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Diversity and Problem Solving

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Originally published in the British Columbia Groundwater Association (BCGWA) Groundwater Matters newsletter (December 2022).

It was 1993, and cigarette smoke hung low in the restaurant. My mother was anxious to get home so she could continue to study for her optician and contact lens fitter exam. Now that she was going to be a single parent, the exam, and the promised income it would bring, was a lifeline.

Across town, my father was driving his third load of logs for the day to the mill. Some of the guys wore personal protective equipment, while others didn’t.

Things were different then.

Change is dynamic. Like in the natural world, it can often come slowly, trickling in, easy to underestimate until one day you look around and the world does not look the same. But sometimes, change comes fast, rushing through with a wild energy that breaks down old perspectives or drives innovation from necessity. Atmospheric rivers, droughts, wildfires, pandemics, the birth or loss of a loved one, a medical diagnosis, or divorce can all offer a window into a new landscape or new belief system you never had before.

Things were different then, and in some ways, things seemed better: easier, more efficient, more fun, more free. Some may say more common sense, less red tape, and boxes to check. But those same things took away ease, efficiency, fun, and freedom in the long term, and common sense was often ignored.

For example, the long-term effects of smoking, being in the wrong place at the wrong time without the proper PPE, two kids and no income, water scarcity from lack of regulation. Our culture has shifted in response.

My mother passed her exam and created a career helping people with their eyesight. Watching her fight for that gave me an innate understanding that education

and career opportunities equal freedom and safety.

Jolene inspecting the mud on the Sikanni Chief River, 1996
Jolene inspecting the mud on the Sikanni Chief River, 1996

Growing up in rural areas of BC, I spent my time outside in the bush, playing with rocks and mud. When a teacher showed me how the shape of the continents fit together, my mind expanded, and I was hooked on earth sciences.

I don’t remember precisely when the nervousness and anxiety started to set in about my chosen profession. It was undoubtedly there in school and resulted in an overemphasis on grades with less emphasis on curiosity. It was there during my first few years of employment, particularly in the field where things were uncertain, and I was constantly worried about problems arising. It was there before having kids when I would work late into the night and believed my job would be impossible to do if I had children. I thought the reason it was there was because I did not know enough or did not have the same experience that my male counterparts had. It was confusing to me. I had believed education and career would give me freedom and safety, but I felt less free and safe than ever.

No one talked about these issues. I knew so few women in my profession that I didn’t realize I was a statistic. Research from the US shows that over 52% of women in STEM related fields quit their jobs in their mid-to-late-30s[1]. The “Brain Drain,” as it’s called, significantly constrains growth and innovation in fields we need growth and innovation more than ever. It also represents significant financial losses for companies that invest large sums of money developing talent only to have that talent walk out the door. There are many theories on why this occurs. Among them is a sense of isolation that comes with being the only female on their team or at their rank, and a strong disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms, which are typically more structured and planned, and the spontaneous, urgent, “firefighting” behaviour that is recognized and rewarded in male-dominated fields.

I returned to work from my second maternity leave in the heart of the pandemic. I had never solved the issues before maternity leave and added two small children with no childcare to the mix. I quietly handed in my resignation.

And then I discovered coaching.

Coaching allowed me to gain awareness and shift my perspective. That shift in perspective allowed me to break through my old paradigm and feel entirely different toward my career. I realized:

  • Health comes first. Without health, there is nothing.

  • Career and education alone are not enough to guarantee freedom and safety. Freedom and safety come from our ability to solve problems and make decisions for ourselves.

  • The problems in the field are not a problem; they are part of the job. Puzzles to be solved. Since I had spent little time in the field solving problems on the fly, unlike many of my male colleagues that grew up fixing 4x4s on mud roads, it just meant I needed more practice.

  • My ability to do the job and solve the problem (or not) was not personal. It just meant I either had skills already or had skills to learn.

  • Perfect is not only the enemy of good, but the enemy of curiosity. Being curious about something you are unsure of is often where all the gold is.

  • Work does not have to be all-or-nothing. If you learn to set proper boundaries and agreements, you can create an employment structure that works for you and your employer. People can ask for things last minute, and you can decide whether that works for you.

Our ability to solve problems and make decisions for ourselves does not require us to work harder but to think deeply with a calm mind, get creative, collaborate with others, try things, fail, and try them again. It requires us to understand where our thoughts and biases might be holding us back. By developing these skills, we will shift the culture from the inside out rather than waiting for the culture to change.

Jolene confidently sitting on the steps

The impact of this work is more minds from different walks of life, solving problems together. Diversity brings different perspectives and uncovers biases, making it much more likely that a team will find a truly creative and clever solution to a complex problem. Given the complexity of the problems today, we need these skilled minds working together more than ever.

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