Cultural Differences Provide New Opportunities

September 28, 2009

With all the bad news around lately, it’s nice when something positive shows up.  Perhaps that’s why my interest was piqued when I saw an article entitled American Graduates Finding Jobs in China in the New York Times recently.

According to this article, there is a new wave of Americans moving to China to be part of the entrepreneurial boom there.  With lower unemployment (4.3% in rural areas in China, as compared to 9.4% in the United States) and a gross domestic product that rose 7.9% in the most recent quarter (as compared to the same period last year), China looks to be a land of great opportunity.

In reading through the article, and the individuals mentioned therein, several things struck me.  First, several people mentioned being hired for their “familiarity with Western modern dance”, their ability to “communicate with the Western world”, or their understanding of the social and cultural nuances of the West.

Almost all of these people are being hired to facilitate relationships between Chinese companies and Western markets.  Their knowledge of how things work in Western societies is their most important skill, and the particular domain expertise is secondary.  Building relationships between companies in different cultures can be difficult, and the people involved need to have intimate understanding of at least one of the cultures, and some immersion in the other culture as well.

Another thing mentioned in the article is that the educational systems in the two countries are different, and tend to reward different personality traits. These different educational styles, combined with societal influences, mean that people from different backgrounds tend to approach problems differently.  In recent years, we have realized that having people from different backgrounds on project teams is extremely helpful – everyone brings their own way of approaching the problem, as well as their specific technical expertise.

Since we now work with people around the world on a regular basis, we have learned to take advantage of these differences.  While others may have different ways of approaching problems, they just might see old problems in a new way.

Anyone who has a small child knows that one of their favorite questions to ask is “why?”. Why do you do this or that, and why do you do it that way, or in that order?  While sometimes there is an explanation, often the answer is “I don’t know” or “because that’s the way I’ve always done it”.  And upon reflection, you may realize there is a better, or different, way that would work just as well.

People not familiar with your culture can do the same thing for you.  By constantly asking “why”?, they make you think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it that way.  And sometimes, by making you stop to think about it, they just may make you come up with a better way to do something.

So even if you don’t want to move across the world to experience another culture, you can learn from people with different backgrounds – not only how they approach things, but maybe even how you do.

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

Adapting for Inclusion

November 11, 2007

When most people see someone with a disability, they tend to discount the person focusing only on their limitations. But in doing so, both parties are losing out. I am lucky in that my disability is invisible most of the time. But when I have to confess it a stigma is always attached.

Recently, I attended a strategic planning meeting facilitated by an external consultant. The set-up for the meeting was amazingly high-tech with five projection screens and a transcriber providing real-time documentation of what was said.

Excited, I sat forward in my seat in anticipation. However, as we began to use the system, I realized that I couldn’t read the text. There was too much to fit in my field of view, and my dyslexia was at its mischievous best.

I requested a printout so that I could read the items to be prioritized. I didn’t want to make a big deal, and I was embarrassed to ask, but I wanted to contribute to the process. The response was immediately no. We were running behind and printing out the two-page document would take too long. So, staring into the faces of 32 of my closest colleagues, I acquiesced.

My fears were not without warrant. After being diagnosed with dyslexia in grad school, I was instructed to distribute an “official notice” to each of my professors, and to attend a student support group.

One of my profs reacted very badly to the notice. He looked at me as though I was mentally deficient, and spoke the words, “I c-a-n-‘t h-e-l-p y-o-u!” very slowly and loudly. He refused to answer my questions during office hours and avoided me during class. Rather than file a complaint, I buckled down, read every book I could find, and I looked through the literature until I found all of the source articles for his questions. I finished first in the class with a 98 % average, but to this day he looks the other way when our paths cross.

As for the support group, it was anything but. We were asked to state our names and disabilities as introductions went around the table. (I looked for a 12-Step poster.) Then, a councilor addressed the group explaining why we should all lower our expectations and asked each of us to state our intended majors. When I said chemistry, she chastised me for not listening to her advice. My only response was that I had already finished my undergraduate degree, and that I was nearly finished with grad school. I could hardly change my major once the diploma had been issued, but I digress.

At the first available break in our strategic planning meeting, I explained my problem more clearly to the facilitator, and she was able to furnish me with a printout. It was a good thing, too. The transcriber had transposed two of the letters in the title thereby spelling a word not commonly used in polite conversation.

To find out more about working with disabilities, visit the ACS Committee on Chemists with Disabilities webpages. They have published a variety of books and other support materials in accessible formats.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the newsletter May 21, 2007.

Aging in America

October 18, 2007

It’s Saturday morning, and I’ve just gotten out of the gym. After being beaten up by my trainer, I’m feeling a little older than I should and maybe a little grumpy. I’ve come to the food court in a local mall (excuse me, fashion centre) for the fast-food version of a stir-fry buffet. It’s healthier I tell myself. I drown my sorrows in water with an ibuprofen chaser, and assure myself that the aching will stop soon.

A baby coos across the table from me. She is bald and fat with pink bows glued to the sides of her head. Her parents have brought her to have a picture taken with a grotesquely over-sized purple mammal with huge incisors and lanky feet. Fearsome as this ordeal has been, she survived. Sucking and gumming on an animal cracker, she drools down her forearm as her parents compare photographic prints handed to them by a boy dressed in a large yellow egg with a crack down the side.

Sure she had a rough morning, but I am reminded of just how good life is for her now. As she ages, expectations placed on her by herself and others will surely grow. A life of bubbles, tickles and kisses will yield way to exams, report cards and eventually graduation. She will enter the job market, but her landing is expected to be soft as the fertility rate for the US and other developed countries continues to decline. Coupled with increasing demands for skilled workers and decreasing enrollments of domestic students pursuing graduate science degrees, she stands to place well if she chooses to pursue a technical career.

The rub comes for those unemployed later in life. In 2006, 13,569 new cases of age discrimination were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). This number has decreased steadily from its high of 19,921 total cases in 2002, but the public’s perception of those in their prime is still dangerously skewed toward the young.

In the past couple of years, the aging Baby Boomer population is starting to change all that through their collective buying power. Television commercials more frequently feature older Americans living active and productive lives. Dennis Hopper, the rebel from “Easy Rider,” is doing investment banking commercials and Donovan’s music accompanies earth-friendly alternatives from G.E.

The good news for us—employers are starting to see the need to retain experienced scientists. Eli Lilly joined forces with Procter & Gamble to found an innovative new staffing agency providing “seasoned” professionals opportunities to tackle significant scientific challenges. The federal government is also realizing the impact of the Baby Boomer retirement brain drain by targeting retention and recruitment efforts in “Engineering and Science” as well as four other highly-skilled fields. More than 50 % of federal employees are within five years of retirement and 70 % of all senior managers will be able to retire by 2009.

The ibuprofen has started to lift my spirits, or maybe it is the outlook for the future. In either case, I plan to be back at work on Monday with my head held high. After all, I have a lot of skills and experience that the little girl across from me has yet to discover. If she is nice, I’ll take time to transfer some of the knowledge to her, but I think I’ll wait until she passes the blowing-bubbles-with-her-nose phase.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the newsletter on April 23, 2007.