Encouraging Gender Balance in the Nuclear Field Through Mentorship, Education, and Networking

March 21, 2021
Adeline du Crest, Margarita Kalinina-Pohl


Every year, International Women’s Day provides a necessary reminder and opportunity to continue connecting, supporting, and empowering women. This is no less true of the nonproliferation and nuclear field, in which new programs are regularly launched to support inclusivity. In March 2020, for instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) launched its Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme (MSCFP) to highlight the accomplishments of women in the nuclear sphere and support more women to develop a career in this sector. This program intersects with numerous other initiatives spearheaded by organizations like the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) and its affiliate, the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation (VCDNP). This article features interviews with experts and affiliates from these centers to explore the challenges women in the nonproliferation field still face, and how mentorship and educational opportunities like the MSCFP can contribute to breaking some of these barriers.

Current Challenges

Though great strides have been made in recent years to promote women in the nuclear field, interviewees identified some barriers women in this domain still face. One challenge stems from the language of nonproliferation and nuclear studies itself. As Mara Zarka, Research Associate and Project Manager at VCDNP, remarks, masculine language is predominantly employed when discussing nuclear weapons, which creates a gendered narrative that can lead to assumptions about the role of women in this field. Breaking down this narrative requires time and focused effort.

Beyond its gendered aspect, the specific technical language of the nuclear field can also be intimidating and present a barrier to entry. Linked to this notion of inaccessibility, the lack of general dialogue and awareness of nuclear issues also impacts the nuclear community. Masako Toki, Senior Education Project Manager and Research Associate at CNS, notes that “nuclear disarmament is not a part of everyday discussions or education, even though it is an existential issue.” Women may not have been exposed to such topics in their formal education. Due to the low number of women professionals in this sphere, women interested in nuclear studies may not be able to identify mentors. According to the IAEA, for instance, in 2019, women comprised less than a quarter of the global nuclear workforce. That same year, women made up around 30% of the National Nuclear Security Administration workforce in the United States, of registered delegates to the Preparatory Committee Meeting of the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and of participants in nonproliferation and disarmament events. Intentional efforts are clearly required to connect expert women with aspiring professionals in the nuclear field.

This is especially relevant in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds. Indeed, the gender gap in the nuclear field is even wider on the technical side than on the policy side. Often, professionals with STEM backgrounds, women in particular, are not aware of career opportunities beyond the “lab coat.” CNS has led efforts in raising awareness among women in STEM on career paths in the sphere of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction through training and other outreach activities such as intensive courses, networking, and mentoring.

Mentorship and Educational Opportunities

Mentorship and training in particular can promote women’s achievements in the scientific domain in order to increase their visibility and advocate for their continued involvement in the nuclear field. Several of the experts interviewed highlight the importance of role models and mentorship in advancing the place of women in this sphere. Dr. Şebnem Udum, Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations of Hacettepe University in Turkey, former CNS Research Associate and MIIS alumna, likens these networks to the structure of atoms: “The neutrons, electrons, and protons are all running in terms of these links. It’s a form of energy; that energy ties them together. We have that energy too.”

Witnessing women working in this field can give confidence to aspiring professionals to pursue their goals. Another MIIS alumna, Nomsa Ndongwe, current Research Associate at CNS and co-founder of the West Coast chapter of Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation, highlights that representation matters in terms of gender but also of ethnicity, sexuality, background, and experience. Representation and visibility can be sustained by several means, including through mentorship.

Elena Sokova, Executive Director of VCDNP, speaks to the significance of mentorship. In her view, mentorship programs, either formal or informal, are extremely important to provide advice on ways to handle subject-matter issues as well as to navigate professional development. But women may not systematically be able to identify or access mentors informally. Mentorship programs therefore facilitate connections between students, young practitioners, and mentors when informal channels may be more difficult to access. One CNS program launched in 2018 aims to address this challenge by supporting young women in undergraduate schools as they develop an interest and expertise in nonproliferation. Created by Sarah Bidgood, Director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at CNS and MIIS alumna, the Young Women in Nonproliferation Initiative, with the assistance of Nomsa Ndongwe, connects participants with mentors to encourage them to pursue studies or careers in the sphere of nonproliferation and disarmament. It also provides resources and tools for young women to broaden their knowledge of the field and cultivate pertinent skills.  Similarly, the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme (MSCFP) allows its recipients to learn more about the nuclear field and women’s achievements within it. By increasing this visibility, the MSCFP expands potential opportunities for its recipients.

Mentorship and educational opportunities are often intrinsically linked. Through the MSCFP for instance, recipients gain access not only to valuable information in the form of webinars or educational sessions but are also connected to instructors and experts committed to reaching gender parity and advancing their fields. Dr. Şebnem Udum, who taught two sessions with MSCFP recipients in December 2021, describes education as a core element of the nonproliferation field. As an investment in the future workforce, education builds awareness and knowledge while introducing ways to think critically and make unique contributions. Recognizing the importance of education, the MSCFP contributes to advancing women in this domain by providing scholarships for women to pursue related graduate studies. These activities also create more space and more opportunities for women, which generate additional interest and support. Recipients of the MSCFP can also gain practical knowledge and skills through internships offered at the IAEA and related facilities. Acquiring this inside perspective is a critical element to developing a career in this field, as interns expand their practical and subject-matter expertise and build networks in these communities.

The international reach of the MSCFP allows participants from diverse backgrounds to take advantage of the opportunities provided. In particular, several interviewees stress the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to education in order to build connections between technical and policy communities. Developing a broader expertise, or even a more solid understanding of an issue from a different perspective, can only benefit interconnected domains, and offering programs and courses geared to specific audiences can contribute to breaking this barrier between science and policy.

Elena Sokova asserts that “we all have a mission to be at least somewhat educated on the scientific and technical side of what we are discussing.” She cites Russian attacks on Ukraine’s nuclear facilities in February and March 2022 as an example of the need for technical and policy communities to communicate with each other and with a wider audience. This flexibility will remain relevant as the interdisciplinary nature of such topics is increasingly recognized.


In addition to mentorship and educational opportunities, Elena Sokova emphasizes the importance of professional networks, which can be leveraged to raise awareness on a certain point, to expand interest and dedication to nuclear issues, and to solidify professional and educational opportunities. Women across the globe create and join these networks, which provide them with opportunities that may not be available through other channels, like their places of employment. Such networks foster valuable personal and professional relationships, creating communities where individuals feel more empowered to explore their interests and where they can find information and resources. CNS has spearheaded the development of networks in nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament. For example, Dr. Chen Kane, Director of the Middle East Nonproliferation Program at CNS, leads the Middle East Next Generation of Arms Control Specialists Network, which applies a regional approach to analyzing questions of arms control in the Middle East.

Last year marked the establishment of two new regional professional networks for women in nuclear, which are championed by former CNS visiting fellows. Sabariah Ibrahim from Malaysia, leads Women in Nuclear Southeast Asia (WiNSEA), a professional women network focused on networking, mentorship, and knowledge-sharing.

The Black Sea Women in Nuclear Network (BSWN), coordinated by Nataliia Klos from Ukraine, was launched last December. The network’s mission is to connect, support, and empower women in nuclear fields. Interdisciplinary by nature, the network brings together women in STEM and policy from national governments, industry, civil society, and academia from Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, and other countries. The network serves as a platform for professionals to promote gender equity and increase women’s leadership roles, as well as offer professional exchanges, mentoring, and training opportunities. BSWN is illustrative of the personal and professional support networks can provide in times of crisis.  It has allowed members to continue engaging with one another when other channels were disrupted by war.  In the past few weeks, the network has become increasingly crucial to exchange information on recent nuclear threats that Ukrainian nuclear facilities face following Russia’s invasion.

Long-term Impact on Inclusivity

The MSCFP, like other educational or networking activities hosted by CNS, VCDNP, and CNS program alumni, ultimately aims to increase the inclusivity of the workforce in related fields. The rising number of women experts, coupled with effective women’s networks, is encouraging, but challenges remain. For instance, Mara Zarka determines these initiatives could be better connected to each other in order to expand the reach of various networks. Collective efforts towards gender parity should be pursued, especially to support women in leadership positions. Programs like the MSCFP encourage the nuclear community to stay focused on improving multidisciplinary gender balance to enact sustainable change across different sectors. In so doing, the MSCFP ensures that different geographical backgrounds and diverse areas of expertise are taken into account, sustaining continued effort and interest.

As several interviewees mentioned, mentorship and education are crucial starting points towards achieving gender parity in the nuclear field, in particular at entry-level, and it is critical that these efforts be led more continuously. Professional networks geared towards women help reinforce this parity by providing them with additional tools and resources to navigate their careers. These programs and the challenges they seek to address, however, do not exist in a vacuum, as Nomsa Ndongwe observes. She calls for  “bringing in diversity of thought and opinion, diversity of individuals” and notes the internal changes that also need to be made, especially by dominant groups, to create a more inclusive space.

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