International Day of LGBTQIA+ People in STEM
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Pride in STEM is a charity with a goal of raising the profile and highlighting the struggles of LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) people in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). In 2020, the charity selected November 18 as the International Day of LGBTQIA+ People in STEM, to reflect the anniversary of American astronomer and gay activist Frank Kameny’s US Supreme Court fight against workplace discrimination.
According to an article published in Science Advances, LGBTQIA+ persons were more likely than their non-LGBTQIA+ peers to experience social marginalization, harassment and limited career opportunities, and in a survey conducted by the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry, 49% of respondents agreed that there was an overall lack of awareness of LGBTQIA+ issues in the workplace.
There is also a lack of information available on the experiences of LGBTQIA+ people of color (PoC), however a 2018 survey of individuals working in Britain found that 12% of LGBTQIA+ POC lost a job due to their sexual or gender identity, whereas the percentage of white LGBTQIA+ individuals who lost their job for the same reason was 4%.
Each individual will have varying experiences related to identifying as LGBTQIA+ and working or studying in STEM. Technology Networks had the pleasure of interviewing five individuals currently pursuing a career in STEM who identify as LGBTQIA+ to find out about their experiences, opinions and ideas to inspire the next generation. This article contains segments from the five individual interviews, which can be found by following the links below.
Dr. Christina Atchison (She/Her)
Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe (She/Her)
Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe identifies as a trans woman and is a senior lecturer in the School of Biosciences at the University of Sheffield and UK Research and Innovation future leaders fellow. Read her full interview here.
Dr. Josh Makepeace (He/Him)
Dr. Josh Makepeace identifies as a gay man, and is a lecturer in materials chemistry at the University of Birmingham and UK Research and Innovation future leaders fellow. Read his full interview here.
Dr. Justin Luong (He/Him)
Dr. Sebastian Groh (They/Them, He/Him)
Dr. Sebastian Groh identifies as transmasculine, “somewhere between non-binary and a trans man”, in his own words. They are also autistic and bisexual. Groh is a research associate and head of the LGBTQIA+ network at the Department of Earth Sciences at University College London. Read his full interview here.
KR: What are the main barriers for LGBTQIA+ people entering and progressing in STEM, and what could be done to support them?
"In the short term, allies could work with LGBTQIA+ colleagues to ensure they feel supported in their department." – Dr. Justin Luong
Izzy Jayasinghe (IJ): The main barriers are still the high prevalence of harassment, bullying, discrimination, stereotyping and targeted microaggressions. Exclusionary workplace cultures, discouraging LGBTQIA+ colleagues or students from coming out are real red flags. The lack of representation of LGBTQIA+ people in the leadership roles and the failure to recognize the intersectional impact of belonging to other marginalized groups in addition to being LGBTQIA+ are also at the core of numerous types of barriers faced by our community in STEM. There is also a serious lack of data that allow us to study, understand, highlight and fix the negative experiences of LGBTQIA+ people in STEM. That data is unlikely to arrive any time soon, due to the lack of impetus from academies, funding bodies and employers to collect that data in a responsible and trustworthy manner.
Justin Luong (JL): In my opinion, one of the biggest barriers for LGBTQIA+ people entering STEM is that there is often little to no representation, and it is hard to pursue a career path where you have never seen someone like yourself. Another barrier are explicit and implicit biases which LGBTQIA+ people have to face from their colleagues, students and supervisors. Representation can be addressed slowly by building visibility of our community and contributing to networks such as 500QueerScientists and connecting with like-identified individuals within their field on social media platforms. Implicit and explicit biases are hard to address because that will require institutional and structural change which will help reduce biases. In the short term, allies could work with LGBTQIA+ colleagues to ensure they feel supported in their department. Furthermore, when someone repeats falsehoods or bias that are harmful those to LGBTQIA+ people, their colleagues should take initiative and action to ensure that those bias are not acted upon.
KR: Have you faced any obstacles in your career due to identifying as LGBTQIA+?
"...there are quite a few places I cannot safely travel to because of being queer, be it for field work/museum work or conferences." – Dr. Sebastian Groh
Josh Makepeace (JM): I’ve been very fortunate to have been shown a lot of support by colleagues in my workplace, so the main thing I would view as an obstacle was the lack of obvious role models when I was starting out in my career. It took a long time before I knew anyone in academia who was out, and so it was hard to see myself as belonging, or that I would ever fully be “myself” at work. Things have improved in recent years with initiatives like LGBTQIA+ STEM day, but I think we still have a long way to go to foster that sense of belonging in the workplace more broadly. I’m in a relatively privileged position but other sections of the LGBTQIA+ community still face very active discrimination.
Sebastian Groh (SG): Of course, things are never easy – besides the usual transphobia/queerphobia that I’ve experienced just like everyone else (deadnaming, misgendering, slurs, insults, etc.) and that weighs down your mental health, something that will always sadden me a little is that there are quite a few places I cannot safely travel to because of being queer, be it for field work/museum work or conferences. It has also proven a big challenge to have my name changed in journals where I published before I came out and began transitioning. Transitioning itself also is a limiting factor – hormone therapy for me requires GP visits at least every ten weeks so if I were to do fieldwork or go somewhere for a visiting semester, I could never stay away for longer than that. Also, the lack of gender-neutral toilet facilities in many buildings/conference venues is a problem. Of course, these are things that you try to work around nonetheless but they do make life a little harder!
Christina Atchison (CA): I have not experienced overt homophobia at work, yet I have not felt comfortable coming “out” in many of my previous jobs in hospital and academic settings. A lot of progress has been made since I started my career over a decade ago, many STEM organizations in the UK, including the NHS and higher education institutions, are now formally committed to inclusivity, diversity and equity. In my current job, visible allyship, in the form of my colleagues wearing rainbow lanyards, has given me the confidence to finally be out in the workplace. I am now a visible and active representative of our LGBTQIA+ community.
Recently, I worked on an evaluation of an adolescent reproductive health initiative in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania, which included in-country field visits to research sites. In Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania homosexuality is illegal. So, when asked about my personal life I would self-censor and switch pronouns to he/him/his when talking about my wife. Indeed, probably the hardest decision I have to make as an LGBTQIA+ scientist whilst traveling with work abroad is whether to disclose my sexuality or gender identity. The decision to be out during fieldwork is exceptionally complex as the risks are location dependent. There are circumstances where staying in the closet may be safer than being out, particularly in Africa and the Middle East where homosexuality is illegal in many countries and sometimes punishable by death.
KR: If you could give one piece of advice to young LGBTQIA+ researchers beginning their career, what would it be?
It is up to you whether you are out, or when, or how you come out. – Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe
CA: It is important to acknowledge and reflect on the fact that, as an LGBTQIA+ scientist, your individual professional choices and career decision-making could be profoundly affected by your sexuality, particularly if your fieldwork takes you overseas. My advice would be to increase your awareness of safety issues associated with fieldwork for LGBTQIA+ scientists. Prepare yourself for work in the field by identifying potential safety issues in relation to sexuality and gender identity and discussing these with your employer. If you know what to expect in terms of potential safety issues and cultural beliefs related to LGBTQIA+ people, you can make an informed decision whether you still feel comfortable traveling, or whether you will need additional support or mentoring to handle the additional stress in the field.
IJ: My advice to LGBTQIA+ researchers starting out in their scientific/academic careers is to position themselves in a workplace or academy that takes Diversity and Inclusion seriously. It is up to you whether you are out, or when, or how you come out. More important, is being in an environment where you feel included and uninhibited as a person and thrive as a professional. Indeed, the quality of the training and the quality of the research are also important criteria, however, do not pick that environment based on traditional metrics or anecdotes of “excellence” – they are often red herrings. A certain level of resilience is necessary when navigating hyper competitive sectors like academic STEM; positive LGBTQIA+ role models are especially good for nurturing that inspiration and resilience. However, resilience also means having the capacity to recognize discrimination, marginalization, and inequality, and then to take action to either prevent it or escape from it.
JM: I would say that there is a community of LGBTQIA+ researchers out there, you might just have to look for them! Social media can be a great way to connect with researchers around the world and share experiences. It’s important to see that there are people out there like you doing STEM research and making their mark!
JL: It will get better, although things seem hard now, as you get older and start to develop a true community of supporters you will be able to succeed and reach goals and overcome obstacles you never would have dreamed to be possible.
SG: Find your people! Try and join organizations or groups of people facing the same challenges at you, be it at your institution or the wider academic world (e.g., Pride in STEM, 500 Queer Scientists, your own local LGBTQIA+ staff or student groups, etc.). And remember to have a life outside research and academia, the job isn’t everything!
Dr. Christina Atchison, Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe, Dr. Josh Makepeace, Dr. Justin Luong, and Dr. Sebastian Groh were speaking to Kate Robinson, Editorial Assistant for Technology Networks.