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Beating The Odds To Become First Female Chief Nuclear Officer


So that's the picture in academic science, but we wanted to get a sense of whether the issues are similar in the science industries away from academia. To talk about that, we called on one of the highest-ranking women in the nuclear field. Her name is Maria Korsnick. She works for Exelon Nuclear, one of the largest power-generating companies in the U.S. She was the first woman in this country to hold the title of chief nuclear officer. I started by asking her to just explain what that title means.

MARIA KORSNICK: I am responsible for five operating nuclear power plants. And as chief nuclear officer, I am the single point of contact, if you will, for the day-to-day operation of those plants as well as the strategic plans to continue having them run safely for years to come.

MARTIN: How did you get into nuclear engineering? Was it something that you had always wanted to do from a pretty young age in your studies?

KORSNICK: I was always interested in math and science and so I went into engineering in college. And I can't say that I had an initial passion for nuclear, but right about the time I was in school and graduating, Three Mile Island occurred so it kind of put nuclear in the headlines for everybody and I decided to learn more about it. And I've thoroughly enjoyed my studies as well as going into the commercial nuclear power business.

MARTIN: I've read that there are nine men for every woman in the field of nuclear engineering. Does that sound about right to you?

KORSNICK: It does sound about right, it is definitely a male-dominated field.

MARTIN: Did you think about that when you were starting out? Was that part of your decision-making process - knowing full well that you may be the only woman in a lot of different rooms throughout your career?

KORSNICK: No, actually didn't play into my thought process at all. I'm there to try to participate and to contribute and it's been a success for me.

MARTIN: Do you still perceive, though, a gender imbalance at your level of the game? I mean, at the top echelons of your industry, are you still in the minority?

KORSNICK: Oh, absolutely. There's very few of us. There's very few of us at the executive level ranks. And I went into operator training and I was licensed to operate in the control room at one of our power plants - and that to me is the greatest feat or stock in my industry for somebody that's going to be a future plant manager or a future site vice president or a future chief nuclear officer - there's some women there, there's more there now than when I went through, but still very few.

MARTIN: I understand that in that very control room, there were so few women there wasn't a women's bathroom, is that right?

KORSNICK: (Laughing) Well, that's true. There's only one and everybody has to share. I didn't tend to want to use that bathroom, nothing against all the guys but...


MARTIN: So do you think there are cultural or systemic reasons there aren't more women in your field at your level or is this just something because of the sacrifices, perhaps personally, that you have to make women aren't pursuing careers at that level in science?

KORSNICK: You know, obviously the beginning is getting interest in the math and sciences and engineering and I do think there's quite a bit of women in those fields. I would say there's definitely not an issue that the door is not open. It's much more, I would say, in the hands of the women to say is that a door I feel like opening.

MARTIN: Maria Korsnick is the CNO and senior vice president for Northeast operations for Exelon. Thank you so much for talking with us.

KORSNICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.