Berkeley Lab

Women Scientists & Engineers Council Looks Ahead to New Workplace Initiatives

— By Theresa Duque

(top, l-r) Elizabeth Stuart, Daniela Ushizima, Ina Reichel, Soledad Toledano, (bottom, l-r) Amrita Bhattacharyya, Esther Singer, Alessandra Ciocio

When Alessandra Ciocio joined the Lab in the 1990s, she was one of a handful of female physicists in the Physics Division. She also happened to be a new mother, trying to find a balance between the very different yet rewarding challenges of raising a child and nurturing a scientific career.

“If you were on leave after giving birth but still trying to advance as a young female scientist, it was really hard,” Ciocio said. “We didn’t have Zoom meetings or video streaming at the time, so if there was a seminar you wanted to attend but were at home taking care of a newborn, you had to find a way to attend the meeting in person — even if it meant bringing your baby with you.”

Today, thanks to the Women Scientists & Engineers Council (WSEC), Lab employees can use the Bright Horizons Backup Care program if their regular child care provider cancels at the last minute. “It’s a great program,” said former WSEC Work-Life Balance Committee Co-chair Jill Fuss, a biophysicist in the Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging Division. “You can also use it for elder care. All you have to do is call the morning of for last-minute care.”

The backup care program is just one of several workplace improvements that the WSEC, a program of the Lab’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office, has helped to bring to fruition.

Since its founding in 2008 by Physics Division Director Natalie Roe, Nancy Brown of the Energy Technologies Area, and former Chief Human Resources and Diversity Officer Vera Potapenko, the organization has worked with Berkeley Lab’s Human Resources Department to make the Lab a more family-friendly place — through the addition of 19 lactation rooms with hospital-grade nursing pumps at the Lab and its off-site locations, the extension of bereavement leave from five days to 10, and disability parking for pregnant employees.

Making a difference for everyone

With this year marking its 10th anniversary, the WSEC — whose membership consists of appointees representing the Lab’s science, Engineering, and IT divisions, as well as volunteers from all around the Lab, including Operations, through the council’s Employee Resource Group component — is about to embark on a new set of initiatives, all for the sake of making the Lab an even better place to work for everyone.

“We have a lot of ideas that we’d like to see put into action, such as the creation of a formal process for ensuring that both men and women are represented in hiring committees, and that women’s voices are heard,” said IT’s Soledad Toledano, the new WSEC chair.

The council’s executive committee is comprised of Toledano and Empowerment Committee Co-chairs Esther Singer (Joint Genome Institute) and Daniela Ushizima (Computational Research Division); Networking Committee Co-chairs Amrita Bhattacharyya (Earth and Environmental Sciences Area) and Elizabeth Stuart (Energy Technologies Area); and Policy Committee Co-chairs Alessandra Ciocio (Physics Division) and Ina Reichel (Accelerator Technology and Applied Physics Division).

They’re currently working with HR to bring bystander intervention training — or training that empowers individuals to speak up if they witness someone being harassed, bullied, or silenced — to the Lab.

“Studies have shown that women are much more interrupted in meetings than men,” said Reichel, an ATAP senior scientific engineer associate. “This kind of training could help people become more sensitive to those types of situations, and give them the tools they need to do something about it and speak up.”

They’ve also been working with HR on improving communication about the Lab’s policy on maternity leave — which is called “Pregnancy Disability Leave” in the Requirements and Policies Manual — so that the policy is clearer and easy to understand for new hires who may not realize that they need to opt in for paid disability within a certain time frame to benefit from the Lab’s paid leaves-of-absence policies for maternity leave.

Also in the works is the next Women @ The Lab event scheduled for July 9 this year to recognize notable contributions by female employees to advance the Lab’s mission. “This event allows us to showcase some of the most accomplished women at the Lab,” said Singer, a JGI project scientist. “And because the award recognizes women across the scientific and Operations divisions in all career stages, from early career to midcareer to the senior level, these awardees serve as inspirational role models to many.”

The WSEC will also continue to offer monthly brown-bag events on “hot button topics” that, similar to last year’s popular sessions on working with difficult people and time management, would benefit anyone at the Lab, said Stuart, an ETA program manager who joined the council two years ago and has co-chaired the Networking Committee ever since. “We organize our events around raising awareness of issues around diversity — not just for women, but for all people. It’s important to give everyone equal opportunity to succeed at the Lab,” she said.

And for some people, like Alessandra Ciocio and former WSEC Chair Susan Tsutakawa, the council’s brown-bag workshops offer opportunities for extra guidance and support that they otherwise might not have had time to seek on their own.

“A while back, the WSEC organized a multiday training in the use of body language and voice projection to convey confidence and leadership. I saw people change overnight because of this training,” said Tsutakawa. “It’s amazing to see how women can be transformed when they’re in a nurturing environment. This is one of the reasons why I passionately believe in the WSEC.”

“At our brown-bag events, in addition to learning a new skill to advance your career, everyone has a chance to talk about their own experiences, much like what happens at a support group,” Ciocio added. “You don’t have to feel alone.”


HOW TO JOIN: Any Berkeley Lab employee can go here to join the WSEC Employee Resource Group as a volunteer, or contact the WSEC Executive Committee at