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Allen-Diaz speaks on a groundbreaking career, balancing work and life

Describing herself simply as “a woman from Berkeley who wears cowboy boots,” Barbara Allen-Diaz endeared herself to a roomful of UCOP women and men with her no-nonsense tale of a nearly four-decade career combining marriage and family with science, administrative management, academics and a piece of a Nobel Prize.

Allen-Diaz in October was appointed systemwide vice president of Agricultural and Natural Resources and provides leadership to Cooperative Extension and the Agriculture Experiment Station and their programs. She spoke on Dec. 1 as part of the Women We Admire series, sponsored by PACSW, the President’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women, in Franklin’s Lobby One Conference Room.

“As someone who grew up and went to high school in the ’60s, I believed I could be anything I wanted to be, do anything I wanted to do,” Allen-Diaz said. “Of course I wanted to do something that would save the world.”

An internationally respected field ecologist and expert on rangeland species, Allen-Diaz earned a B.A. in anthropology, an M.S. in range management and a Ph.D. in wildland resource sciences, all from UC Berkeley.

She was the first woman in the U.S. to take an academic appointment in those fields when she joined the Berkeley faculty in 1986, where she is still a professor of Environmental Science, Policy and Management in the College of Natural Resources.

Even at Berkeley, she said, she encountered resistance from the predominantly male faculty in her field. Sharing some of the principles that helped guide her in her career, Allen-Diaz told survival stories about her tenure review at UC Berkeley and her struggle to be inclusive in an elite academic environment that can encourage overinflated egos.

“I’ve fought against this assumption that everyone except faculty is extraneous at best,” Allen-Diaz said. “It’s important to treat everyone with respect, and that includes administrators, file clerks, grounds maintenance staff and students.”

She counseled women to hang tough with their core values, relating the story of how her own deep desire to have a family bumped up against her professional ambitions. When she started a family with her second husband and had her first child at age 40, she decided to resign a coveted position at Lawrence Berkeley Lab doing international work in climate change. It was a tough decision, she said with obvious emotion, but you have to make choices every day, so just make them and be OK with the choices you make.

Except for the six years she worked for the U.S. Forest Service, Allen-Diaz has worked her entire career, since 1974, at the University of California. “I love this institution,” she says. “It makes coming to work every day a pleasure.”

Allen-Diaz was among the 2,000 scientists recognized for their work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the IPCC and Vice President Al Gore in 2007. Her work for the IPCC, which she had done several years earlier, focused on the effects of climate change on rangeland species and landscapes.

“We knew in the early ‘90s that climate change was a big issue, so to be acknowledged for this work done 15 years ago was an incredible experience,” she said. She didn’t get one of those middle-of-the-night phone calls, but learned of the group award when she received a package containing a large plaque, which now hangs prominently on her UCOP office wall.

The Women We Admire series, initiated in 2009, brings women from around the UC system to share their insights about career, workplace challenges and work-life balance. Audio recordings of events are posted to the website as they become available.

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