Berkeley Lab

A Message from Lab Director Paul Alivisatos on Inclusiveness

Recently I read a column in the New York Times that really caught my eye. Speaking While Female, written by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, talked about why women “stay quiet” at work. It described how women are “interrupted or shot down before finishing their pitch,” usually by male colleagues, and as a result “women often decide that saying less is more.”

Cartoons on Sex, Sexism, Relationships and Family from PunchI believe there is an important truth in this article that we can all learn from. Social science research has shown that women and underrepresented minorities are perceived as having less social influence in the workplace and are less likely to get credit for their ideas. A researcher from Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research spoke about this at our recent division director’s diversity retreat and showed a cartoon that captured this phenomenon.

Berkeley Lab is home to several thousand leading scientists and engineers, and a talented operations team to support our research mission. This is some of the world’s most fertile ground for new ideas to flourish—not because of our many achievements over the years, but because of the people who are here today.

A vibrant scientific community requires vigorous exchange and debate of ideas. But we are not reaching our full potential because we aren’t good enough as managers and colleagues about listening to each other, or making sure that all ideas—particularly those put forward by female and minority voices—are heard.

I know this is true. It is evidenced in the data we have, in my personal experience at the Lab every day, and by what women and minorities around the Lab tell me. I read employee climate surveys that show we need to do better at including people; I see safety incident analyses that identify a fear or inability to speak up as contributing to accidents and near-misses, and participate in meetings where I observe a few men monopolizing the conversation to the detriment of science.

Berkeley Lab is a wonderful place to work, and people relocate from all around the country and the world to be part of this very elite team. But we could be doing more science—better science—and working more safely if we were a more inclusive community.

I am asking every person at Berkeley Lab to be a leader on this issue. Please read Speaking While Female and think about how you can contribute to a more inclusive workplace. If you are in a meeting, make sure that everyone is given the opportunity to speak—and give them time to finish their answer. If you have been shut out of workplace conversations in the past, please try again!

If we work together to create opportunities for more inclusive discussion of ideas—Berkeley Lab is in the knowledge creation business after all—we will be far better at what we do and will enjoy a more exciting place to work.


  1. Today’s article in TABL brought me to this website and your article. No matter what folks may decide about the causes of non-participation/exclusion, I hope that this article of yours will bring about some worthwhile conversations directed at changing Lab culture.

    Thank you for your leadership, Dr. Alivisatos.

    Amy Ukena

  2. Another great article in the NY Times appeared in the Sunday Jan 16th Review Section titled “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others”. It also emphasized the importance of diversity.

    • Maya Angelou:
      “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”

      Maya, I am no so worried about young people. I believe they have gotten the message. I am concerned with my generation, the generation that holds many of keys at this moment in time. When I read these articles, like the NYT one, I also read the banter after. People almost invariably get involved in a political-philosophical debate. It ignores the very real and practical realities about gender, cultural, and vocational bias.

      One can spend their energy on academic arguments about whether or not bias exists, or if they have it. But the fact is that we all do, and we only just have to recognize that and decide if we are going to make ourselves better people, if we are going to choose to do something about it.

      At the Lab, we are in one of many privileged technical, financial, etc., fields, professionally and academically. We all have some power, to a lesser or greater extent, to effect some kind of change by our actions at work, or involvement in communities of our choice.

      Thank you, Paul.

  3. We don’t need inclusion if we just stopped excluding.

    So we need to identify existing exclusion mechanisms (which I find very hard) and remove them.


  4. Many years ago there was a study that showed that when a group of people solve a problem the most creative member of the group was usually the first one to come up with a solution, yet that person would be ignored. Later the most “intelligent” member of the group would suggest the same solution and it would be accepted by the group. I learned this in my Deviant Psychology class in college. This issue is more complicated that male/female/minority.

    • This is true, being inclusive (or exclusive) goes beyond social, gender and racial differences.

      • I couldn’t agree with both Deborah & Richard more. The worst part is the response you’ll get when you ask someone to let you finish what you were trying to say.

    • So true. Everything is very complicated. Let’s still try and start with the obvious.

      In a professional environment, especially in a scientific environment we have to try not judge by the gender or color of the shirt but by what the wether things make sense or are well argued.