Career Culture Shock

11. September 2013

 Lisa Balbes

The other day, I was talking to a college student who recently started his summer job. He had a position that was very similar to what he had done the previous summer, but in a different place. This meant he was mostly doing the same type of work, but with a new group of people. Each organization had similar numbers of staff and customers, similar tasks that needed to be done, and similar metrics for success. Yet they were very different in one key respect: their culture.

While both sites completed their tasks on time (especially the customer-facing ones), one group actively sought out ways to help each other, leading to an enhanced sense of teamwork and camaraderie. They often socialized during off hours.

The second group was not as close-knit. They were friendly while at work, but happy to go home to their “real lives” and real friends. After having worked in the former environment, the student was surprised by this more distant attitude.

But the single difference that was most striking to him was in how each group handled it when they were asked to do something they’d never done before. At the first site, if a staff member did not know how to do something, he or she would learn from someone who did and then practice until they could do it well. By contrast, when those in the second location were asked to do something they’d never done before, most would find someone else who knew how to do it and then ask them to take care of it for them.

While the latter course is certainly the most efficient in the short-term, it might not be in the long run. What happens if that person is not available at a crucial time or leaves the company altogether? Both strategies have their place, and it is the job of the manager or supervisor to guide the staff into learning which is most appropriate for a particular company.

Most people are naturally inclined to work one way or the other. Some prefer to do the same thing over and over at work, and they derive great satisfaction from being the very best at that particular task. Others are not happy unless they have variety in their jobs and are constantly challenged to learn new things.

Most scientists are naturally curious people; they want to know how and why things work and are excited by the opportunity to do something new. My friend certainly fell into this camp – his exact words about his new co-workers were: “I could have forgiven them for not knowing if they had shown any interest in wanting to learn. Instead, they just got someone else to do it for them.” In his mind, asking the expert to do the task was slacking off, not being efficient.

But another person might well have said: “It’s all about being efficient. There’s no sense wasting time figuring out how to do something if someone already knows.”

When we talk about the culture of a company, we are really talking about a collection of small differences like this. They combine to create the atmosphere in which we work. When the way you like to work matches the way your organization operates, you feel comfortable and confident in what you are doing. When they don’t match, you may be unhappy without realizing why.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

 

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Viewpoint: Addressing Minorities in a Majority Culture

26. August 2013

Elsa Garmire

Did you ever travel to a different country? Did you try to speak their language? Or did you expect those around you to struggle with yours? Did you try to modify your behavior to fit in? Or did you stick to your role as tourist?

If you are male, have you ever gone to a place that was predominantly female—perhaps a ladies’ shop to purchase a gift for a loved one? Or taken your young children to a park filled with female nannies? Did you feel weird? Were you glad to get out of there?

Now imagine being a woman or minority in a field mostly populated by Caucasian men, such as optics. You can’t help but feel different. This feeling permeates your life, whether you realize it or not.

The National Academy of Sciences analyzed the status of women faculty in the sciences and published a report, titled “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” showing that most bias against minorities in the academic sciences is unconscious but nonetheless impedes their progress. I recommend it as a good place to understand what I’m talking about.

The ultimate barrier, in industry as well as academia, is referred to as the glass ceiling. Many studies have shown that minorities will be less likely to be promoted than their majority counterparts, even when they have equally excellent qualifications. This glass ceiling describes the idea that, while minorities can compete for top jobs, they are at a disadvantage in obtaining them. The very idea of the glass ceiling can cause behavior changes. One person might compensate by becoming excessively assertive or competitive (thereby called aggressive); another might give up the dream, thereby becoming underpaid (women are consistently paid less than men).

The field of optics includes many individuals who are physically different from the “rest of us,” presenting a challenge to the community. Yes, you can argue that optics should not depend on culture as defined by gender, race, disability, etc. But we each bring our own preconceptions to our work, and ignoring our differences doesn’t make them go away.

We all accept that optics already has a wide variety of cultures as defined by work roles. Scientists and engineers approach optics differently. Small businesses differ from large ones. Forms of decision-making help define the culture of an institution: Is it top-down or bottom-up? Regarding both work cultures and those shaped by gender and ethnicity, my motto is: Vive la difference! Our differences can bring a richness to the field of optics if we allow them.

How can we break down barriers while still respecting our differences? Here’s a place to start:

Accept cultural differences and acknowledge that they can cause unintended biases and barriers. If you don’t believe this, read up in the field and you’ll be convinced.

Make lists of minorities that you know (include yourself if appropriate) and present them to those in power, so they’ll remember them when openings occur, whether in careers, or in volunteer positions.

If you have a job opening, contact women and minorities in your network and ask them to apply. My role model for this is former OSA Executive Director Jarus Quinn, who consciously made opportunities for every qualified woman within OSA to participate. We need to make sure his pre-action (action before it's requested) continues within OSA.

Understanding the differences between minority and majority cultures will benefit everyone. I look forward to the day when all OSA members are pre-active in acknowledging bias and reducing barriers. What a rich and comfortable society we will become!

Elsa Garmire (garmire@dartmouth.edu) is the Sydney E. Junkins Professor, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., U.S.A., and a former OSA president.

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