I recently had a great conversation with the coolest gal in geophysics. The topics ran far and wide, but at one point we got onto a fascinating case of gender and racial equality. Herewith, I present to my readers (who are all bright and above average) a cultural conundrum; a case from the frontiers (literally) of workplace equality.
First off, a few of points:
- I have anonymized and re-imagined some particulars, but this is a true and ongoing story.
- I don’t claim to have any answers. Neither does the coolest-gal-geo. It is a fascinating problem, and one well worthy of my readers to mull and debate. Please! Opinionate away.
- Mistakes in geologic science or other particulars of this situation are my own. Apologies to coolest-gal-geo (and the other actors) for what I get wrong.
So here goes…Imagine, if you will, an international company specializing in monitoring and analyzing seismic hot spots. Seismic hotspots know no political or physical boundaries – as such, this company needs to be able to send employees into some of the most physically demanding terrain around the globe. Additionally, the company needs to send employees to some of the more politically dangerous countries. One month, a field agent may be leading a team of local men in Rwanda, the next month a llama train to the top of an Andean plateau. In both situations, being a woman can cause very real practical problems. In Rwanda, the patriarchical culture will not look favorably on a woman team leader. Plus she is rape bait. On the Andean plateau, or the deepest jungles of Indonesia, the physical demands may be beyond the average woman (and let’s be honest, the average man). So here is the question for you:
Should these unavoidable, real-world facts affect hiring decisions?
I think… if you are the size of IBM or WalMart, then the answer is a black and white “No!” You should hire bodyguards and porters to send along.
But this is a nascent business niche, and they are a small, nascent company of only about 25 employees. They are a good-hearted, well-intentioned company fighting for every little contract they can get. The difference between being able to send a single, non-controversial (read: male) employee to some far-flung corner, and sending a woman (read: nobody) can mean the difference between the company surviving fiscally or not.
I’ve seen a lot of discussion, recently, (in the blogosphere) concerning women in combat. In fact, (don’t quote me, but..) I think Australia has recently decided to allow frontline female combat troops. And Israel always has. The reigning opinion seems to be to have gender-blind physical tests – if the woman can perform, then she can fight. I think you have to be pretty stubborn not to see very physically capable women around us everyday. Besides, a national army is a big place – the woman should certainly have plenty of comrades for support, unlike our particular scenario.
But wait! There’s more!
This company has a contract to do some important geologic monitoring in Saudi Arabia. Don’t fear, the women are actually allowed to go, (they just have to wear a veil). However, the company’s Jewish employees are not allowed to work in country. Should the company stand on principle? Deny itself some badly needed capital in its young life, just to say, “It’s not okay to be biased against our Jewish colleagues”? But don’t decide too fast, because there is this to throw in the morality mix: Saudi Arabia needs help monitoring a peculiar type of lava tube that is undercutting the southern half of a major city. The lives of 100,000+ citizens hang in the balance of this company’s expertise. If they kowtow to the no-Jews rule then they are helping avert disaster and potentially saving the lives of thousands.
What say you, noble readers? And does being morally correct mean being out of business? Ain’t the world a complex and confusing place?
[categorize under: Science ain’t all fun and games]