Stuck Inside Whilst the Planet Thrives

By Beth Probert, WISE Young Professionals’ Board.

Every year on the 22nd April, people across the world celebrate Earth Day – a day that encourages us to act against Climate Change and be more aware of our effect on the environment. This year’s Earth Day follows on from a time of crisis for the environment, as we have seen overwhelming, rampaging wildfires in Australia, the USA backing out of the Paris Agreement, and numerous, unprecedented storms and flooding battering countries from the UK to Fiji. And we’re only 4 months into the year.

However, Earth Day 2020 also arrives during a time of hope for the environment and a time of struggle for humanity. Many of us have stayed inside our homes, only going out for essential shopping and exercise, for a month or so in order to protect ourselves, our loved ones and vulnerable people from Covid-19. This way of living has been an adventure into the unknown for many, especially in the UK where we haven’t seen measures like this implemented in a generation. Most shops and public places are closed, planes are grounded and manufacturers are reducing their production to help supply much needed medical equipment to the NHS.

But hidden in the dark cloud the current situation is bringing over us, a silver lining for the Earth is appearing. Lockdown measures have completely changed humanity’s daily routine and the effects are starting to show. Since Covid-19 related lockdowns came into force, we have seen:

  • The canals in Venice become clearer and cleaner, with wildlife returning to the waterways.
  • Reduced global Greenhouse Gas emissions. Pollution levels of gases such as Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) have dropped in places including New York (by ~50%), China (by ~25%) and Northern Italy (by ~40%).
  • Smog reduced drastically in Central China. Cities like Beijing have infamously bad smog, meaning that the sunrise can’t be seen. As a result of strict lockdown measures, a blue sky can be seen over the Chinese capital.

Looking to the Future

These drastic changes to the planet result from the equally drastic lifestyle change we’ve all had to go through. I think it’s obvious to say that locking entire populations inside their homes for months at a time isn’t a practical long-term solution for combating Climate Change. To ensure that the lessons we learn from this experience benefit the environment in the long term, we need a workforce of engineers and researchers to rise out of this time inspired by the change they have now seen is possible. This workforce needs to innovate and create novel solutions to help save the planet.

It’s also clear that to generate these new solutions, we will need a much more diverse STEM workforce, made up of people from all backgrounds, genders, ethnicities and sexualities. Why? Because research has shown that diversity is a key driver of innovation. Having a workforce made up of people with lots of different perspectives on a problem will ultimately lead to a more innovative solution.

Currently, there is a significant lack of diversity in the STEM workforce. As of 2019, just 24% of the UK’s Core STEM workforce were women, with this figure dropping to just over 10% in engineering. Other minority groups are also underrepresented in STEM, especially at senior levels. This lack of diversity is hindering our efforts against climate change as the new, radical solutions we need are not being created by the current workforce.

How do we diversify the STEM workforce?

Covid-19 measures may also help us answer this question. During the lockdown, we learned a lot about the flexibility and changes that businesses can continue to operate with, and if businesses choose to carry these changes through into the future, they could attract more diverse candidates to the roles on offer.

Here are two key changes that businesses can take forward from the lockdown to diversify their workforce:

1. Introduce more flexible working.

If an employer gives staff the option to work from home, women are more likely to want to work for that employer and stay with them. Reasons for this include that childcare is easier if you are able to work flexibly, and that women feel that gender bias is reduced when you communicate virtually rather than face-to-face. Women feel they get more of an equal say when their opinions are voiced over email or an instant messenger.

Most businesses now have the majority of their staff working from home. To enable this, staff have been given access to new hardware, such as laptops and webcams, and technology like VPNs. Now that staff have been given this capability, the bulk of the financial and time cost associated with flexible working has been overcome, so it should be easier for businesses to enable staff to have a more flexible working pattern once lockdown ends. Staff members already have everything they need, all businesses need to do is change their policies if working from home isn’t a normal part of their work culture.

2. Allow staff time to support a good cause.

Across the world, we have seen people step up to support those in their community and frontline workers. We have seen fundraisers, people delivering food or medicine to neighbours, and lots of people volunteering to support the NHS. Volunteering helps bring people happiness and a sense of fulfilment, whilst also helping us stay connected with the wider world. Many people have been able to engage with volunteering for the first time as a result of having more time to do it during the lockdown.

Encouraging and enabling your staff to volunteer through the workplace can bring benefits to both the individual staff members and the business as a whole. Staff who volunteer through work will be able to develop soft skills, build team spirit and may also have more positive feelings about the business they work for. The business would see an improved reputation which will be useful when pitching to new customers, and when recruiting new candidates.

By implementing the lessons we learn during the lockdown, our workforce will be more diverse and fulfilled, and the planet will be better off.

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