How women engineers are making Chernobyl and the world safer

By Steven  White

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The number of women in science and engineering remains considerably lower than the number of men.

"What I like most about my job is that every day rewards me with new knowledge and skills."

Marking the International Day of “Women in Engineering”

When Marie Curie won her first Nobel Prize in 1903, she was the first woman to be so honoured. More than 100 years on, the number of women in science and engineering remains considerably lower than the number of men.

The reasons why are complex. But they are surely not helped by the outdated stereotype of what engineering is about that still prevail in many parts of the EBRD regions.

We share a commitment towards enhancing gender equality across the Bank’s operations, so I set out to find out more.

Take the EBRD’s work to overcome the legacy of the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl. Part of this work is the construction of the world’s largest dry storage facility for spent nuclear fuel. Over 21,000 used fuel assemblies from the Chernobyl reactors will be safely processed and stored on the site for a minimum of 100 years at the Interim Spent Fuel Storage. The project is funded by international donors and the EBRD through the EBRD Nuclear Safety Account.

The team, managed by the US company Holtec International, consists of engineers from Germany, Italy, the Slovak Republic, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States. Among them are several women engineers and during a recent site visit I took the opportunity to speak to a number of them.

I asked them about the work they are doing and how they decided to pursue a career in engineering. We also talked about what advice they would offer young girls who may not have considered engineering as a career.

The result of these discussions was very encouraging. I believe that these women can be a source of inspiration to the next generation of women engineers.

Three female engineers working on the EBRD’s spent fuel storage

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Vera Voronina works on the testing and commissioning of a forced gas drying system. Dasha Prymak is part of the engineering team responsible for the testing and commissioning of the equipment used to move the fuel to its final storage. Anastasia Kalita works on the development of testing programmes for the equipment systems.

Vera, Dasha and Anastasia share a thirst for knowledge and a quest for project solving. But they are also united in their concern about how to combine their careers with their private lives, especially when it comes to the large pressures women remain exposed to in society.

 

“There are some cultural norms that need changing. Managing the children, house and career remains a challenge.”

 

How can we improve the promotion of engineering as a career choice for women? It is always best to start at the origins, namely, with our education system. As a UK Engineering Ambassador for the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, I have had the opportunity to visit many schools over the years to highlight the opportunities that engineering can offer to both young girls and boys.

More often than not, when I ask “What is engineering?”, the replies are confused at best or these young people simply don’t know. When you tell them that engineering is involved in almost everything around you – from accountancy to zoology – they are surprised.

 

"Women and men look at situations differently, see different solutions to problems, so sometimes you need to stand up for your point of view…"

 

There is still a long way to go. The EBRD’s Gender Strategy highlights the challenges faced in encouraging girls, in particular, to pursue the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) subjects at school. Women remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – even though they consistently outperform men when they study these subjects. The International Day of “Women in Engineering” this Sunday, 23 June, serves to highlight the challenges women still face.

But the fascination for engineering is infectious. Often we don’t realise how much our world is shaped by engineering, from the toothbrush to the pencil. And the next time your daughter or your friend’s daughter asks you what engineers do and what skills they need, you could ask them in return: Do you like asking questions? Do you like being creative? Do you like helping people? Do you like solving problems? Do you like having fun? Do you like making things? Do you like travelling to faraway places? Do you want to make a difference?

If they answer “yes” to any of these questions, then there is no doubt: They could be an engineer!

Steven White is an EBRD Associate Director and Head of Nuclear Safety Account

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