Ask Sciencewomen: how can we do more inclusive recruiting into US national labs?

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgI recently got an email from a colleague, Rebecca Hartman-Baker, who works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the National Center for Computational Sciences, and who would like some thoughts from you all on the following questions and context:

A colleague and I are holding a Birds of a Feather session (BoF) at the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing in April ( and I was wanting to solicit some input from the readers of ScienceWomen. The title of the BoF is "Developing, Recruiting, and Retaining Underrepresented Groups in the National Laboratory System."

The United States Department of Energy fosters scientific discovery and innovation, spawns science-driven technology revolutions, and ensures energy and nuclear security through its seventeen national laboratories. From a computation-centered standpoint, the national laboratories are the home of the world's most powerful supercomputers and the origin of many of the world's best known software packages.

Many positions at national laboratories have citizenship requirements, due to the sensitive nature of the work. There is a shortage of qualified American citizens for these positions, which generally require advanced degrees in technical fields such as computer science, computational science, or electrical engineering. In my experience searching for a job in the computational sciences, I was heavily recruited by Los Alamos National Laboratory, to perform work related to the modeling and upkeep of the nuclear stockpile. But even here at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL), where we do not work on stockpile stewardship, there are citizenship requirements for some sensitive positions; for example, only U.S. citizens can be system administrators on our big supercomputers.

Our applicant pool is as short on women and minority groups as any comparable pool, and the existing employee pool is also low on women and underrepresented minorities. If women and underrepresented minority groups entered the computing field at the same rate as non-minority men, there would not be such a shortage of qualified applicants, meaning that the recruitment of women and underrepresented minorities into technical fields of interest to national laboratories is a matter of national security. So, the question becomes, what can the national laboratories do to improve the situation? We actively recruit women and underrepresented minorities, but there are too few coming out of the educational pipeline. How can we help improve recruitment and retention along the educational pipeline before the students reach the point of eligibility for national laboratory positions?

And then, once we have recruited women and underrepresented minorities, how do we retain them? I can tell you from personal experience that it is hard being the "only", no matter how supportive your colleagues are. But, the labs are doing some things to promote retention. Here at ORNL, we have some mentorship programs just getting started. Myself, I have organized semi-regular informal lunch outings for the women in my directorate (one organizational level down from the entire lab -- maybe the equivalent of a College at a University), which has gotten a lot of positive feedback from the women who participate. So I guess the question here could be divided into a couple of parts: (1) What can the laboratory do, (2) what can women and minorities at the lab do, and (3) what can allies do to help retain minorities?

Good questions, all, and ones that many of us think about a lot. Share your thoughts with Rebecca in the comments below.


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My first thought...what about programs (summer internships, REUs, etc) aimed at undergraduate and graduate women and under-represented groups? Wouldn't they help expose the target groups to the national lab environment before they finish school and are heavily recruited? Maybe if you show students that the national labs can be a great place to work then more women and minorities will end up entering them after grad school.

I suppose you could also look outside the lab at the resources and culture of the community where the lab is located. Are Oak Ridge et al. the sort of places that are welcoming to professionals of diverse gender and ethnic backgrounds? Are there things you can do to make life outside the lab more supportive for women and minorities?

I would assume that retaining hired employees is much easier than keeping them in the education system until they're able to apply - that seems to be where most people will leave the field due to lack of support.

I would recommend reaching out to those currently at educational institutions (I'm not sure what you already offer, so I will just list some ideas here):

- giving career-based talks at universities/colleges so students can find out about opportunities
- offering summer studentships or internships
- having support/discussion groups, just as you do with your directorate
- offer a mentoring program
- host lab tours

I think having women, minorities and allies all take part in the recruitment/retainment process is essential.

I'm a BIG fan of an informal lunch outing group. I participate in one and it keeps us all sane. Big payoff for small investment of time and energy.

Similarly, allies can seek to create a friendly culture at work. Potlucks, picnics, card night, TacoBell runs, Krispy Kreme donut day, chili-cook-off contests, etc. create a group culture that regardless of background make work a fun place to be and helps to break down bariers. It doesn't have to be fancy - just make sure it's inclusive. Nobody wants to be the lone chick at the guy's poker game. Well - at least I don't.

At an administrative level, ORNL might want to look to some other similar gov't orgs that are having more success in this area. I know NASA Goddard has a lot of women at all levels of responsibility and a number of family friendly policies.

Some things are obvious: flex-time, two-body career help, a high quality on-site daycare, a well-publicized maternity/paternity leave policy that employees are encouraged to take advantage of. Sponsor girls camps for high school students. Mentor undergraduate girls in summer internships. Make these kinds of outreach activities part of people's work plan (so they aren't overloaded). A culture that doesn't encourage 80 hour a week work. Most of these things need to come down from leadership.

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 10 Feb 2009 #permalink

I have the perception that national labs are doing better with respect to promoting diversity than academia. The things Female Engineering Professor mentioned such as on-site daycare and cultural activities sponsored by the lab are being advertized by some of the national labs. Maybe it's just because they have better promotional people, but as a soon-to-graduate PhD student, I am under the impression that working at a national lab is some sort of utopia which is very supportive of work-life balance issues, at least as compared with academic positions. Of course, academia is doing a horrible job in many areas, and I think that national labs SHOULD be doing a lot better.
I recently visited a national lab and was impressed at the amount of women, although I think they had me meet with some who were not exactly in the same field. The lab seemed about as racially diverse as the pool of graduate students here, if you were to consider only the US citizens, which is to say it was not particularly racially diverse. I have the impression that industry is more diverse and supportive, but industry definitely has better advertizing.
The one suggestion I have, if anyone's listening, is for more REU-type activities for the summer between undergrad and grad school. Samia at 49 percent was just saying she is looking for these types of programs. I couldn't find one, so I took the summer off that year. For me, it was great because I got married, volunteered, moved twice, and learned to cook cheaply that summer. Many people have to take some relatively crappy job over that summer, though, because they can't afford not to work or don't want to waste a whole summer. I can understand there's less interest for REUs at universities for the already graduated (since the university knows it won't be persuading those people to go to grad school there), but national labs could really fill that gap.

I should also mention, if we're interested in Oak Ridge specifically, I have the perception that they are less on top of these issues than, say, Sandia. I wonder if I went to an "info session" about Sandia once and got the favorable impression I have of them, or if it's because I know more people there. I haven't visited either, though, so it's strange that I have such different perceptions of them. The point is, marketing is important because, while I would certainly investigate these issues thoroughly before accepting a job at any of these places, I am sure that these perceptions have made subtle differences in terms of how seriously I've considered applying for jobs at various places.

I worked at a National Lab for 7 or so years (first as a postdoc, and then as staff). My division was SUBSTANTIALLY more diverse then the lab norm both racially and with regard to gender. In fact, at an awards dinner we attended, Mr. Doh told me "wow--the rest of the lab is a lot older, maler, and whiter than your group."

The main difference was in division management. Our division head made diversity a priority. He specifically sought out talented underrepresented scientists for recruiting at conferences. Having a core of women and visible minorities around and working made it successively easier to recruit more. In addition, our division participated in a summer REU program that targeted minority-serving institutions. This was available to the whole lab, but not every division took part. Some of these students returned as technicians and lab personnel. One even stayed and got advanced degrees paid for while working at the lab.

Once minority and female scientists arrived at the lab, our division head made sure that they had opportunities for advancement. By the time I left, half of upper management was female, and one third was a member of a visually obvious minority group. In my experience, changes come from the attitudes of those at the top. Just the fact that you are concerned about these issues is a start. Once a small core of underrepresented individuals is in place, recruitment becomes even easier.

I was a (female, not racial minority) intern in the SULI program at ORNL a few years ago. While I loved the environment and, as a grad student, am still very interested in working at a national lab someday, I can't say that I got a firm grasp of the career paths available at Oak Ridge and associated experience/degree requirements while I was there. My SULI peers were a very diverse group, and for the most part we were still exploring different areas of science. Many of us who were not doing computational work at Oak Ridge probably could have switched to that area for grad school without too much trouble.

In other circumstances, I've found panels of 3-4 people discussing their career paths and what their current jobs are like to be extremely helpful in envisioning my future. Maybe you could get a spectrum of current employees to talk to a group of SULI students (or similar groups). And maybe those individuals could make themselves available to give tours of their work environment and have private conversations with especially interested students. I don't think most interns' mentors would not have a problem with them disappearing for an afternoon for that purpose.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 10 Feb 2009 #permalink

I'd especially like to see three things:
The availability of part-time work. This seems to be rare in the sciences in tenured positions. But I for one would like to move in that direction.

Opportunity. At the university where I am, I notice that female students and postdocs are offered far fewer opportunities - not just for advancement, but for building up a great base of experience. Not necessarily linked to "women in science", just great opportunities.

Effective mentoring. As an undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate, I had no idea how good I was and had no idea what was possible in terms of opportunities and employment. Many women and minority people are self-effacing and may need some mentoring to see the possibilities, and to get support to continue when things get tough.

anon makes a good general point. I try to remember how much a bit of encouragement meant to me as an undergrad. Every fall I try to make a conscious effort to encourage one or two of my outstanding female students to consider graduate school.

I was also ruminating over the idea of allies as I did the dishes. My first ally at my current job was a wife of one of my new colleages. Yes, she worked part-time in a non-technical field, she had kids, and she was a bit older than me. On paper we didn't have much in common, but she was such a good ally. She invited my spouse and I to social functions at her house with the other younger faculty. She convinced her tenure-track husband to watch the kids for a bit one day a week so she could walk around campus with me. She took me to the hospital when I had my second miscarriage.

Sometimes what you need when you are the only one like you in a new place is a friend. I know Alice has commented a couple of times on this blog that she missed having friends IRL. That's why I think making efforts to create a sense of community in a group/lab/department is a good way to start plugging the leaky pipeline.

One barrier to recruitment is difficulty navigating the employment process. Unless you know exactly what keywords to use in your online application, you will not make it past the initial automated screen to be seen by a live person. Mentoring in navigating just that step in the process could greatly help with actual hires.

How about starting with fixing the ORNL jobs website? It is very difficult (impossible at least for me) to view description of jobs posted there even with pop-ups and java enabled and acrobat reader installed. And I am not the only one among my fellow postdocs (two of us female) who is unable to make it work. As for the functionality, the ORNL recruiting website is one of the worst out there. This makes it difficult to apply to ORNL unless you can find about the available jobs some other way. Also, that makes us look for the job opportunities elsewhere...

All great points! the solutions are not as easy. The number of females and under-represented minorities in undergraduate science programs across the US is significantly higher than at the graduate level, where the number decreases, and an even more dramatic drop at the PhD level. US citizens is an equally disparate number at the higher degree and LANL often requires US citizenship for most positions. As a recruiter for Los Alamos National Laboratory (Computational Sciences), I see it as part of my job to seek out and recruit students at all levels who are under-represented at Los Alamos. There are several initiatives currently underway at LANL to try to address these issues of under-representation of protected groups. One is recruiting, and then tracking student candidates who apply to our internship programs to determine ethnicity and gender and then have active champions (technical staff and managers) to really try to place those identified and qualified student applicants into meaningful mentored internships. Targeting upper management with qualified resumes of diverse candidates is key. I have found the applicants that have a champion who places the resume in front of a mentor/hiring official has a much higher chance of selection into a student internship. LANL student intern statistics indicate that we are not under-represented in minorities or females at the undergraduate level, but we are under-represented in females at the graduate level and PostDoc level. Its very targeted efforts and champions that will make a difference in the attraction of female and minority candidates. Retention is another topic all together - but related. I believe the internship experience, PostDoc experience and ultimately the ability to move up in the organization has to all work in sync and be important to the organization as a whole. With LANL's hiring at a lower level than in past years, retention of the top female PostDocs and students in our student pipeline is challenging to say the least. But we are converting PostDocs and students into those coveted openings.