically. However, while numbers are increasing, women are not new to the field. 1903 Noble Prize winner Marie Curie was a nuclear energy pioneer with her work of separating radioactive materials. [1] Additionally, in the 1950s, Queen Frederika of Greece was specifically integral in bringing nuclear research to her country. [2] Women have long been influential in the nuclear power industry.

Yet, despite all this, there continues to be a gender gap in leadership roles within the industry. The gender gap in nuclear power industry is obvious, especially when compared to other non-technical industries. Whether this gap is mainly due to general gender differences in sentiment and support or access to opportunities remains unanswered.

Gendered Support of Nuclear Power

Many studies across a range of countries including the United States, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have shown that women are significantly less supportive of nuclear energy than men are. [3] Additionally, this gender divide exists among a range of attitudes. While most studies show that women are less accepting of nuclear energy in general, others show that specifically women are less accepting of the building of new power plants, especially in their communities. [4] Women also perceive greater risk regarding nuclear energy than men. [5] Some studies also show that women show more concern over nuclear waste management and disposal than their male counterparts. [6] Additionally, scientists have yet to determine how large these gender differences have been over different time periods as well as within government levels (state, regional, national, etc.) - which might be helpful in anticipating when female officials may be more likely to vote in support of nuclear energy.

These gender differences have often been explained as being due to difference in gender socialization. The socialized roles for women generally have been associated with health, safety and general concern of others more than the roles men are traditionally assigned. In fact, the health and safety argument is one of the most used arguments to justify a gender difference in nuclear power support in the general public and among elected officials. To understand the weight of these differences, in 1993, the gender gap in nuclear support produced enough concern from the global nuclear industry that an interest group called Women in Nuclear was formed and today, it still functions to provide support for women in the nuclear power industry. [7]

Leadership in Nuclear Power Plants

Despite their being noticeable differences in general support of nuclear energy, there are still plenty of women who desire to be active in the field. Yet, they face difficulty in reaching high leadership positions. Entering the field requires a lot more education and training than other fields because of technical complexities. Within a plant, the ascent to high leadership positions requires experience as a reactor operator, senior reactor operator and then safety engineer.

Many women in the field who have entered into leadership positions within their plants referenced stereotypes more when reflecting on the earlier days of their careers. They also mentioned having the same skill level, education and experience as their male counterparts who were granted leadership positions before them. Additionally, many of these women had to fight to pursue certain positions and certifications within the industry. [1]


Despite much difficulty in reaching higher positions within the industry, many women also mentioned that there have been efforts to make the industry more inclusive. However, the gap in the nuclear industry, which happens to be right on par with representation in engineering and science generally, continues to be pronounced even with inclusivity measures. Is it the lack of support of nuclear power or sexism in higher education and the workplace that has lead to less women in leadership positions? Or is it some combination of the two?

© Ciani Green. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] T. R. Kenney, "Women in Leadership in the Nuclear Power," Emerging Leadership Journeys 9, No. 1, 56 (2016).

[2] M. Rentetzi, "Gender, Science and Politics: Queen Frederika and Nuclear Research in Post-war Greece," Centaurus 51, 63 (2009).

[3] T. Jayaraman, "Gendered Perceptions of Nuclear Armament, War, and Energy," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[4] A. Ansolabehere and D. M. Konisky, "Public Attitudes Toward Construction of New Power Plants," Public Opin, Qurt. 73, 566 (2009).

[5] B.-M. Drottz-Sjöberg and L. Sjöberg, "Risk Perception and Worries After the Chernobyl Accident," J. Environ. Psychol. 10, 135 (1990).

[6] B. M. Drottz-Sjöberg and L. Sjöberg, "Adolescents' Attitudes to Nuclear Power and Radioactive Wastes," J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 21, 2007 (1991).

[7] A. Sundstöm and A. M. M.McCright, "Women and Nuclear Energy: Examining the Gender Divide in Opposition to Nuclear Power Among Swedish Citizens and Politicians," Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 11, 29 (2016).