LGBTQ+ History Month – It’s Time to Start the Conversation in STEM

LGBTQ+ History Month – It’s Time to Start the Conversation in STEM

Although society has come a long way in the past 20 years to close the inequality gap that exists for the LGBTQ+ community, there is still a lot of work to do in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) industries. A recent (2021) study published in Science Advances highlighted some significant systemic inequalities that our LGBTQ+ colleagues experience in the workplace. The research data showed that people who openly identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community had fewer career progression opportunities, they felt more socially excluded than their non-LGBTQ+ colleagues, 20% experienced harassment in the workplace and many reported experiences of mental and physical ill health. It is no surprise that many LGBTQ+ STEM professionals in the UK do not share all aspects of their identity and that is a great shame because STEM should be for everyone and no-one should feel like they can’t be themselves at work. The lack of diversity and inclusion in STEM is not only harmful to equality and wellbeing, but also to innovation. Diverse groups of people are better at creative problem solving and are more productive than homogeneous teams. Therefore, it is important that we recognise the need for change in UK STEM.

February is LGBTQ+ History Month, so we spoke to LGBTQ+ people and allies who work in STEM to find out what their experience has been at work and what allies could do to help make their LGBTQ+ colleagues feel valued at work.

Terminology Used in This Article

We have, to the best of our ability, tried to adhere to currently accepted terminology and language that our contributors feel comfortable with. However, we are aware that terminology and language evolves over time, different people prefer different things, and there are ongoing discussions about the best words to use. The purpose of this article is to start a positive and open conversation about LGBTQ+ STEM professionals, their wellbeing in the workplace and to highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Dr Sam Rowe (he/him) - UK Science Communications

Dr Sam Rowe is bisexual and works in science communication in the UK. He has a PhD in chemistry and started working in science communication and public engagement roles after leaving academia in 2018. He feels that STEM, historically, has focused on output and the quantity of data being gathered rather than the wellbeing of the people doing the work, which has led to many STEM professionals experiencing mental ill health. Sam experienced anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes during his PhD and at work but has felt a lot of support and encouragement through groups and activities on social media.

“It sometimes felt like the number of papers you produce or who you know in your area of research was all that mattered, almost like an “old boys’ club” in certain disciplines. This led to some having the view that things like sexuality and gender identity should never be mentioned and don’t matter at all, when of course they do. There are LGBTQ+ people experiencing harassment and discrimination, including from those in quite senior roles. Even though their behaviour is unacceptable, it can feel like action won’t be taken because of their prestige or their extensive networks.”

Apart from a few close friends, Sam did not disclose his sexuality throughout his PhD and only really started talking openly about it over the past few months when he came out to his parents and started sharing his journey on Twitter. During his PhD, LGBTQ+ support groups or societies within the university were rarely mentioned. He believes that building conversations into the induction programme for new staff/students, or regularly having representatives from LGBTQ+ groups deliver talks about the community at the university, could really help people feel safer and happier to be themselves. Another issue is that because many people feel like they can’t talk openly about being part of the LGBTQ+ community, there are very few role models to look up to or confide in.

“It’s great that we have special days like Pride, LGBTQ+ in STEM Day, Bi in Sci Day and LGBTQ+ History Month, and I do see some universities and organisations highlighting those days, but it would be nice to have things going on throughout the year. There doesn’t have to be an occasion to highlight LGBTQ+ scientists and science communicators, this can happen on any random day of the week! More regular activities can show that an organisation is open to supporting people from marginalised groups, rather than feeling forced to do it because of a special day or month”

LGBTQ+ and ally virtual meetups

Sam knows of organisations that schedule regular virtual group coffee or lunch sessions where LGBTQ+ people and allies can meet and have a chat. People do not have to disclose how they identify to the group, if they don’t want to, nor do they have to be part of the LGBTQ+ community to join in, and this can be a good first step for STEM organisations to create a space where everyone feels comfortable to be themselves. Such meetings don’t always need to include discussions about specific issues within the LGBTQ+ community but can still help raise awareness and respect for the community through informal chats and networking. Importantly, Sam has experienced discrimination and biphobia from certain individuals within the LGBTQ+ community so creating an inclusive group where all marginalised people and allies are welcome is vital.

Change must start at the top

Beyond ensuring safe and supportive work environments, organisations could specifically highlight people who are comfortable being open about their sexuality and gender identity and may be happy to act as role models and first points of contact across the business. Sam said he felt lucky that, although more could have been done to support LGBTQ+ people during his PhD, there weren’t any serious issues of harassment and discrimination that majorly affected his research. However, since starting his career in science communication, he has regularly been the only person at work who was openly part of the LGBTQ+ community. In certain workplaces there was a lot of homophobia, biphobia and misogyny, and it was exhausting feeling like it was always his responsibility to challenge this behaviour as no-one else would. Sam believes that change must start from those at the top, to send the message that discrimination will not be tolerated, and it’s really important that clear guidelines and systems are in place for LGBTQ+ people to seek advice and raise any issues.

Learn to be a better ally

Finally, Sam spoke about the importance of active allies and how people can better support the LGBTQ+ community when they aren’t a part of it. He highlighted a poster – made by Dr Joby Hollis - with advice on how to be a better ally and has seen examples of companies displaying similar posters around the workplace to help initiate conversations about the LGBTQ+ in STEM community and the ways in which individuals and organisation can offer their support.

How to be a better LGBTQ+ ally

What is happening in Cape Town?

The University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa is well-known for being very liberal and progressive when it comes to diversity and inclusion. We spoke to two queer scientists and an ally who is a senior leader of the university to find out what lessons we could learn from them, here in the UK.

Francois du Toit Molecular and Cell Biologist (he/him)

Francois du Toit is a molecular and cell biologist who specialises in engineering drought-resistant resurrection plants. Francois is openly gay at work and feels very lucky to work in a queer-friendly lab alongside many openly queer colleagues. It also helps that the head of the programme, Dr Jill Farrant, is queer. She is well-known and respected in the field, a very strong woman and good role model to everyone she works with.

“UCT is very liberal and so there is space for people to be themselves. I know people in other STEM organisations where it is a bit more conservative and they feel more pressure to be closeted. In my opinion it’s not just about the STEM industry, but more about the culture of the organisation or location. I did a research trip to Israel and, although the institution was liberal, the culture in the country was not as open to embracing queer people.”

Culture is everything

Francois said that changing a culture where discrimination of any kind is present is challenging especially if you are in a marginalised group and there is no open dialogue, then it becomes difficult to raise the point. When you have allies and leaders starting the conversation it becomes easier to be open. Like Sam, Francois said that people can start small to make big changes; raise the dialogue and let people know they are supported.

“When allies show public support for their queer colleagues it can help them come out – don’t put pressure on anyone to come out but still show your public support to your queer colleagues.”

Dr Jill Farrant world leading professor of cell biology (she/her)

Dr Jill Farrant is professor of molecular and cell biology at the UCT, she is a leading expert on resurrection plants, which 'come back to life' from a seemingly dead state when they are rehydrated. Jill is a lesbian woman and when she started her career, she had a very different experience to Francois because the culture was less liberal. She found it difficult to come to terms with her sexuality and so didn’t talk about it at the university. When she became involved with a woman and her colleagues found out, her sexuality was frowned upon. As she progressed through her career, she became a very well-respected scientist, one of the best in the world and slowly her sexuality became less of a focus. She understands how young people feel and loves how the younger generation to is far more comfortable with their sexuality and she wants to lead by example. Jill suffered great stigma from her sexuality, so she wanted to create a safe space for others to be who they are when they are at work.

“What right do we have to judge anyone? Love your neighbour like you love yourself. Think about what harm you are doing. You are causing so much unnecessary hurt in people’s lives. Many people are born without an agenda, they are a product of their environment. So, we need to create an environment where it is okay for people to be themselves. People must dig deep and find the inner strength to tell world how they feel, in doing so you may help someone else who doesn’t feel able to speak up.”

Jill cannot understand why the STEM industry is so closed and homophobic, because it is the industry of the future.

“They are focused on the future, solving problems of the future, how can they be so ignorant? There is a real lack of emotional intelligence and that is stopping innovation and progress.”

Professor Susan Bourne (she/her)

To find out more about what the leadership team at UCT does to create such a welcoming and liberal culture, we spoke to Professor Susan Bourne who has held many senior leadership positions including Interim Dean of UCT. She is a heterosexual woman and a LGBTQ+ ally. She said that Cape Town in general is a queer friendly city and the university is at the heart of that environment.

Unlike Sam’s PhD induction experience, Susan speaks about diversity and inclusion a lot in her post graduate inductions. They have facilitated discussions to begin the conversation around what diversity and inclusion might mean to them and to identify the kinds of situations where people might not feel like they were part of the majority. South Africa is a very racially diverse country with a turbulent history of Apartheid, so inevitably, race and racism is something they spend most of their time focusing on, but sexuality, gender and queerness also come up as discussion points.

“Interestingly for me, over the past four or five years, the question around gender identity has become something that the younger generation want to talk about more than sexuality, which I think says a lot about the fluidity of these things as they evolve and change over time”

It appears that more young people are identifying as non-binary these days, which seems to be a fairly recent thing, perhaps because there is more support online and more visibility for the non-binary community who started the conversation and by shining a light on the subject, they made others feel safe to say that they do not conform to the conventional binary model of gender.

Susan said that most people in leadership roles at UCT would be supportive in a situation where someone came out in the workplace, although they may not know exactly what to say or do because some people find these conversations a bit complex and difficult, especially if their own identity is very fixed and they don’t have many queer friends, but she believes there would be a minority that would be actively hostile.

Susan remembered a conference she attended many years ago and the conversation was around how difficult it is to change an organisations culture when you do not have any power. In that case, the discussion was largely around being a woman in a male dominated environment, which may seem like a separate issue, but it is similar when you think about being “the other” and not fitting in with the majority and it is very difficult to change that unless you are in a senior position of power.

What can employers do?

For many LGBTQ+ people, there can be a fear of physical violence, social isolation and humiliation, especially in environments dominated by heteronormative men. Education is important to nurture greater understanding and tolerance. Facilitating workshops, setting up support groups, teaching people to be better allies and having strict consequences in place for anyone who engages in discrimination will all go a long way in making our queer colleagues feel safe and valued. How we behave is greatly influenced by the behaviour of those around us. Social approval is a psychological desire to conform to behaviours consistent with the social group’s perceived attitude and avoid behaviours inconsistent with the group’s apparent attitude. So, if bigotry and homophobia are seen as acceptable and not challenged in your workplace then the majority will behave this way. As soon as we make discrimination an attitude inconsistent behaviour the culture will shift to be more tolerant. We need this in STEM not just for the wellbeing of our colleagues from minority groups but also to drive business performance and growth. In a 2015 report by McKinsey entitled, Why Diversity Matters, they found that highly diverse organisations outperformed those without diversity by 15%.

At Marshall Centre, we are lucky to have a leadership team who champion diversity and wellbeing but many STEM and education organisations in the UK still have a long way to go. Ultimately the change must come from the top, so our message to all allies is:

Hold your leaders accountable and start the conversation!

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