Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rainforests, Women in the Workforce, and Big Science

A recent study publicized in The Financial Times asserts that "cattle ranching it the single most important cause of the tearing down of rain forests in Brazil." The Greenpeace photo at left captures one image of the rain forest being burned to make way for cattle grazing. I find this deeply upsetting because the rain forests are critical to the Earth's overall ecosystem. What I find encouraging in the information, however, is the fact that, like so many other ecological nightmares, what is happening to the rain forests in Brazil is totally reversible through human choice. Stop eating Big Macs and rib eyes five days a week, and you can help save the rain forests and sustain the planet for future generations. This is not really that difficult to do; it involves changing some habits. Furthermore, the story also highlights the interconnectedness of all elements of the Earth's living system. Everything is vibrating with everything else, amplifying and perpetuating some frequencies while extinguishing others. Seen from that perspective, individual action is part of a very complex musical score.

The graphic at right is taken from a recent Manpower Employment Outlook Survey, which indicates that the tune being played by the economy may not be all sad. As reported by The Financial Times, 30% of employers around the world are finding it very difficult to fill open positions in skilled manual trades, sales, technical work, and engineering, among others. No better case could be made for a focus on designing life sustaining work environments than this study's conclusion that "organizations need to identify the values, character and style that sets them apart and create an emotional connection between employer and employee...that make people love working there and bring them fulfillment."

It should not be too surprising to find that financial services, the industry at the heart of our worldwide recession, is one of the least life sustaining work environments around, especially for women. As reported in The New York Times, research on Harvard College alumni women by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, found that careers in finance, with their 70 hour work weeks, are uniquely difficult for those trying to combine work and family. And, it's not only the long hours that are giving Finance a questionable reputation with women, it's a bottom-line pocket book issue. Harvard grads working in Medicine who took off a year and a half (to have a child, for example) earned 16% less than co-workers who had not done so during the same time period. But, those who earned MBAs and went into Finance suffered a much steeper 41% decline in earnings as compared to peers.

An ironic structural ingredient of this story is that students of employment dynamics hypothesize that many talented women have been lost to the sciences and mathematics in order to pursue high paying careers in Finance, only to be penalized financially for their gender and to find themselves in an industry that continues to be dominated by men in large part because women must step out of work at least temporarily to have children. So, an industry whose primary innovation in recent years has been credit default swaps has benefited from the involvement of talented women who might have made more dramatic social and technological contributions through fields that would have treated them better as the members of a biological class. Hmmm. This seems worth considering not only in terms of individual career choice but also from the perspective of Finance organizations that would like to start doing a better job of supporting women in their workforce.

Another recent study, also reported in The Times, indicate that women are pulling even with men in compensation in the sciences, but are still underrepresented in applicant pools creating "a puzzle that offers an opportunity for further research." Maybe it's because the really bright women under study were thronging to Finance during the years of the analysis?! (Parenthetically, this is the sort of comment that is somewhat maddening to the reader of this
newspaper. Two stories carried within three days of each
other that are obviously related don't get connected by the reporters working for the same institution. No wonder the price of the Times as a company has fallen by something like 90% in the last five years!)

Turns out that some of these science jobs can be absolutely
fantastic! Take the pursuit of fusion in occurring at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore CA. The objective of this mammoth project is to use lasers to create a "tiny star" in which hydrogen atoms will be fused into helium under heat conditions hotter than the temperatures found at the core of an actual sun.

The intent of the project is extraordinarily exciting in that, according to its advocates, it holds the potential of releasing thermonuclear energy safely and allowing radically new types of non-polluting power plants to come into existence. According to NIF's director, Dr. Ed Moses, "if fusion energy works, you'll have a limitless supply of carbon-free energy that's not geopolitically sensitive."
However, it is the scope of the work environment dynamics that is particularly of interest to Art of the Future. First conceived in 1972, the NIF is now a 24/7 facility that has involved 10,000 workers and contractors over the last twelve years to arrive at the point where there will be an initial ignition soon of lasers (They hope!) that will be fired for the next 30 years. To design a work environment that will successfully maintain the continuity of the project seems to be a truly daunting task. For example, right now, the US taxpayer is funding the operation of the project to the tune of $140M/year. What happens if there are snafus that delay the project (further) and Congress starts demanding a quicker payoff? What will the organization's strategy be in that eventuality? How will the project be handed off from Moses to whomever comes next as its Director? What will happen to the NIF's organizational culture in a post-Moses era? How will be effective in recruiting key talent from around the world to work on this project if work visa restrictions continue to be tightened? What sort of requirements will the talented members of this workforce make on the NIF if progress there is slow but rapid in competing energy generation industries?

To achieve its ambitions, the NIF not only has to do more than get the science right; it has to build and maintain a work environment where the scientists will do their best work over a very long period of time filled with many prospective uncertainties. This can happen organically by just bringing talented and dedicated people together and allowing them to evolve; and it can happen consciously by asking that same set of people to be involved with the design of a work environment that will foster their achievements.

These seemingly disparate stories are actually not that far removed from each other: If more women were in the scientific workforce there might well be a more rapid pace of developments that would protect natural habitats, such as those of a rain forest, that are in many ways a womb for life on earth. And, the good news is that there seem to be a number of forces in play that will bring that outcome about.

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