1 March 2021

Signatory in the Spotlight: National Nuclear Laboratory


Civil Nuclear Showcase

In the second of our Signatory in the Spotlight articles,  our Editor, Nichola McCall, talks to Olivia Thompson, Head of Skills and Development at the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). NNL is a UK government owned and operated nuclear services technology provider covering the whole of the nuclear fuel cycle. Olivia is responsible for Learning and Development, Early Career’s and E,D&I programmes. Olivia is passionate about inclusivity and proud to have founded “Women in Nuclear UK” and also supports E,D&I initiatives of the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group.

What actions have been taken by NNL?

Diversity often suggests having a workplace that represents different types of people and backgrounds and it’s common to hear phrases like “diversity of thought” and “we want our workplace to reflect the communities that we serve.”  This then often follows with a statistic on the ethnicity/ social mobility status in a radius around the organisation’s base.  But how useful is that?  Not very!  NNL as a research and development organisation provides products and services for a huge variety of communities from supporting the operation of power stations, to powering systems in a space station to supporting the safe operation of nuclear-powered submarines for the nation’s defence. Our communities are far reaching and hence our diversity and inclusion work needs to mirror this!

We’ve long recognised that the industry has imbalance.  Recently Phil Greatorex (Knowledge & Information Manager) from Sellafield Limited shared on social media what we believe to be the very first survey into gender equality in the workplace- a survey that was produced in 1956, which reached out to all major organisations in the sector to find out if there were any roles for women to play in a nuclear organisation and to justify why a women could (or couldn’t do a role!). … Fast forward 60 years and women are continuing to break down barriers and to take up some of the most important and difficult roles our sector has to offer. This is a result of chipping away and making small incremental steps to achieve real progress in gender equality.

What actions have we done to support this?  Well we can list off lots of initiatives, activities and engagement attempts but truly the action that has greatest impact has got to be collaboration.    We recognised that sector-wide collaboration and initiatives were key to achieving wider-ranging and faster (long-term) changes and hence have been a staunch support of WIN from its inception in 2014.  By tackling gender inequality as a sector, not as a company or an organisation we’ve been able to identify some of the key barriers preventing equality and crucially do something about them!  For instance, in support of the nuclear sector deal’s gender targets, within NNL we developed a strategy, underpinned by a delivery plan that cascaded the targets down into actionable things we could do to meet the targets.  This involved reviewing our policies, procedures and setting up new programmes as well as small tweaks which help to attract and retain female talent in our organisation…These actions are now showing real benefits, for instance 2020 saw our highest ever female apprentice intake and we hope to meet the 50% female apprentice target in 2021. How fantastic is that?… WiN works!!!!

What has been the impact of the work?

Impact is always difficult to measure as it’s often about people’s opinions and feelings, but I think we are making positive headway.  Why? Well all of the metrics which are commonly used to measure impact of diversity on an organisation have been recognised within NNL over the last few years.  Our gender balance is evening out, we have more women represented across the whole career spectrum of our organisation – much better than before WiN commenced, when we had few women in senior managerial and technical leadership roles. This has been partly achieved through external recruitment as well as promotions/career progression and our productivity is increasing as a result!  Even more encouragingly we are seeing more women apply to join us -hopefully this shows the talent pipeline is growing, time will tell but it’s an encouraging sign.

Olivia Thompson

Olivia Thompson, Head of Skills and Development at the NNL.

What challenges have been encountered? How were they overcome?

In 2016 we celebrated 100 years of the suffragette movement with a tribute to the women (some of whom are often forgotten about in history) who have been at the forefront of scientific and innovative advancements for the nuclear sector.  These women encountered challenges that have evolved over time and they sought simple and unequivocal solutions to overcome those challenges. Do what you are good at and do it to the best of your ability and history will catch up.  Fast forward another 100 years and I’m sure our nuclear suffragette sisters will be proud of the journey we have made.  I think our recent gender equality progress will eventually be seen as nothing more than the next step on our journey forward.  I’m just hoping we can fast track our advancement so that it happens in 9 years not another 96!

What’s next for NNL?

NNL is currently embarking on a process to become accredited to the National Equality Standard and we are reviewing our E,D&I programme to complement this.  We are keen to learn from other organisations and to develop new and exciting initiatives to support E,D&I widely across the sector.   Our successes with the gender equality progress is a blueprint / springboard to achieve changes for other protected characteristics too e.g. BAME, neurodiversity, disability etc so despite the organisations name, Women in Nuclear’s reach is greater than just “gender equality”, it’s having a positive impact on the industry becoming more inclusive for all.

Are we on track to achieve 40% women working in the UK’s nuclear industry by 2030?

40% women working in the industry by 2030 is still an ambitious target.  Do I think we will get there?.. Yes!  In fact I think we’ll get to 50%! True parity. Will we get there by 2030? I hope so, we’re making great progress.  This year saw our largest ever proportion of female apprentices into NNL (48%). I’m confident that next year we will hit the 50% apprentice target set by the nuclear sector deal.  And I’m 100% certain those young women have an amazing career ahead of themselves in the nuclear sector.  But there’s still challenges to overcome and largely the 2030 target is based upon recruitment rates; the numbers of females in all aspect of the recruitment pipeline are not sufficient at present to sustain the 40% target.  At NNL we are working with other organisations across the sector to rectify this.  We’re in it for the long-haul and we are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to achieve parity.  Our nuclear future is as exciting as it is ambitious, and we are up for the challenge!

Coming soon… we will also be hearing in the Spotlight from Assystem, Cavendish Nuclear and Atkins.  If you are a Women in Nuclear UK charter signatory and want to share your story please get in touch now at industry-guidance@winuk.org.uk

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