Miranda Kirschel – empowering women in the industry

Miranda Kirschel MBE

Miranda is a well-known face in the nuclear industry. She has worked for the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) as well as several companies in the sector in communications and business development roles. Currently, she is Energy Advisory at EY.

In the last few years, she has come to prominence for the promotion of the role of women in the industry as the Chair of the UK branch of Women in Nuclear (WiN) for which she was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List.

We meet at Miranda’s flat a short walk from her office by Tower Bridge. We have known each other for thirteen years since we worked together at the NIA and so it doesn’t seem unusual that I first help her take delivery of a new chair and help her unwrap it before we start the interview.

Like many people, Miranda’s entry into the nuclear industry was not planned but she is keen to share her story as it illustrates the opportunities that the industry presents, which is a strong focus for WiN.

“I studied politics and then I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a career and so I temped for a while as a PA to explore my options and try different companies.” Miranda tells me. “One of the companies I temped with was the Nuclear Industry Association. When my temping contract ended, I was offered a permanent position.”

“I was happy to take the role of PA to the Chairman and Chief Executive but I wanted to develop in other areas too and so, they sponsored me for a journalism course and I started supporting the Media Manager. When politicians decided they wanted to start an All Party Parliamentary Group on nuclear energy with administrative support from the NIA, I was asked to take this on by the Chief Executive due to my politics background.”

Despite having studied politics academically, this was her first experience of interacting with politicians directly.” As she told Nuclear Matters, “Personally, I had no idea how to talk to parliamentarians or how to set up an All Party Parliamentary Group. I needed to understand what they were and how they worked. I had to work that out as I went along. I quickly realised they are just normal human beings and you just talk to them like you do with anyone else.”

She sees her route into the industry as something that WiN should highlight as too often in the past women have felt there were no opportunities for them to build a career within the industry. “We need to recognise both, the career development barriers and the perceived glass ceiling that women face in the industry. I want, particularly in recognition of my MBE, to highlight the fact that a woman can break the glass ceiling. You can start out as a secretary, or PA, or any other role and work your way into a career you may never have even dreamt of.”

Looking back over her time with the NIA, she regards her role in changing the nature of the Energy Choices conferences (now #Nuclear) from events where industry only spoke to industry, to ones that engaged more widely with the debate about nuclear outside the industry as the highlight of her career there.

“I arranged for Patrick Moore the environmentalist and founder of Greenpeace to speak at the conference alongside a representative of Friends of the Earth. Patrick had decided that nuclear was something that was needed to combat climate change, so we flew him over from Canada. Our aim was to demonstrate to some of the environmental groups that we were all trying to achieve the same thing in combating climate change and ensuring security of energy supply with affordable energy.

“For me, it was something I dreamed up and I felt like I was playing some small role in taking the debate forward. If you look at where many environmentalists have got to now, it is that very place. There are so many in the UK who back then were very anti-nuclear but now have completely turned their view around.”

After 7 years at the NIA and several promotions, Miranda moved to CH2MHill; as they were considering bidding for the Sellafield parent body organisation (PBO) contract, they needed someone who knew the UK industry well and had good relations with the unions, both of which Miranda had developed at the NIA. This prompted another change in direction for her career as she moved from government relations towards business development.

“Originally, they brought me in to do communications and stakeholder engagement, which, was very much about government relations and trade unions, so very close to what I had been doing at NIA”. Miranda says. “However after working on that bid, we all agreed that I was better placed to do a sales or business development role and that my capability and skills in developing relationships with potential clients and other stakeholders was going to be useful in that area.”

After nearly 5 years with CH2MHill, Miranda spent 4 years with Atkins in a similar business development role and she now works at EY’s Energy Advisory team. Reflecting on her current work Miranda says: “My role at the moment directly follows on from work I did at Atkins. I am working on a study on small modular reactors commissioned by DECC, on which we are working with Atkins, looking at the entire landscape of SMRs and whether they can play a role in our future energy mix.”

“Alongside that, I continue to carry out my other business development roles and help to position EY in the industry as one of the leading consultancies in the UK. However I now combine business development and delivery roles. We almost don’t see it as business development or sales; we see it as going out there and finding solutions to problems we can help clients with and delivering those solutions. It brings an entirely different perspective and approach to the whole thing.”

Miranda addresses the 2016 WiN Conference
Miranda addresses the 2016 WiN Conference

Alongside her day job, for the last two years, Miranda has helped to establish and run the UK branch of Women in Nuclear (WiN). She explains to Nuclear Matters how WiN UK came to be set up, “There were two things happening alongside each other. First, when I was at NIA I watched the opinion polls carried out year on year on public acceptability of nuclear and I was really surprised, and I guess concerned, about the difference between men and women. There was a massive difference and I realised when I went to an NIA conference a couple of years ago that nothing had changed.”

“It amazed me because at NIA we did so much work on communications, we engaged with many different people at different levels. I had taken part in debates in parliament with the Young Fabians, the Young Labour and Conservative Future; I had done debates in schools and with Greenpeace.

“But nothing shifted in terms of the differences in opinion between men and women. In my mind this was because there isn’t an image that women can relate to when they look at the industry, but it raises concerns about what it means to them and their families. We had done some studies that showed what the particular issues were, and it bothered me things had not moved on in terms of women’s perception, even though they had in terms of the thinking of men.

“So I started thinking that we needed to do more engagement as an industry with women to, at least, have the discussion. It’s not about forcing a view on somebody, not at all, but about helping people to be more informed, educating, providing the information and then letting them decide for themselves.

“At the same time Becca Holyhead of PWC was looking with interest at the gender balance issue. There was a concern about the skills gap generally, and much work has gone into trying to address this with government and the National Skills Academy for Nuclear, but the gender gap remained. To Becca I think it was a no-brainer that if you encouraged more women into the industry then you are immediately starting to make a big difference to bridging that skills gap so, as we had both talked independently to NIA about this, they and the Nuclear Institute brought us together and asked us to set up a Women in Nuclear organisation.

“I was aware that people had tried and failed before to set up Women in Nuclear UK because of scepticism from women in the industry about the kind of organisation it would be. Particularly around not wanting any particular favours and feeling that to be on a level playing field they needed to be treated as equals.”

“Once I then met Becca we agreed that it felt like the view from women in the industry had moved on a bit. In all of the discussions we had we came to the conclusion that this could be a good thing as long as we made sure that we weren’t trying to create a ghetto for women. We also wanted to make sure we were not duplicating the efforts of all the other organisations working on these issues.”

“We set a number of criteria. We wanted to make sure that men were allowed into the group for example. So with these in place we became co-chairs and it took off from there. “

The organisation has gone from strength to strength from then, and now has over 1,000 members and its second annual conference was earlier this month. They have set their three major objectives for this year: attraction, retention and dialogue. Much of this is through Miranda’s clear drive to see through their strategy. Explaining what WiN are trying to achieve, Miranda says, “In terms of retention we are reinstating a women’s mentoring scheme, MentorSET, with the Women’s Engineering Society, sponsored by DECC. MentorSET was a very successful mentoring programme which unfortunately lost its funding. DECC encouraged Women in Nuclear to help the scheme to relaunch. They are very supportive of mentoring, and for women in particular. We have been working with DECC and WES to prepare a sponsorship programme creating a sustainable funding stream in order to relaunch as a discrete nuclear part within a broader engineering mentoring scheme. It’s a big exciting thing for this year. We will be going out to industry offering the package to companies and obviously seeking support to take this through for the next three years but obviously ultimately in the longer term.”

This programme also dovetails well with the Industry Charter, which WiN launched last year. The charter aims to prompt companies to recognise the issues the industry has with gender imbalance and take steps to address it. As Miranda told us, “We’ve got some great signatories on board and we are trying to encourage more companies to sign up. Beyond that, we also want to give them the toolkit that includes best practice advice from a number of experts and organisations in terms of policies, tools and initiatives which can help them to achieve the charter’s objectives. We are designing a self-help guide for individuals to provide them with the information, the best practice, and the contacts that they can access if they need any help in either personal issues or development, as well as HR policies they need any help with.”

Miranda with Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom. Increasing the number of Women in the industry is also a Government priority.
Miranda with Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom. Increasing the number of Women in the industry is also a Government priority.

Miranda’s work to promote gender equality in the industry has now been officially recognised with her award of an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list. She seems surprised when I tell her that the news item on the award is the most read article ever on Nuclear Matters.

“I consider it to be a great success for Women in Nuclear because it’s a recognition of the fact that WiN UK has been successful. Particularly, as I understand it, part of the nomination is recognising that WiN has achieved so much in so short a time.”

With such a high level job and helping to drive forward an organisation like WiN outside of that, it’s hard to imagine that Miranda has time for anything else. But this is far from true, in fact she manages to combine her work in the industry with a wide range of different activities.

“I seem to also somehow find time to have hobbies”, she tells me. “I really believe in tapping into your creative side by doing different things, having a diverse life. I recently started an aerial circus course; I am now starting level 2 of flying trapeze. I do a little bit of running and last year I did a bit of scuba diving. I’m about to start yoga teacher training. Occasionally when I have time and the headspace, I do some painting and artwork. I really like to do lots of things and I’ll turn my hand to something different every year.

“There are so many things out there that you can do in life. I really believe in a work life balance even if both of them are very busy. I think that allows the mind to be creative and to enable you to try different things and to have that desire to have entrepreneurship and explore new opportunities. I think it gives you the energy to do it as well. “