I 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 (http://tapiaconference.org/2009/) 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.