Diversity equals national security

People of diverse backgrounds and perspectives are essential to the success of Los Alamos National Laboratory

December 19, 2022

Diversity Message Opt

What do diversity and inclusion have to do with the United States’ ability to protect and defend itself? The answer is: a lot.

“Diversity isn’t just nice to have,” says Bob Webster, deputy director for Weapons at the Laboratory, which is charged with maintaining America’s nuclear weapons and other national security work. “Diversity provides a scientific and strategic advantage for the Laboratory. Working on nuclear weapons at Los Alamos has always required the best, brightest minds and the most creative people.”

Los Alamos employees represent a variety of ethnicities, backgrounds, and scientific disciplines. Women in nontraditional fields, people with disabilities, veterans, people of different sexual orientations, gender identities, interest groups, ages, countries of origin, and more all contribute to Los Alamos’ overall accomplishments and mission.

“Diversity is really important to this institution,” says Laboratory Director Thom Mason. “It’s embedded in our values.” Mason says the key to the Lab’s scientific achievements, and thus to national security, is maintaining a diverse workforce.

Katherine Haight leads diversity and inclusion initiatives as part of the Lab’s Office of Diversity and Strategic Staffing. “We are a premier research organization—not just nationally, but internationally—because we have so many different perspectives,” Haight says. “These diverse perspectives coming together in a collaborative environment is necessary to develop new science and expand our knowledge of national security issues.”

Demographics reflect growing diversity

Intentional hiring decisions reinforce the Lab’s commitment to building a diverse workforce. “We want people to be hired, promoted, and given opportunities based on their skills, and sometimes our unconscious biases can lead us away from that path,” Mason says. “Making generalizations about people based on their appearance or what we think we know about their background does not get us to our goal of having the best people working on the most important problems. There’s a lot that we can do to combat that, and it’s helpful to bring in different perspectives through things like search committees with diverse representation and scrutinizing the basis for our decisions.”

According to Haight, the Laboratory’s recent hiring surge has increased diversity and led to a positive change in overall demographics. As of July 2022, 32.5 percent of the staff identify as women, 49.1 percent of the staff come from an underrepresented ethnic group, 5.7 percent identify as disabled, and 6.2 percent of the employees are veterans.

Haight also says the COVID-19 pandemic helped boost diversity by changing managers’ opinions about remote work. “This new economy, where we have so many people who are able to work remotely, has increased our ability to bring in a more diverse workforce in some of those areas where the Laboratory has struggled with diversity in the past.”

Haight says the demographic breakdown of Los Alamos management represents a conscious decision. “Our Laboratory is really a premier example of how to promote some aspects of diversity. We have one of the most diverse executive management teams, particularly with regard to women, because there has been an effort to really promote women in research and development positions and in management.” During the past 10 years, the Lab has seen a significant change in the demographics in top positions, Haight says.

Haight adds that the Lab succeeds in recruiting underrepresented minorities, particularly Hispanic and Native American people, but could increase the number of Black and Asian employees. “Nearly 50 percent of our workforce is underrepresented minorities, which is driven largely by our location,” she says. “When you break it down, Los Alamos is really leading the way in recruiting, retaining, and promoting Hispanic people.”

Employee resource groups ensure inclusion

Statistically, Los Alamos is a diverse institution, but Laboratory leaders say that isn’t enough. “Our numbers are not sufficient,” says John Sarrao, deputy Laboratory director for Science, Technology, and Engineering. “To really succeed, we need to create an inclusive culture that allows everyone to articulate their perspective and be part of the conversation.”

That’s where the Laboratory’s 13 employee resource groups (ERGs) come in. “The work of the Laboratory’s ERGs is really essential,” says Sarrao, who champions the Laboratory’s Women’s Group. “It creates a venue to have those conversations to create community.”

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with our SOUL Employee Resource Group for our African American colleagues,” says Laboratory Staff Director Frances Chadwick. “This has been a huge learning experience for me and really increased my awareness of the unique perspective that that community brings.”

Commitment to diversity continues

Scientists and engineers from a variety of disciplines with differing backgrounds, viewpoints, and life experiences form the foundation of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s legacy. “Since its inception,  the Laboratory has relied on the contributions of people across a huge range of fields and backgrounds to enable our national security work,” Mason says.

Webster points out that many of the first scientists to arrive at the Lab in the 1940s during the Manhattan Project were originally foreign born. “We had scientists from all over the world who came to work and provided the success of the Trinity test, Little Boy, and Fat Man,” he says. “They were among our most gifted, our most enthusiastic, and our most patriotic laboratory members.”

The diversity seen during the Manhattan Project set the tone for the work that continues today at Los Alamos. “We have better ideas, we make better discoveries more quickly when we bring a variety of perspectives to the table,” Sarrao says. “We do that by having different voices in the room.”

That commitment to finding and encouraging diverse voices is an ongoing process. “We have to keep working to provide diversity and inclusion throughout our workplace,” Webster says. “By doing so, we honor our past and ensure our future.” 

This article was first published in the winter 2022 issue of the Laboratory’s National Security Science magazine, which includes a range of stories on diversity issues, including profiles of 36 employees from diverse backgrounds and a look at how Native communities enrich the Lab’s culture.