Printed on: March 31, 2013

Maneuvering in a man's world

Women at DOE site face variety of challenges

By Alex Stuckey

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last article of a three-part Post Register series looking at women in the workplace.

The Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 went down in history in 1951 when it generated electricity from nuclear energy for the first time.

So did the people who witnessed the event at the now-Department of Energy desert site -- their 18 names etched on the wall to this day.

Well, at least some of them.

Walter Zinn, leader of the team that built the reactor, told project personnel to sign the wall. Support personnel, many of whom were women, were not allowed to add their signatures.

It wasn't until the early 1990s that a plaque was added bearing the names of the women present.

That's just one example of what it was like for women working in a man's nuclear world. In those early days, women held mostly secretarial positions.

It wasn't until the environmental movement of the 1970s that women broke into that male-dominated world, said Susan Stacy, author of "Proving the Principle."

Her book details the history of the site from 1949 to 1999.

Today, employment of women at Idaho National Laboratory and the Idaho Cleanup Project stands at about 25 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

Women make up about 17 percent of employees at the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project.

The numbers still aren't what they should be, said Frances Marshall, acting scientific director for the Advanced Test Reactor National Scientific User Facility.

As of 2011, about 18 percent of chemical engineers and 4.5 percent of mechanical engineers were women, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

But nuclear engineering tells a different story: So few of the 20,000 people employed in the field are women that it amounts to a blank spot in the data.

Marshall doesn't have an answer, but believes the numbers can increase if women can learn to balance all aspects of their lives.

"You're going to have to give up something somewhere," Marshall said.

Shortage in schools

Marshall's first work experience was similar to her college one: She was outnumbered.

After graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in nuclear engineering in the 1980s, she landed a job at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Connecticut.

She was the only woman engineer in a group of 60.

"I'd walk into the machine shop to talk to the mechanics or the maintenance engineers ... (and) work would stop (at the machines) and they'd watch me go," she said. "Then I'd go into the office and work would start up again."

Marshall doesn't think it was an act of scrutiny so much as curiosity. They had never worked with a professional woman before.

Marshall believes that has changed, but the number of women enrolling in school for science and engineering is woefully low. It's unclear why.

About 33 percent of undergraduate freshmen women intended to major in science and engineering fields in 2010, according to the National Science Foundation.

In 2009, nearly 18 percent of undergraduates enrolled in engineering programs were female, according to the foundation.

Marshall thinks women are tougher on themselves than men and more likely to drop out if they receive a low grade. She encourages women to not give up so easily.

Maneuvering in

a man's world

Tammy Hobbes cried for three days straight when a shift-supervising job at the Naval Reactors Facility was handed to a man.

Hobbes arrived at the facility in the late 1980s. Soon afterward, she completed the rigorous qualifications to become a shift supervisor before the man, yet the job was handed to him.

She said the plant manager wasn't sure how to handle the situation.

"He's like, 'Well, ya know, we've just never had a female in this position, and I'm not sure I can trust you,'" she said.

The training wheels had to be put on: She shadowed a male supervisor for three or four months before getting the job.

"I realized you may be in some place where other women haven't been before, and you need to help people feel comfortable with it," she said.

Today, the 49-year-old is vice president of the waste management group at CH2M-WG Idaho LLC, also known as CWI -- the contractor for the Idaho Cleanup Project.

Hobbes' experience is not unlike that of Susan Prestwich, the first female drilling engineer and geologist to work at the site.

In the 1970s, the then-National Reactor Testing Station began well-drilling at Raft River. Prestwich was hired to examine cuttings during the drilling operation, but there was some hesitation at hiring a woman.

In Stacy's book, she quoted physicist Jay Kunze saying of Prestwich: "Drilling crews are known to be roughnecks. I can't send a woman out there all night to work that well."

Prestwich assured him she could handle the guys.

And she did. Her career eventually led her to the DOE in Washington, D.C.

Juggling work and family

As the INL bus bounced over roads on its way to the site more than 20 years ago, all Jamie Stuart could think about was the one place she'd rather be: home with her kids.

It was her first week back to work since her children, now 27 and 28, were born.

"It was hard to go back after I had that break," Stuart said. "But I knew I could provide a better life for them if I had a job."

Looking back, the manager of Security and Emergency Management at Idaho Treatment Group -- the contractor in charge of AMWTP -- is glad she worked as a single mom.

She found her kids a good day care and, later, a good after-school program.

Being a working mom was still difficult.

"When someone asks what you want for Christmas, you say eight hours of sleep," she said. "Occasionally, you get it."

Hobbes also worked while her kids, now 17 and 18, were growing up.

Without the help and support of her husband, Jeff, she said she wouldn't have been able to work and raise her children.

"Both people have to be willing to give and take," she said.

Hobbes' job and family life have intertwined nicely over the past 20 years, but she said it works because she realizes she can't do everything -- no one can.

The problem is, women paving the way before her didn't set a good example, she said. Those women preached doing anything and everything.

"No person can do everything -- you can't have everything," she said. "So setting that example is a bad thing to do. You have to remember to be balanced."

Idaho National Laboratory reporter Alex Stuckey can be reached at 542-6755.

Extra Insight

March 29: "Women in Overdrive"

March 30: "Moving on Up"