Remarks by President Rumina Velshi at the Palo Verde Women in Nuclear Leadership Symposium 


August 17, 2021

Virtually from Toronto, Ontario

– Check against delivery –

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here to speak with our leaders of today and of tomorrow. 

I admire both your willingness and your eagerness to learn – particularly as it relates to the need to pursue equity in our workplaces and beyond.

In preparing to speak to you today, I learned that one of Palo Verde’s key philosophies is that everyone is a leader – no matter their level in the organization.

I think this is a wonderful belief – and I wholeheartedly agree. Leadership is about more than managing people. It is about driving the progress you wish to see. It is about being an agent of change.

With this in mind, I have organized the thoughts I will be sharing with you today into 3 themes: 

  • Leadership
  • Gender equity, and
  • Diversity and inclusion 

I hope to leave you with a better understanding of how these 3 themes are, in my mind, intertwined – and how they relate to ensuring safety in the nuclear sector.

I can tell you from first-hand experience: A commitment to learning and reflection is part of the foundation of effective leadership – at all levels.

I’ve been in and around the nuclear sector for 40 years now. I’m still learning. And, I hope, still becoming a better leader every day.

I’m going to begin today by violating one of the key rules of leadership: I’m going to talk about myself.

But only for a few minutes. And only to give you a sense of my background and my experience – because of course these factors influence my perspective.

I came to Canada as a teenager – a refugee from Uganda. 

It was, of course, a difficult time and a difficult transition. 

I responded by throwing myself into my studies. After high school, I pursued a degree in civil engineering.

Later following by a master’s in chemical and nuclear engineering – and an MBA.

Not a common path for a woman at the time. In fact, I became one of Canada’s very first female nuclear energy workers.

I worked at the Pickering nuclear power station – an 8-unit station near Toronto, Canada, with a generation capacity of about the Palo Verde Generating Station, – the first woman to perform radioactive work, and the first pregnant atomic radiation worker to get authorization to enter the radiation area. 

Even all these years later I can remember in vivid detail the nature of the nuclear workplace … 

the Playboy centerfolds taped to the wall in plain view … 

the safety equipment that fit only the men … no change rooms for women … 

and, of course, the very dismissive attitude toward the idea that a woman could somehow be useful in what had always been a man’s world.

Women were very much in the minority back then – and we were reminded of that fact every day.

Over the past 4 decades, there has been significant progress toward gender awareness and equity. Many of the obstacles that existed in my early days have been eliminated. We should take pride and satisfaction in that.

But good is not good enough.

As leaders, it will be up to us to finish the job – to pursue and achieve true equity. 

And as I’ll explain in a moment, equity is something that you should – you must – reflect on as a leader, if your goal is to create the best possible outcomes.

 Enough about me. Let me tell you a bit about the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the CNSC – and its important role as an independent, science-based regulator.

Our focus is safety. Plain and simple. 

Our top priority is ensuring the safety of Canadians and the protection of the environment. 

And you see evidence of this commitment in everything we do – from our licensing decisions to our open public meetings to the vigilance and professionalism shown every day by our dedicated staff.

To ensure safety, the CNSC needs to be a world-class regulator.

To get there, we established 4 strategic priorities:

The first – taking a modern approach to nuclear regulation, following practices that are science-based and risk-informed.

The second – being a trusted regulator and recognized as independent, open, transparent and credible.

Third – maintaining and building our global influence to enhance international nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation.

And the fourth – being an agile organization – flexible and adaptable – with an empowered, equipped and diverse workforce. Because organizations need to be able to change with the times.

These priorities form the bedrock of who we are. Everything we do is built on them.

With that in mind, I want to say a few more words about safety – because it is so important, of course… but also because it’s a way to talk about the demands of leadership in the nuclear world.

At the CNSC, our goal is to create a culture of safety across the sector. That means influencing the attitudes and actions of nuclear workers across the country.

Every single person needs to know – and needs to be reminded – that safety is job number 1, always. 

Vocal leadership is essential to creating a culture of vigilance and diligence.

And that culture is, in turn, essential to influencing the performance of workers.

As leaders, our greatest responsibility is to promote a working environment where a culture of safety and risk awareness can flourish. And not only flourish – but persist. 

From time to time, we at the CNSC conduct self-assessments of our own safety culture to ensure we’re still on track. 

And we look to international benchmarks to make sure we’re constantly improving and incorporating the best practices of others.

Beyond that, we not only welcome but encourage our employees to come to us if they have any concerns at all related to safety.

My executive team and I have an open-door policy. We remind staff of this regularly.

I have also set up a private email address where staff can reach me if they have a serious concern or a strong difference of opinion and want to raise it with me directly.

This is very important to me. I want people to understand that I’m open to their views and their ideas. Put yourself out there.

Sometimes the feedback is positive, other times it can be a bit of a gut punch. But I really do appreciate their candour.

Leaders must foster a culture that rewards those who raise important issues – that is what is going to positively impact our workplaces.

When it comes to safety culture, complacency is the biggest potential enemy, so having everybody on board at all times is a must. 

This brings me to diversity and inclusion – which is tied to a strong safety culture.

Why? Because diversity and inclusion are essential to fostering innovation, solving complex issues and improving our outcomes.

The best way to adapt to a changing world – and to reflect that world – is to infuse our industry with new energy and new perspectives. This means hiring the best and the brightest people, from all corners.

That’s how you both attract and retain top talent – by building an organization where everyone is welcome, everyone is valued, and everyone can achieve their potential. 

As leaders, we of course play an important role in the success of diversity and inclusion efforts. The direction needs to come from the top – and must be embraced throughout. And there needs to be real oversight and accountability to create real change.

I can tell you that at the CNSC, we have worked with staff to establish a range of employee networks – including networks for Black and Indigenous employees, supported by CNSC staff allies, to help deliver change and progress.

We were also the first Canadian federal government entity to sign the BlackNorth Initiative pledge to acknowledge anti-Black systemic racism and its impact, and the need to create opportunities for Black Canadians.

With greater diversity and inclusion, the CNSC will be better equipped to achieve regulatory excellence and deliver on its mandate.

And, of course, I can’t talk about inclusion without talking about the pursuit of gender equity.

A recent survey found that women are still very much a minority across Canada’s nuclear labour force. 

And the numbers are even more concerning when you look at the STEM workforce as a whole.

Fewer than 20% of these jobs in Canada are held by women.

Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to change in the near future. 

If you look at those graduating with engineering degrees in Canada, only 22% are female. 

That’s exactly the same percentage as back in 2000, when many of us thought we were beginning to generate real momentum towards equality.

So, on one hand, I am frustrated. 

I have been in this industry for a long time – and I thought we’d be much further along by now. 

But I am also motivated and energized to keep working to make a positive difference – and encourage others to do the same.

Because of the economic and social benefits of gender equality – but also because of the moral imperative to move towards a more equitable, diverse and representative workforce.

I can tell you that we have begun making practical changes to the way we do things at the CNSC. 

We are focused on increasing the number of women in our talent pipeline. 

We have launched the Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Initiative, or Women in STEM, to raise awareness of and support women in STEM careers at the CNSC and elsewhere.

We are finding and engaging supportive mentors.

We are reconfiguring certain roles so that working mothers can raise their children while maintaining important jobs with complex responsibilities.

At the national level, I am very proud to be leading Driving Advancement for Women in Nuclear, or DAWN, an initiative which advocates for gender equality in the nuclear sector.

On the international stage, I contribute to the Nuclear Energy Agency Task Group on Improving the Gender Balance in the Nuclear Sector and I am also co-chair of the International Gender Champions Impact Group.

Both groups look to improve and promote equity in the nuclear sector – both in industry and in the regulatory environment.

And I want to be clear: this is about something more than equity for equity’s sake.

It’s about achieving our potential.

Again, if we are to take full advantage of the benefits of innovation, we need to attract the best and brightest to our industry. 

The best men and the best women. Impressive people with good ideas. 

When we exclude – or fail to open ourselves up to – part of the population, we fall short of our potential.

As a world, we need to persuade more young women to pursue education and careers in the STEM disciplines. Otherwise, we are leaving so much potential untapped.

As a nuclear regulator, I need to talk about another key aspect of leadership – preparedness.

Given the work we do, being prepared must be a cornerstone of our efforts. 

So much of our focus is on making sure that a crisis never happens. 

But it’s also our responsibility – and your responsibility – to demonstrate effective leadership if ever a crisis or the unexpected does occur.

We must plan as best we can. We must prepare. We must test ourselves, over and over.

Strong leadership during normal operations will help us rally our colleagues should unforeseen events ever arise.

A good leader needs to be able to communicate well – which is at the core of a successful emergency response. 

It’s the best way to ensure calm is maintained and responsibilities are fulfilled.

We have all faced, and continue to face, an unprecedented event: the COVID-19 pandemic. It has challenged us to adapt rapidly to entirely new ways of fulfilling our responsibilities.

For me, is has been a reminder that effective leadership demands a preparedness at all times, for the unknown and unexpected. 

That means taking the time to imagine improbable situations.

But it also means lifting your teammates up, building their skills and abilities, and creating a culture of trust so that when a crisis does arrive, you can act with speed, confidence and authority.

And keep learning! From your organization, your sector and even beyond. 

Important lessons can be found in even unexpected areas. You can even find them in seemingly successful outcomes.

For example, here’s a question I’ve asked of myself and a number of my colleagues around the world: Yes, the nuclear sector’s response to COVID-19 has been admirable and effective. 

But how would we have done if the crisis had been 10 or 100 times worse?

Would nuclear plants have been able to continue operating safely and would our oversight as regulator have been as strong?

These are the kinds of questions you need to ask – because they lead to important discussions and better preparation. And they help you to build trust both within your organization and with the public at large.

And building trust is crucial.

No matter how transparent you are, no matter how many bridges you work to build, you can always do more.

A diverse workforce and sector helps contribute to our need to be prepared and our need to hold public trust.

Both preparedness and trust-building demand diversity – we need to be challenged by diverse perspectives and we need to meet people where they are.

We cannot do that unless we understand them. And we cannot understand them without having a diversity of crucial perspectives in our organizations and in our sector.

As a leader, you can’t afford to be overwhelmed by challenges, regardless of their nature, and you must stick to your values and commitments.

And I think trust building is one of the most important priorities that regulators and industry organizations can adopt today.

Diverse teams help provide the varying perspectives you need as a leader to address the challenges you face.

In a world awash in information and disinformation, cutting through the noise to understand varied interests and concerns and working collaboratively to try and address them needs to be a priority.

I have touched on a number of topics today, and they all connect to one another.

Let me conclude by tying them together.

It is vital that the nuclear sector take up these challenges – of empowering leaders, of addressing barriers to equity, and embracing diversity.

You all know that in our line of work, there is little room for error.

To avoid error, we need a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives – and yes – a diversity of people.

The CNSC understands the value of diversity and inclusion to an effective safety culture, to improved operations, and to building trust.

The fact that you are having this conversation today, and the fact that you have invited the Canadian nuclear regulator to share her perspectives, tells me that you also understand this.

Leadership is something many aspire to – but in my view it is often more uncomfortable than it looks.

Because effective leaders challenge the status quo.

They ask uncomfortable questions.

They constantly challenge us all to do better.

So let me challenge you.

What are you doing to help achieve greater representation from equity-seeking groups?

If you’re a woman, what barriers do you encounter in your daily work? What are you doing to remove these obstacles? 

If you’re a man, how are you working to ensure your workplace accommodates gender differences?

I challenge you today because true leadership is not about sitting in the C-suite.

It is about being a change agent.

It is about making your division, your workplace, and your world a better place for all of us.

This is in many ways an amazing time to be a leader. 

For all our challenges, we live in a time of generational change and societal progress.

I challenge you to continue the drive toward that change and progress.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. I look forward to your questions.

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