by Virginia Greco. Published: 27 February 2018

We talked with Soren Sorensen, Chair of the ALICE Diversity Task Force, about the results of the study on diversity and inclusion in the ALICE Collaboration they have conducted.

At the last ALICE Collaboration Board Meeting in November 2017, the ALICE Diversity Task Force (DTF) presented the results of its study about diversity and inclusion in the ALICE Collaboration. Established a year earlier, this task force conducted a survey and a database analysis, on the basis of which it formulated some recommendations. A final report will be presented to the ALICE Collaboration board for endorsement.

Prof. Sorensen, why was the ALICE diversity task force set up?

It was started by the previous Collaboration Board (CB), led by Peter Braun-Munzinger as Chair and John Harris as his Deputy, to learn about the diversity environment in ALICE. This was inspired by similar research carried out by some universities and other collaborations in the last years. The activities of the task force continued under the new CB. The DTF presented a preliminary report last spring, received suggestions and then looked at further correlations between the survey results and information from the ALICE database. We are now in the approval phase of the report by the Collaboration Board, which has also to determine what actions to take to foster inclusion in ALICE. After that, the task force will have completed its charge.

How did you conduct this investigation?

We decided early on that we would take two approaches: from one side, we would gather information about the diversity climate with a dedicated on-line survey, and from the other, we would analyze the data we have in our databases about ALICE members, the speakers who have given talks at conferences on behalf of ALICE, and the members of the various groups and internal review committees. With the valuable help of the ALICE Secretariat, we collected data from the period 2014 to 2016.

Did you write the survey yourselves or did you ask for the help of professionals?

We designed the survey ourselves taking inspiration from diversity surveys used by other large collaborations, such as STAR and PHENIX at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, ATLAS at CERN, and by some of our home institutions.

We decided to have a fairly short and concise survey in order to get as many replies as possible.

How was the response?

We were very positively surprised by the high participation in the survey, indeed. We got altogether 526 responses, which is about 30% of the whole Collaboration. If we take the author list as the reference, we get an approximate upper limit of the response rate of 52%. In either case, this is an outstanding result.

What did you discover? What are the most important results of this analysis?

Let’s start from the analysis of the speakers database. We are aware that in studies taken in other collaborations women were or are under-represented in talks at international conferences. To our pleasure, we could see that this seems not to be the case for ALICE. Women are just as likely as men to give talks on behalf of ALICE.

Did you take into account the relevance of each conference?

Yes, we did. If you consider only the invited talks at major conferences, indeed women were slightly under-represented. But the amount of data we have is too small to be statistically significant.

What other information did you derive from the database?

Looking again at the distribution of talks at conferences, we observed pronounced regional differences, which means that there is a dependence of the number of talks assigned on the geographical location of the home institution of the presenter.

We are trying to understand what the reasons of this unbalance could be. Maybe there is a correlation between talks and how active the members of those institutions were in the physics working groups and paper groups.

Concerning the leading roles in the management, working groups and committees, we found that in general there is a fairly even distribution of men and women in the various positions one can be appointed to.

These are the conclusions extracted from the database analysis…

…What about the results of the survey?

From what we found in the survey, we should say first of all that 66% of the participants replied that the climate in ALICE is in general welcoming and inclusive. However, a 10% of participants “strongly disagreed” with this statement, in other words, they declared to be quite unhappy. Even though it is a minority, this represents an issue for us, because we would like our Collaboration to be absolutely inclusive.

I take the occasion to highlight that, in addition to providing top-notch physics research and publishing scientific papers, another important implicit goal of ALICE is to offer education, professional development and career opportunities to all its members. This includes making everybody feel welcome and comfortable in the group.

What is the profile of the people who reported finding not optimal the climate in ALICE?

Overall, women tended to be less happy: of them, about 16% do not find the climate in ALICE inclusive, supportive and welcoming, 14% think that ALICE collaborators from under-represented minorities are not treated with respect and awareness and no less than 33% consider advancement opportunities as being significantly worse for them than for men. They also feel in general less well mentored and supported in their local institution and in the Collaboration.

Postdocs and non-permanent scientists, also, are less satisfied about both the inclusivity of the environment and the career opportunities.

After the gender, the second most perceived explicit or implicit bias is related to nationality. In particular, collaborators from Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa seem to feel slightly less comfortable than people from other geographical regions.

The survey concluded with an invitation to express free comments and/or complaints. What has emerged from that?

This is the most telling part of the survey, because you get a better idea of what kind of bias people are experiencing.

We had 79 individual responses to this invitation and, of course, most comments were from people who were unhappy. Major complaints were collected, which included observations of inappropriate joking, making sexist remarks and exhibiting forms of explicit national biases. We are obviously concerned about the issues raised in these comments even if they only represent the opinions of a minority and are similar to issues raised in other surveys unrelated to ALICE.

What are the recommendations of the diversity task force to tackle these issues?

We recommend that the ALICE Collaboration either establishes its own diversity office or connects strongly with the one of CERN, so that ALICE people who are experiencing some issue have some reference people to go to and talk with.

Of course, anybody can report their problems to the management as well, but it is very useful and generally suggested to have external persons taking care of these issues. We also recommend the collaboration to establish a diversity and inclusion website, as other collaborations have done, among which the LHCb experiment at CERN. It can help people who might feel uncomfortable to ask for advice: checking on a website, they can easily access to information and get to know what options they have.

The third recommendation is to provide diversity trainings for group leaders, another initiative that other institutions are taking. These courses allow both raising the awareness on these issues and educating people about what behaviour and comments are not acceptable.

What is the next step?

As said, once the contents of the report are accepted and the report adopted by the Collaboration Board, the task force will have completed its duty. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we, the members, are going to stop working on diversity issues and making available our experience, but the task force per-se will not exist anymore. Instead we expect that the Collaboration Board and all members of ALICE will keep working for a diverse and inclusive environment in our collaboration.