Only Two Female Executives Work at My Nuclear Facility. I’m One of Them.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 26 2014 2:52 PM

Nuclear Girl

What’s it like to be a woman running a nuclear facility?

Sarah Kovaleski's minivan parked among pickup trucks.
There's a spot for a soccer-mom minivan among the pickup trucks of nuclear power.

Courtesy of Sarah Kovaleski

Remember that song from Sesame Street? “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others).” I’ve found myself in that situation many times in my life.

The first time, I was in preschool. The teachers wanted us to perform a cute song for our parents about Miss Polly and the doctor. All of the other little girls dressed up as Miss Polly. The little boys and I dressed up as doctors. As my mom tells it, I wasn’t interested in discussing it. The doctors had props like stethoscopes, and doctors help people. Why wouldn't I want to be a doctor?

I didn't grow up to be a doctor. I grew up to be a nuclear engineer, which is a profession where there are nine men for every woman. In one of my introductory nuclear engineering courses, the students sat at a horseshoe shaped table so that we could all see each other. Among the 15 there were two women, including me. A few students were in their mid or late 20s, returning to school after spending time in the Navy, but most of us were only a year or two into college. I noticed the woman sitting across from me. She was young, inquisitive, and her eager, feminine face stood out among all those men. It took me a surprisingly long time to realize that I stood out like that too.

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I am now 16 years into my career, which has included 13 years working in the nuclear power industry and three years as a stay-at-home mom. Today I manage a department of about 30 engineers responsible for maintaining the technical design of a nuclear plant. I am the first woman to hold this position in our organization. Among the leadership at our facility, there is only one other woman. She and I are two of roughly 30 female executives in our corporation of 8,500 employees.

My attitude hasn’t changed much since preschool. It mostly doesn't faze me to be in the minority, and I am proud of the choices that have led me to where I am today. I persisted through many crises of confidence as a student before realizing that my male peers had these same crises of confidence too; they just faked confidence while I was agonizing over whether I could cut it as a nuclear engineer. Later on in my career, I notice an increasing number of young women choosing to work in the nuclear power industry. I am by default, a role model to these young women. Still, being “the one who's not like the others” makes for some awkward moments.

As a newly minted engineer at a consulting firm, I recall my boss telling his employees that he expected us to dress professionally when we were meeting with clients. For men, that means you wear a tie, he explained. For women, that means you wear .... you wear ... well, you wear “whatever a woman's equivalent of a tie might be.” It was as sweet as it was silly. Acutely sensitive to the three women in his firm, I believe he wanted to choose his words carefully and not assume that we would wear dresses or skirts or fancy scarves.

Another time at a networking function, I noticed my colleagues introducing themselves, sharing their names and associations and shaking hands. A surprising number of new acquaintances were not shaking my hand. I later learned that some have been taught that it is poor etiquette for a man to shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first. I was taken aback, although I must admit that I really don't know anything about shaking hands except that my dad taught me to have a firm grip so my hand doesn’t feel like a dead fish.

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