Berkeley Lab

Lab Director Holds Diversity and Inclusion Retreat for Lab Leaders


Vera Potapenko (left) and Natalie Roe co-lead the Diversity & Inclusion Initiative.

Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos held a day-long retreat last month for the lab’s division directors and associate lab directors to strategize several proposals and approaches for the Lab’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative. The Initiative seeks to build a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture so as to attract and retain top talent for pursuing the Lab’s mission.

“We were very pleased that so many division directors took time out of their busy schedules to participate; it demonstrates the importance of this topic for the Lab’s future growth,” said Physics Division Director Natalie Roe, who is also one of the co-leads of the Diversity and Inclusion Initiative. “We spent time brainstorming how to take this Initiative to the next level in the coming year.”

The morning started with two invited speakers. The first was Janet Malley from the University of Michigan, who described a 10-year program, which continues to this day, to improve diversity in science and engineering at the school. Funded initially by an NSF grant, the program, known as ADVANCE, began by looking at recruitment, retention and promotion, climate, and leadership development.

Some of the policy changes adopted include: regular analyses of salary equity, regular reporting on faculty diversity, required unconscious bias training for anyone serving on a hiring committee, and expanded family-friendly policies. Malley reported that after five years, the program yielded few tangible results, but after 10 years, all groups of people (male and female, white and minority) saw considerable changes.

She also described a study undertaken to figure out why some departments changed substantially while others changed very little. After interviewing 59 faculty members from 20 STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) departments, the researchers found that groups that changed substantially shared certain attributes. Namely, they openly recognized serious problems, expressed shame about past circumstances, had strong leadership by the department chair, and were proactive about pursuing diversity goals.

Departments with little change emphasized the difficulty of change and pointed to external factors in their field as limiting the possibility of change.

The second speaker was Caroline Simard, the research director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, who spoke about unconscious bias. She defined “bias” as “an error in thinking,” often shaped by stereotypes, and something that can be reduced or eliminated. Biases start early. Simard cited studies showing that, when asked to draw a picture of a scientist, 73 percent of third- to fifth- graders will draw a male scientist, whereas only 58 percent of K to second-graders will.

She also cited studies showing that women are judged differently in the workplace. For example, they are subject to a “likeability-competence trade-off,” are more likely to be evaluated on their personality rather than on their accomplishments in performance evaluations, and their letters of recommendation are more likely to be shorter, include references to their personal life, emphasize teaching over research, and use fewer standout adjective such as “outstanding” and “excellent.”

“Many people found Caroline’s presentation quite eye-opening, and I have received a number of requests for her slides and videos, so I hope to bring her back to the Lab,” said Vera Potapenko, Berkeley Lab’s Chief Human Resources and Diversity Officer. “But in the meantime, I recommend people watch the video, which is very similar.”

The 25-minute video, in which Stanford Professor Shelley Correll explains how errors in judgment and evaluation contribute to a gap in opportunities for women, can be found here.

In the afternoon portion, retreat participants divided into groups to formulate strategies and priorities of the Diversity and Inclusion Initiative. Proposals are being finalized and will be announced soon.

“There was great energy in the room during the entire retreat,” Potapenko said. “The deep level of engagement from all the participants is a sign of good things to come.”

-by Julie Chao