Thursday, April 24, 2008

AAPG meeting: diversity in the workforce

The other night at the AAPG annual meeting, I participated in a panel discussion on workforce diversity. I was described in the program as addressing “gender issues from the male perspective.” Wow, talk about being set up as the old white guy who symbolizes all the problems facing women in the workplace! But it turned out to be a good session that generated lots of questions and discussion that continued long after.In summary:
  • America is in a “slow motion” crisis
  • Corporate America is desperate for scientists, techies, engineers, mathematicians (STEM)
  • We need to engage more kids and early in their lives to fill the STEM pipeline
  • That means looking beyond the traditional demographics that have filled STEM jobs in the past
The session was organized by the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) and AAPG Professional Women in Earth Sciences (PROWESS), with support from AWG and Chevron.

My thesis was that there are lots of reasons for promoting a diverse workforce (it’s the law, it’s the right thing to do, etc) but I argued that any organization that doesn’t aggressively embrace diversity is going to die in the 21st century marketplace.

First, as PRI president Shirley Ann Jackson has been pointing out for a number of years, our demographics are changing. The people who traditionally have gone into science and technology careers are becoming a small percentage of the population and workforce. If we as a nation are going to produce enough scientists and engineers to meet the demand, we have to increasingly turn to non-traditional groups – women and ethnic minorities.

Second, a diverse workforce is a more innovative workforce. And innovation is the name of the game. Innovation drives America’s dominance in science and technology and in making the U.S. economy the largest and most dynamic in the world for the last century.

A recent book by Scott Page, “The Difference – How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies,” describes how in group achievement diversity often trumps ability. Page ran all kinds of problem-solving simulations using groups of subject experts (the “best and brightest") and compared them to groups of random members. The diverse groups almost always beat out the “smart” groups, who often got stuck at the same place. The former could draw on a more diverse cognitive tool kit which allowed them to get past the obstacles that stopped the experts dead in their tracks. Page concludes that, “"Progress depends as much on our collective differences as it does on our individual IQ scores."

With America in a national “slow motion crisis” as described by every leading business and educational organization, it is critical that we find ways to revitalize our science, technology, and innovation culture. One aspect of that is getting more women and minorities in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) pipeline early in their lives and keeping them there.

Unless we diversify more than we are now, our businesses, institutions, and economic well-being are at risk.

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