Berkeley Lab

Genomics Division’s Diversity Retreat Seeks to Overcome Implicit Bias, Raise Awareness

The Genomics Division has already achieved one major culture shift: safety has become a deeply embedded value. Repeated training and awareness-raising have slashed the injury rate within just a few years. Now director Eddy Rubin hopes to achieve a similar shift with regard to the division’s diversity and inclusion culture.

To that end, the division held a half-day retreat recently for supervisors and managers on how to achieve a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

“The idea is to educate all the hiring managers in the Genomics Division about issues of unconscious biases and processes that we might put in place to mitigate them,” Rubin said. “We want to educate the group about how a diverse workforce will improve our scientific productivity and how we all have natural biases that may be preventing this from happening.”


Caroline Simard, research director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research (Photos by David Gilbert)

About 50 supervisors from Genomics and the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) gathered earlier this month at the retreat for talks and discussions on implicit biases, what an inclusive workplace looks like, how to implement processes in recruiting and hiring to promote diversity, and diversity outreach opportunities. The featured speaker was Caroline Simard, research director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

Simard is an expert in gender and organizational change and previously worked at Stanford’s School of Medicine, implementing innovative evidence-based programs for increasing work-life integration to increase faculty satisfaction and retention. She also spoke last fall at the Lab director’s retreat on diversity and inclusion, where her presentation on implicit bias generated much positive feedback.

“She gave a very impressive data-rich analysis of biases we all carry,” Rubin said. “I think the data were useful to get a group of scientists motivated to try to overcome them.”

Simard opened with an overview of why diversity is important. “The research shows diversity is critical to innovation, especially when a problem is difficult to solve,” she said. “So you should think of diversity as part of your innovation strategy.”

She also explained why the “paradox of meritocracy” makes it more difficult to address implicit bias in certain workplaces—especially scientific research institutions and the technology sector. “In scientific workplaces, science is founded on meritocratic principles, the idea that the best idea will be recognized, will be published,” she said. “The paradox of meritocracy is, when you frame a workplace as a meritocracy you’re less likely to have it.”

After citing numerous studies showing how implicit biases creep into the scientific workplace— in the interview process where men are rewarded for tooting their own horn but women suffer a “likeability penalty” for doing the same, in performance evaluations where women are more likely to be evaluated on their personality rather than their accomplishments, on the job itself where women and minorities bear a disproportionate share of the “corporate housework”—she offered a number of organizational solutions.


Massie Ballon, the JGI/Genomics representative to the Lab’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, spoke on demographics and outreach mechanisms.

Other speakers included Bill Cannan, the HR recruiter, on strategies for improving retention and ensuring candidate pools and search committees are as diverse as possible; JGI Deputy Director Jim Bristow on how to create a more inclusive culture at JGI; researcher Susannah Tringe on other diversity opportunities, such as committee appointments and conference speakers; Massie Ballon, the JGI/Genomics representative to the Lab’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, on demographics and outreach mechanisms; and researcher Axel Visel on the newest JGI diversity initiative with UC Merced and the California Alliance for Minority Participation in STEM (CAMP) to tap into the diverse pool of graduate and undergraduate students at UC Merced for summer internships at the JGI.

Employees were also encouraged to share personal vignettes. Visel, who is in charge of user programs and strategic planning, described a situation where a female postdoc was giving a scientific presentation and he was trying to manage the questions—but didn’t realize that what he thought was supportive was viewed by others as demonstrating a lack of faith in the postdoc’s abilities. “I thought everything was going well,” he said. “Then I got a text message from another female team member in the room. It said, ‘Stop interrupting her.’”

He continued: “Only then I realized that by not taking into account differences in communication patterns I prevented her from contributing valuable points to our discussion. Such differences can be related to gender, as well as the cultural background of team members. This experience taught me that it’s worth making an effort to become aware of and embrace these differences. It creates a setting where all team members feel included and, at the same time, increases the quality of the work of the entire team because a more diverse set of perspectives is considered.”

Tringe recounted a conference she helped organize a few years ago where they tried to make sure the speakers were diverse in terms of topic and institution but neglected to look at gender. The result: only one non-JGI woman was invited to speak. Following that realization, JGI conference committees started to look at the gender mix of speakers, and the percentage of women speakers increased considerably. “It’s not that we were lacking female scientists, we just weren’t thinking about it,” Tringe said.

The retreat was a first step in Rubin’s quest for a wholesale culture change. “Similar to the culture we now have with regard to safety, our goal is to develop a diversity and inclusion culture that is not just in the workplace but carries over into other parts of people’s lives and impacts the way they view the world,” he said.


—Julie Chao