Diversity in the Workforce: Is It Really Necessary?

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.

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