WiN Global interviews Ruth Steel, President, North America for Thomas Thor


September 25, 2023

“When I attend industry events, I find the WiN events so compelling. Such great content and speakers; and I’ve had some of the best times socialising in nuclear at WiN events too – people love to get on the dancefloor at WiN in the US! I’ve met wonderful and thoughtful people, and not just women but male allies who are really trying to help make progress for women in this industry. I find that really progressive. I think WiN is a wonderful institution and I’m very proud to be part of it”.

Amparo Soler, an active member of the WiN Global Communications Committee, sat with Ruth Steel, President, North America for Thomas Thor, to talk about her career path and crucial insights on the global nuclear sector.  

  • Looking back, what part of your education or training has given you the greatest advantage in your career?

I think that is an interesting question. I initially trained as a high school teacher. I think that has given me an advantage because when you are a teacher, your job is to educate everybody in the class, no matter what their background is, no matter what they come to school with in terms of their prior education or working practices, or what the parents have done for them at home. It is your job to find something for everybody and to differentiate the content to accommodate different learning styles. I think that in any role where your job is to communicate with people, it can be difficult to find a balance and to make your message heard in a particular way, and, as a teacher, you have to listen to the children you teach to find out about them, to find out what will work for them, and then you have to think about how to adapt the material you are teaching so it lands for that child.

I find myself a lot, in leadership, working out how to adapt messaging to land with a certain audience; whether that is giving challenging feedback to somebody, how to adapt that feedback so as not to feel too critical to them, to land gently or to land in a way that is useful to them. Or perhaps you are delivering a whole company message – how to do that in a way that is going to touch each region nationally or globally in the appropriate way. 

It is a skill that I think you can really learn in an educational setting, and it is something I draw upon every day. It is something I take with me, and I think about it quite a lot. 

People come to work every day, and you are not sure what is happening in their personal life, what is happening at home. People show up differently every day for work, they have different things in their heads, they have different challenges that they are facing, and different phases in their careers, and I think it is important to bear that in mind in a leadership role; that work is part of somebody’s life, it is not someone’s whole life, so if you can find a way of thinking holistically about the people that you are working with rather than just thinking in a one-dimensional workplace setting, it can be a very useful tool in leadership. 

  • One woman I look up to told me when I was starting out that I should treat my network as a garden: that I should tend to it with great care. Since you were at university, have you noticed a change in how women treat their networks and networking in general?

That is a very interesting observation because I have noticed a big change in how women deal with networks, and I think it is because more women are networking now than ever before.

Certainly, when I network with women or when I see women networking successfully using tools and platforms like LinkedIn, Clubhouse etc, I think women are more adept at recognizing that networking is about a shared experience, so everybody needs to be getting something out of the transaction. I think women are more likely to assist another woman, they want to help you move your career forward. It does not necessarily need to be a career goal in mind or some sort of commercial goal in mind, it is actually for the benefit of networking, for the benefit of each other, so it is a much gentler approach. 

I have also noticed, there is a lot more women putting themselves out there in a very vocal and visible way, with great presence. I have a particular friend who is a wonderful social media networker, and she’s got such confidence with her posts, she posts very well thought-out content, so it is not posting for posting sake, it is really considered and engaging and I can tell that she puts a lot of time into collating her content to really speak to her audience. I think women are very thoughtful about that, I do not see many women posting on networking sites just to get themselves out there, it is much more thoughtful and well-measured content. Women do cultivate their networks carefully, choosing why they want to be there and are willing to give in order to get, I think that has changed a lot in the last five years even. 

When you see how much social media is used, in my field, especially in our executive search piece, there are a lot of women willing to help other women along in their careers by introducing them for roles or by suggesting that we speak to them, and that has changed a lot because there are more women in the field now to introduce each other so I do think that networking for women has improved dramatically and I am here for it. It is great to see. 

It is very encouraging when women do show up and do shout loudly. When you look at the comments underneath it is often other women that are celebrating that and really boosting that confidence. I really appreciate that. 

  • When it comes to nuclear energy, do you predict a revival of interest and investments in the near future?

In the United States, absolutely. I mean, you see all around the investment in a Net Zero Future, and I think the current government has, with the Infrastructure Act and with the Inflation Reduction Act, shown that they are committed to climate goals, and that nuclear is clearly part of that plan. So you would have to be hidden under a rock not to see that there is a huge amount of interest in different types of projects, whether it is investigating restarting previously decommissioned plants, improving, innovating or expanding the current plants, or in SMRs and advanced technologies. Advanced nuclear technology appears all over the United States and in Canada. We are seeing a number of companies contacting us for talent, companies that have had recent investment and want to increase the size of their workforce dramatically, and companies seeking nuclear talent who are perhaps not historically companies associated with nuclear; so all of the signs are there that there is investment revival in nuclear in the United States and in Canada, and that is very encouraging. 

  • Have you ever left the nuclear field and eventually come back to it? What has this experience taught you?

I didn’t start in the nuclear field. Actually, my career after I left teaching was very much in the financial sector, and through the financial sector, I also did work in the biotech sector and the hi-tech sector as well. Joining the nuclear field, with my experience, which is in talent and recruitment, I noticed many similarities from my time in the financial sector.

The similarities are that, in certain technical areas, there is a risk for companies requiring certain  talent because there are too few people coming out of school with the education and skills needed to fulfill those roles and too many companies that need these roles filled quickly, so there is an experience gap. 

What is unique about the nuclear sector, in comparison to the other sectors I worked in, is how many people in the field are in an age category that is much older than in other sectors, and it is a really interesting problem that the nuclear industry is facing. People who have had a very long career and still hold jobs with incredible importance, incredible seniority, who are at retirement age and are looking to retire but they don’t necessarily see the talent coming from beneath who have the skills, knowledge and experience to take over. So, that is very unique that I have never seen in other fields I worked in, and it is a challenging problem that a lot of companies are facing. 

I think nuclear has  something to learn from the financial sector because, if you think about how much change and disruption there has been in that sector with the departure from a more analog system to a more digital system, the change to online banking, for example, from paper banking, these are huge shifts that the financial sector had to go through in a relatively short space of time so the disruptive velocity has often been out of sync with the education and training of the workforce to support it. The nuclear field hasn’t had as much technological advancement until relatively recently and is having to respond to that advancement quite quickly, and because they are not used to doing that, there are some lessons to be learned from other sectors. That being said,  I see some really innovative ways that companies are attracting talent in the nuclear sector, and I think that ‘new nuclear’ advanced technologies are really luring people from university and from other sectors so it is a very exciting time to be part of the sector and I am very pleased to be part of it. 


  • What, if anything, would you change about your career path?

I worked for the same company for a very long time, and at some point, I ignored times when I knew it was not the right place for me. There were things that I saw and experienced that were not healthy or good for, certainly me, but for other women as well. It was a very male-dominated company with cultural aspects that today probably wouldn’t be acceptable. The company has gone through a lot of evolution, and it’s changed now, so I know it is very different from when I was there, but I stayed there, and I feel that I should have had more confidence in myself to walk away earlier. I certainly had opportunities to start my own business or move on to other companies, but I perhaps lacked confidence to step away. I always felt I needed to stay with the company in order to be successful. 

Had I had a network of women around me from outside of the organization who could have given me advice or the strength to step away, I think my career would be very different, and I wish I had that at that time. However, I did learn a lot from staying and experiencing some of the stuff I experienced because when I finally did step away, I was very clear about what I would or I wouldn’t tolerate in a new career or in a new job. Actually, I left with a whole toolset that I’ve accumulated through having bad experiences and I had a very solid communication toolset to navigate bad behavior in meetings: women being shouted down in meetings, women’s ideas not being listened to. I developed a very keen toolset of how to help other women in meetings be heard. Everybody has to be heard to get to the best ideas or decisions, and women are not always heard. Luckily it was through great networking and building self assurance through talking honestly with friends and other female colleagues, that I had the confidence to step out and move forward. Looking back, I feel I made the right choices at the time I was ready to make them.

I think the other thing that is always challenging is that I have two children and I had both of the children at some peak points in my career. I took time off but, as we know, in the United States, maternity leave is not as established as it is in Europe. When I had my son I lived in Europe and I had a longer maternity leave and when I moved to the States I had my daughter, and a quite short maternity leave. On reflection, if I could change something, I would have taken longer to feel better emotionally, mentally, and physically before returning to work because I do think that bringing your whole self to work is important but, at the same time, women are expected to do that sometimes a little bit too early and I think for me it was too early the second time. If I could go back, I would probably take a little longer to get myself together before going back to work.