We’re happy to kick off our series to celebrate the accomplished and visionary women working at UNVIE with our Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Leslie Hayden. Leslie answers questions about her work, what inspired her to take up this career path, and why it’s important to promote gender equality in government and in STEAM.
Describe your job / what you do?
I am the Counselor for Nuclear affairs at the U.S. Mission to the International Organizations in Vienna. I manage the Mission’s largest section, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Section, which handles all U.S. Government business with the IAEA, including safeguarding nuclear material and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Currently, we are between Ambassadors, so I am the Acting Deputy Chief of Mission.
How did you decide on this career path?
When I was in high school I had a very dynamic teacher who was a Russian emigre. He taught an elective course on Russian history. I found the rich culture and history of Russia fascinating, especially in the context of the final days of the Soviet Union. When I started my studies at University I decided to study both International Relations and the Russian language. I also took an honors course on nuclear weapons and nuclear defense. It was an enduring interest in these fields that led me to the Foreign Service.
What is it like being a woman working in a STEAM field?
Although there are more and more women working in STEAM fields, these professions are still dominated by men. A women’s perspective is very important and can bring creative and innovative solutions to the table to tackle some of the world’s most intractable and dangerous issues. I have had both good and bad experiences working in STEAM, but for the most part, my career has been interesting and positive. The growing network of women in STEAM fields, such as Atomic Women, is an encouraging trend and give women a network of support.
Why is it important that women work in STEAM fields?
The same reason it is that women be represented in all fields — the perspective they bring to the table. There is no doubt that at times women struggle to be heard in these professions. However, the more we encourage young women who are interested in STEAM fields to pursue careers in these areas, the more creativity and ideas will be available to solve some of the world’s most intractable issues.
How does the work you do help UN member states and improve the lives of people around the world?
Though many often focus on the nuclear weapons and nonproliferation side of the work I do, it is the peaceful uses of the atom that most improves quality of life for everyone around the world. Through peaceful nuclear applications, the U.S. is funding the IAEA’s work on cancer treatments in developing countries, testing for COVID-19, mitigating climate change by pursuing safe, nuclear energy, fighting insect-born diseases, and preventing ocean acidification – and many other peaceful applications. This is the vision President Eisenhower spoke of when he gave his Atoms for Peace speech that was the catalyst for forming the IAEA.
What is the United States doing to promote gender equality in government and in STEAM?
The United States contributes funding to the IAEA’s Marie Sklodowska Curie fellowship program that was founded by IAEA Director General Grossi to promote fellowships for young women interested in pursuing careers in STEAM. In addition, our Charge d’Affaires a.i., Louis Bono, is an International Gender Champion, promoting the equality of women in STEAM professions, including in the United States. As for promoting gender equality in government, I am encouraged to see a renewed focus on the representation of women and minorities in leadership roles by the U.S. Government. This is reflected in our foreign policy as well, as we recognize how much communities benefit when women have equal access to education and economic opportunities.
How does your work further U.S. interests?
In addition to preventing the proliferation of radioactive material that could fall into the hands of terrorists and ensuring that nuclear energy is safe, there are many ways my current work furthers the interests of U.S. citizens. For example, I am proud to be from the state of California. My great grandparents were ranchers and farmers in Central California. When I was growing up, the threat of the fruit fly to California crops was a consistent problem; millions if not billions of dollars worth of crops could be lost from periodic fruit fly infestations. The IAEA’s development of the Sterile Insect Technique has greatly mitigated this threat, without using dangerous pesticides. This same technique is also being tested in Florida to prevent infection of the Zika virus and dengue fever from mosquitos. The economic benefits to American farmers and others from this important science is enormous.
In addition, the IAEA’s work on Small Nuclear Reactors, of which the U.S. is currently a design leader, offers an opportunity not only for clean, carbon-free energy, but also a technological edge for U.S. industry and the possible development of a new U.S. manufacturing sector that could create new jobs for the United States in an emerging field. I am proud to be a part of this valuable work that contributes to improving the health and welfare of American Citizens.