Diversity in the Workforce: Is It Really Necessary?

April 27, 2009

Our recent U.S. Presidential campaign and election have been proclaimed “historic” because of the gender and ethnic diversity of the candidates. In the world of chemistry, we’ve also seen historic demographic changes in recent years, especially in the presence of women in the workforce.  Half of today’s undergraduates majoring in chemistry are women.

The percentage of chemists (and other scientists and engineers) who are members of under-represented minorities, however, is still woefully low.  Scientific societies and professional associations are devoting considerable resources to advance the cause of diversity.  Here’s a link to some of the diversity programs of the American Chemical Society.  [ http://portal.acs.org/portal/PublicWebSite/membership/acs/welcoming/diversity/index.htm ]
And here’s a link to a just-published report, “Enhancing Diversity in Science,” documenting similar efforts across all the sciences. [  http://www.cossa.org/communication/diversity_workshop/diversity.html ]

So, diversity is a good thing and it’s necessary.  Right? I must confess that I have been skeptical in the past.  As a scientist, I want to see research results before I’m willing to give new ideas my full blessing.  Show me the data!

One argument for diversity is demographic.  To bring the best talent into our profession, we need to make sure we are drawing from as large a pool as possible, and the traditional pool (i.e., white male) is shrinking.  The non-traditional pool is growing. 

OK.  I’ll buy this argument for diversity.  The numbers and logic are compelling.

But other arguments for diversity have been harder for me to accept.  In particular, I’ve been skeptical about the notion that the science of chemistry would be any different today if the demographic mix of chemists were simply more diverse.  After all, molecules are molecules.  It shouldn’t make any difference who does the analyzing and synthesizing.  Again, show me the data!

Several years ago, however, I was confronted with scientific evidence that jarred me out of my skepticism.  In a lecture about diversity in science, Jo Handelsman (a bacteriologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a HHMI Professor) spoke to me as one scientist to another.  She reviewed the relevant literature from the social sciences and presented experimental data.

Guess what? The scientific research confirms that diversity does indeed make a positive difference.  Diversity can actually help drive problem-solving and innovation.  Here are two research articles that especially caught my eye and changed my thinking:

  • Anthony Lising Antonio and Kenji Hakuta, “The Effects of Racial Diversity on Cognitive Complexity in College Students,” Psychological Science (August, 2004).
    In this research study, the authors found that a diverse academic community stimulates critical, reflective, and complex thinking, thereby enhancing students’ problem-solving abilities. (For more details, see http://www.stanford.edu/group/diversity.)
  • Poppy Lauretta McLeod, Sharon Alisa Lobel, and Taylor H Cox Jr., “Ethnic Diversity and Creativity in Small Groups,” Small Group Research 27, no. 2, 248-65 (May, 1996).
    In a controlled experimental study looking at performance on a brainstorming task, groups composed of all Anglo-Americans were compared with groups composed of Anglo-, Asian-, African-, and Hispanic-Americans. The ideas produced by the ethnically diverse groups were judged to be of higher quality—more effective and feasible—than the ideas produced by the homogenous groups.

In addition to these peer-reviewed scientific publications, I’ve also heard a number of anecdotal reports from chemists that support the creative and problem-solving benefits of group diversity.  Do you have any examples you can add to this mix?

I wonder how much further advanced the chemistry of science would be right now, if only we had done a better job in the past of encouraging diversity in the chemistry workforce.
If you want to strengthen your own skills at managing diversity, a good place to start is with “Diversity,” one of the new ACS Harvard Online courses offered—at a reduced member rate of $25—in conjunction with Harvard Business Publishing.  (Visit  www.acs.org/professionaldevelopment.)



Randy Wedin blogs from Wayzata, MN. After spending a decade working for the ACS and as a Congressional Science fellow, he launched a freelance science writing business, Wedin Communications (www.wedincommunications.com), in 1992.

Toastmasters: A Laboratory for Public Speaking?

April 20, 2009

Early in my professional career, I left the sheltered world of academe and found myself working on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Science Fellow.  Talk about culture shock….

I was plunged into strange waters–surrounded by articulate people who could give extemporaneous speeches, graciously introduce a speaker, and remain cool and collected in heated debates. They could tell just the right joke to make the audience-of-the-moment laugh. And they could do all this without even knowing much (or anything) about the subject!

These were skills I had not learned in the lecture hall or the laboratory. In academe, I learned that my professional communications should be cautious, objective, and carefully footnoted. Outside academe, a different style of communication was clearly required for success.

So, I cornered one of my mentors, a Ph.D. physicist who had worked at the State Department and was now working for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). And I asked him, “How did you learn to speak so well in public?”

He replied, “Toastmasters International.  Want to attend one of my club meetings?”

I accepted his invitation. His Toastmasters International club met weekly at the Brookings Institution, and its members came from government agencies, trade associations, universities, and law firms. After attending one meeting, I realized that this organization was neither an antiquated fraternal organization, nor a club for glad-handing extroverts. In fact, this organization could provide just what I needed.

It provided a laboratory where I could learn and practice new skills. And it offered an instant peer review process.  Several members gave prepared speeches at each meeting, and their fellow members all offered oral and/or written feedback.  During the “Table Topics” portion of the meeting, members were called on at random to provide impromptu responses to unexpected questions.

I joined the club. Over the next few years, I gained both experience and confidence—giving prepared talks, replying off-the-cuff to difficult questions, and running a meeting. In this safe laboratory, I tried out techniques that I would never have tried on my own.

Some of my efforts bombed. I told jokes that no one understood. I used hand gestures that were wooden and awkward. I even tried speaking in different accents.

Yet, some of my efforts succeeded far beyond my expectations. I even won the club “humorous speech” contest one year! Maybe I could do public speaking after all.

Most importantly for me, I was able to do all this without my job or career being on the line. I made my mistakes in front of friendly strangers who weren’t responsible for my performance review and salary decisions.Ever since that experience, I’ve included “Join Toastmasters” on my top 10 list of career advice.

The Toastmasters International website provides an overview of the organization and can help you find a club in your area. Clubs can be found in industrial, government, and academic organizations. Corporate award winners in recent years include Pfizer, Eastman Chemical, and Procter & Gamble. Government agencies supporting Toastmasters include the Department of Energy, NASA, and EPA. On the list of educational institutions are Penn State, Alabama A&M, and MIT.

I strongly endorse Toastmasters, but don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an article and endorsement from another chemist, Erika Ebbel. She joined Toastmasters while a student at MIT. Since then, she has put her public-speaking experience to use in some interesting forums, including serving as Miss Massachusetts at the 2005 Miss America competition.

Randy Wedin blogs from Wayzata, MN. After spending a decade working for the ACS and as a Congressional Science Fellow, he launched a freelance science writing business, Wedin Communications (www.wedincommunications.com), in 1992.

Filling the Employment Gaps in Your Résumé

April 13, 2009

More than 90% of senior executives reported they would be concerned if a job candidate had long involuntary periods of unemployment according to a 2008 survey by placement firm OfficeTeam (Menlo Park, CA). Finding a new job fast, especially in a recession is no easy trick. So what can you do to prevent employment gaps appearing in your employment history?

Resist the temptation to “fudge” your dates of employment by adding a few months to your last job to make the gap disappear, advises Stephen Viscusi, author of the book “Bulletproof Your Job: 4 Simple Strategies to Ride Out the Rough Times and Come Out on Top at Work” (Collins Business, 2008). Potential employers often contact former employers to verify dates of employment. If that information doesn’t match what’s in your résumé, most employers will immediately eliminate you from consideration.

Instead, keep up your skills by taking some courses. For example, if you are an analytical chemist, you might take a short course in a new analytical technique growing in popularity. This could significantly strengthen your position in the job market. You could also take courses to strengthen some of your soft skills or shift your career in a new direction. Online business skills courses from ACS and Harvard Business Publishing can help you do this at www.acs.org/professionaldevelopment.

You could also do some volunteer work in your field. Consider reconnecting with a former research advisor and working in his laboratory. Even if you don’t get paid, you could still work part-time to stay active in the field. Recent graduates might contact former academic research advisors and get permission to take the lead on writing research papers on unreported aspects of their graduate or post-doctoral work. Another possibility is to write a review paper, perhaps with your former research advisor.

Both recent, and not-so-recent graduates, could do volunteer work for the American Chemical Society or other professional organizations. Such work can put you in contact with people who could help in your job hunt. In particular, organizing a symposium could help you contact leaders in your field.

Mid-career chemists with some name recognition in their field could work as consultants. However, this should consist of more than just getting some business cards printed. Potential employers may ask you for the names of some of your clients. If you are consulting, treat it like any other job and list projects and accomplishments on your résumé. A good way to support your part-time consulting is to present papers at conferences and attend local ACS meetings where you can network with potential consulting clients as well as people who could be helpful to your job hunt.

Write a blog that’s related to your field. You could use your blog to support your consulting work. During employment interviews you can point to this as an accomplishment.

A temporary staffing firm can help you find temporary assignments while you’re looking for a full-time job.

Don’t be afraid to include these activities in your résumé and cover letter. Such activities show you have drive, initiative and creativity.

To make these strategies work best, use these ideas as soon as you lose your job or even before.


Full-time science writer John Borchardt is an ACS Career Consultant and certified Workshop Presenter. As an industrial chemist he holds 30 U.S. patents and written more than 130 peer-reviewed technical articles.

The Art of the Thank You Note

April 1, 2009

Yesterday I got an email from a colleague, that went something like this:

“Dear Lisa, Tom, Dick and Harry,

Thanks for your help recently with selection of a restaurant meeting room with A/V equipment. Here’s a list of restaurants that I compiled with your help and the help of others……”

She then went on to list about a dozen local restaurants that met her specifications, with detailed comments about costs, room sizes, and available food. She also told us which one she picked, and why, and ended by thanking us all again for our help.

I had actually forgotten completely that a few weeks ago she emailed and asked if I knew of any local restaurants with A/V equipment where she could hold a professional meeting, and that I had sent her a suggestion or two.

Not only did she get back to everyone and thank us, but she let us know how her search turned out, and she provided a valuable list that I can use should I need to host a similar meeting.

When so many people don’t take time to say any more than “thanks”, or even “thx”, Joanne is especially memorable as someone who goes the extra step to not only thank, but also provide something of value to those who helped her. The next time she asks for information or a favor, I will not hesitate to help her out.

In my volunteer work with ACS members who are searching for new professional opportunities, I am constantly surprised at how few bother to thank the people who help them along the way. Not only those who provide advice and information, but many don’t even bother to write thank you notes after informational interviews, or even worse, after on-site interviews for new jobs. Everyone agrees you should send a thank you note within a day of an interview, but even those who know better often fail to actually get them out.

I know of many cases in which it was the personalized thank you notes, sent to each interviewer, that made the difference and got that candidate the job offer. In fact, I know of one company where the interviewers compared thank you notes, to see if they followed the same format or were personalized.

The one big controversy with thank you notes is delivery mechanism. Some people prefer email, and others prefer paper. These days, hand-written notes are so rare that when I receive one I really appreciate and treasure it – in fact I keep most of them filed in a drawer in my office. However, I do feel sorry for people who have to try to read my handwriting, and sometimes it’s hard to find the right blank card or stationary to use.

Furthermore, I know many people who do everything electronically, and prefer the speed of email thank you notes. They do get delivered much faster, and the recipient is probably more likely to store that than a piece of paper.

In the end, you should use the format and style that matches your personality, as well as that of the individual or organization to which you are going to send it. But whichever method you choose, make sure to send those thank you notes!

This article was written by scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants, and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).