Life as a wife, mother, and nuclear engineer

For more than 15 years, nuclear engineer Sarah Kovaleski has worked in an industry where there are nine men to every woman. She explains how she became a leader in her field – and that belonging can mean being different

Sarah Kovaleski
Monday 05 May 2014 19:33

Do you remember that song from Sesame Street? "One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others)." I've found myself in that situation many times in my life. The first time, I was in nursery school. The teachers wanted us to perform a cute song for our parents about Miss Polly and the doctor. All of the other little girls dressed up as Miss Polly. The little boys and I dressed up as doctors. As my mum tells it, I wasn't interested in discussing it. The doctors had props like stethoscopes, and doctors help people. Why wouldn't I want to be a doctor?

I didn't grow up to be a doctor. I grew up to be a nuclear engineer, a profession in which there are nine men for every woman. In one of my introductory nuclear-engineering courses, the students sat at a horseshoe-shaped table so that we could all see each other. Among the 15, there were two women, including me. A few students were in their mid- or late-twenties, returning to studying after spending time in the navy, but most of us were only a year or two into college. I noticed the woman sitting across from me. She was young, inquisitive, and her eager, feminine face stood out among all those men. It took me a surprisingly long time to realise that I stood out like that, too.

I am now 16 years into my career, which has included 13 years working in the nuclear power industry and three years as a stay-at-home mum. Today, I manage a department of about 30 engineers responsible for maintaining the technical design of a nuclear plant. I am the first woman to hold this position in our organisation. Among the leadership at our facility, there is only one other woman. She and I are two of roughly 30 female executives in our corporation of 8,500 employees.

My attitude hasn't changed much since nursery school. It mostly doesn't faze me to be in the minority, and I am proud of the choices that have led me to where I am today. I persisted through many crises of confidence as a student before realising that my male peers had these same crises of confidence, too; they just faked confidence while I was agonising over whether I could cut it as a nuclear engineer. Later on, I notice an increasing number of young women choosing to work in the nuclear power industry. I am, by default, a role model to these young women. Still, being "the one who's not like the others" makes for some awkward moments.

At a nuclear power plant there are things that MUST be done perfectly

As a newly minted engineer at a consulting firm, I recall my boss telling his employees that he expected us to dress professionally when we were meeting clients. For men, that means you wear a tie, he explained. For women, that means you wear... you wear... well, you wear "whatever a woman's equivalent of a tie might be". It was as sweet as it was silly. Acutely sensitive to the three women in his firm, I believe he wanted to choose his words carefully and not assume that we would wear dresses or skirts or fancy scarves.

Another time at a networking function, I noticed my colleagues introducing themselves, sharing their names and associations and shaking hands. A surprising number of new acquaintances were not shaking my hand. I later learned that some have been taught that it is poor etiquette for a man to shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first. I was taken aback, although I must admit that I really don't know anything about shaking hands except that my dad taught me to have a firm grip so that my hand doesn't feel like a dead fish.

After my daughter was born, I sat in a broom cupboard with my breast pump and my PalmPilot (this was 2003) in order to make the most out of those minutes so that I could leave on time to get to the day care. My daughter is almost in secondary school now, but I still can't really joke about that. My designated space felt undignified and I found it embarrassing; even more so than using a breast pump already feels. It is ironic, because my colleagues were caring and supportive of me as a new mother and would have gone out of their way to find a more suitable space for me, had they known. But none of them was in my situation, and, if they were (or had been), I never knew. In all likelihood, they probably didn't even notice that I quietly slipped away twice a day.

Working my way through the engineering ranks in the nuclear industry, I've struggled with how to balance it all. How am I supposed to be at work at 6am (that's oh-six-hundred in nuclear speak, and oh-dark-thirty in my lingo) when I got home late enough the night before that my children were already in bed? How am I supposed to be on call and ready to respond to an unexpected equipment issue, when I am also expected to drive a car-pool shift for one kid, get to football practice for the other, make dinner, scrounge together craft supplies for Silly Hat Day at school, clean house/laundry/kids/cats, monitor how long my son is playing video games when he should be doing homework, get the kids in to bed at a reasonable time, and find time to remind my husband that he has a wife, not a roommate? My male counterparts sympathised but also commented that they were glad that their wives took care of those things. There were many times that I thought to myself: maybe I need a wife!

Early in my career, I didn't want to draw attention to my domestic obligations. I was afraid that it might make me seem like I was distracted, less engaged, working half as hard, even though I knew in my heart that I was working just as hard and just as attentively as my male peers. In the past year or two, as I feel secure in my position, I have become much less hesitant. I informed my boss that I would be leaving every day at 4.45pm. I informed my boss's boss, and his boss as well. None of them had a concern. To my surprise, one of them even shared his own story about a time earlier in his career when he had had to leave work at a regular time to pick up his kids from day care, even though sometimes it meant returning later in the evening to meet his responsibilities. I thought I was baring my soul, only to realise that all those years, I had been stupidly stoic.

One key to making my life work is my husband. He works full time as a professor of electrical engineering and is happier to cook or to clean the house than I am. Things are not always done perfectly, but they do get done. We eat dinner together as a family nearly every evening, but sometimes that dinner is at 9pm because we attended two football practices and fit in a quick workout for mum first. I have many years of adorable school photos of my kids, and in half of them they are wearing outfits they picked out themselves. (My son fearlessly selected three different kinds of plaid in order to be "dressy", while one year my daughter chose a stylish selection of sequins, flowers, and stripes.) Over time, I realised that our particular rhythm created our family identity and instilled a sense of responsibility and character in our kids. It's a routine that we grew into, and now it fits us.

By contrast, at a nuclear power plant there are things that must be done perfectly. This is serious stuff, and there is no room for error. But my work is not going to fall to pieces because I choose to go home in time to drive the second shift of the choir car pool. It's my job to know when something at work is urgent or critical and requires me to drop everything and show up. But it's not only about me. It's also my job to make sure that there are enough safety nets in place so that the pressure on my team to perform flawlessly does not become overwhelming and unbearable.

Do you remember the next line to the song? "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong." Doesn't belong. I could have decided a long time ago that I, as a woman and a mother, do not belong in nuclear power. Instead, every morning I squeeze my people carrier in to the car park of my office in between the pickup trucks because I do belong in nuclear power. I do it because, as one of my friends commented when I shared a picture of the parking lot: "We need more people carriers!"

That's me, changing the face of nuclear power, one people carrier at a time.

Sarah Kovaleski is director of engineering design at a utility company in the mid-west of the United States. A version of this article has appeared on

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