Post provided by Chloe Robinson

Picture credit: Chloe Robinson.

November 18th, 2020 marks International LGBTQ+ STEM Day, which aims to celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer + (LGBTQ, “+”= plus other sexes, gender identities, and sexual orientations) people in all different STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. This specific date is symbolic of the 60th anniversary of American astronomer and gay activist Frank Kameny’s US Supreme Court fight against workplace discrimination, a fight that continues today in many countries worldwide. To mark this day, Associate and Blog Editor, Dr. Chloe Robinson, who is openly lesbian, has put together a blog post, with contributions from other LGBTQ+-identifying MEE Associate Editors, to discuss the current state of LGBTQ+ visibility in STEM.

Why is LGBTQ+ Visibility an Issue?

The process of coming out as LGBTQ+ is often shown by films, TV and media to be a one-time event, however, those in the LGBTQ+ community are more than aware that this couldn’t be further from the truth. When people ask me about what happened when I came out, often my answer is “which time?”, because in reality, an LGBTQ+ person never stops coming out. There is the initial coming out to family and friends, and then that time at school/university, and then that time you get your first job, and then that time in the break room when they ask you about your partner etc. Out of all of these coming out events, often the most difficult is coming out in your place of work.

The workplace can be a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ individuals, and many worry that revealing their sexuality at work will have negative consequences. The fear of homophobia, exclusion or being overlooked for valuable promotions are just some of the reasons many LGBTQ+ people are not out in their place of work. A study in 2013, led by Jeremy B. Yoder and Allison Mattheis, found that 43% of scientists kept their LGBTQ+ identity hidden from the majority of their colleagues, despite the known negative psychological consequences of concealing personal identities.

The willingness for a person to come out in their workplace is mostly influenced by the workplace environment itself. The presence of minorities, active policies against discrimination and degree of heteronormativity, can all influence whether a person feels comfortable coming out at work. For me, the lack of visible LGBTQ+ faculty and staff made me question coming out as a PhD student and this lack of representation remains a major limiting factor for coming out as early career LGBTQ+ STEM researchers. The reluctance for coming out is understandable. In many instances, the dynamics are subtle and covert, in others it is overt. Associate Editor, Prof PM Durand at Wits University, communicated an instance where his application (not in his own country) as a visiting scholar was abruptly terminated and communication halted when his orientation was revealed. “In some regions of the world, this is commonplace and early career scientists as well as established researchers face similar challenges”.

Associate Editor Dr Simone Blomberg commented on the changes involved with coming out as transgender in the workplace: “In contrast to coming out around differences in sexual orientation and preferences, coming out as transgender often entails big changes in the way the transgender person presents themselves (clothing etc., name changes, pronouns) and in the way they relate to others in their workplace. This can be very stressful for all involved: transgender people and their co-workers. The person coming out is very vulnerable. It helps to have peers that are friendly and supportive, and a workplace with clear policies around gender transition.”

Role of Social Media and Inclusive Professional Networks

Social media has been a vital tool for promoting visibility of LGBTQ+ people, through breaking gender and sexual orientation stereotypes and generally providing LGBTQ+ people with a platform to be open about their identity. Twitter has been an important platform for increasing representation for LGBTQ+ people working in STEM, providing a place for concerns to be raised and support networks to be formed. Many LGBTQ+ people often self-identify with the Rainbow or Pride flag Emoji in their Twitter name or bio, which promotes visibility and builds a sense of community.

Example of the use of Pride flag Emojis in Twitter username and bio, to self-identify as being within or supportive of the LGBTQ+ community.

Twitter is also a fantastic resource for promoting professional LGBTQ+ STEM networks, including LGBTQ+ STEM, Pride in STEM, and 500 Queer Scientists. The launch of 500 Queer Scientists has created a fantastic online network of LGBTQ+ identifying people working in STEM. This website is part of a new visibility campaign for LGBTQ+ people and their allies working in STEM and STEM-supporting jobs. In order to increase diversity and provide a supportive, inclusive space for LGBTQ+ people, the British Ecological Society established an LGBTQ+ Facebook Group for the community to network, collaborate and share advice. For early career scientists, these networks have been the foundation on which many have established collaborations and connected with other LGBTQ+ individuals in a safe, inclusive environment.

What More can be Done to Achieve Inclusive and Diverse STEM Workspaces?

BES Pride logo.

Visibility of LGBTQ+ people in STEM has come a long way from the start of LGBTQ+ visibility and activism in STEM in the late 1970s, however there are still many hurdles to overcome in the fight for representation. As highlighted in a recent study, there is only so much LGBTQ+ STEM individuals and grassroots organization such as Pride in STEM can do for overall visibility; ultimately the responsibility lies with the workplace itself. At universities, despite the existence of some LGBTQ+ networks, these networks are often centrally run and often do not cater towards students or non-faculty staff. In my opinion, STEM LGBTQ+ networks should be introduced across university departments and/or colleges, which will provide a professional and inclusive space for students, staff and faculty alike. “What would certainly help is departments and universities overtly endorsing and pledging support for LGBTQ+ students and faculty”, commented Prof. Durand. Promoting LGBTQ+ visibility at the departmental level at universities, encourages continued diversity and inclusion as students progress into postgraduate and postdoctoral levels. This also presents the opportunity for staff and faculty to make themselves visible within the LGBTQ+ community, which overall promotes a combined top-down and bottom-up approach to increasing inclusion and visibility.

“Here at the University of Queensland, we have a strongly supported LGBTQIA+ Ally network which provides visible support at all levels within the university. Allies wear rainbow badges and lanyards. It really helps support students who may never have a conversation about their gender or sexuality with anyone, but Ally visibility lets them know they are in a supportive environment. Any employee can be an Ally: “straight” staff are most welcome! We welcome anyone who is interested in promoting equity and diversity for LGBTQIA+ staff and students.” – Simone Blomberg.

For more information and online events for International LGBTQ+ STEM Day, visit the Pride in STEM website here.

To view and request to join the BES LGBTQ+ Facebook Group, click here.