Get talking – Pride in STEM

Materials World magazine
,
1 Jul 2019

The recent LGBT in STEM day cast a spotlight on the current state of inclusivity in science. Dr Ben Britton* FIMMM discusses the need for greater action from everyone.

How often do you bring your home life to work? I’m sure you can think of at least one occasion. You mention a picnic with your spouse and children, maybe share a fun selfie of you and your child, or bring up a recent family issue that had you stressed. Each of these casual conversations is often shared between heterosexual friends and colleagues without a second thought. They bring colleagues together and are a natural part of life in the workplace.

As a gay man, however, I think twice before sharing my home life. I could share my Saturday run in Hyde Park and brunch – with LGBTQ+ running club, London Frontrunners – the hilarious awkwardness of a recent date with a guy, or perhaps engagement with an LGBTQ+ charity. Yet each time, I consider if I need to censor my story. Will my life be easier by keeping quiet?

To the mainstream, my home life may have a sense of ‘otherness’. On any bleary Monday morning, do I have the emotional strength to kick off the week with yet another coming out experience? It is not a one-time event, as there is an underlying assumption that everyone is straight, it often happens with each new encounter.

Personal life

The fact I am a gay man has shaped my career. I know and value my relationship of nearly seven years, which overlapped with a formative period of my career, including my DPhil and Postdoctoral Research at Oxford University and my first couple of years in London. I know how my relationship changed when he moved to the USA, and how that affects my view of the two-body problem when growing the research group I head up.

Extending the idea of withholding part of oneself, I can see how similar experiences of my LGBTQ+ colleagues and students impacts many facets of their careers. It flavours their ups and downs, and I can see the damage generated from casual homophobia and/or transphobia, whether intentional or not. These experiences can have a negative impact that restricts their ability to engage with everyday activities.

In science and engineering, there is co-construction of professional culture and identity, and these help form professional norms and perceptions. In turn, this builds and reinforces stereotypes. At first glance, these stereotypes may make it easier through shortcuts and assumptions, and for some, can be used like armour to convey a sense of belonging – such as white coats or hi-vis jackets for outreach and public engagement.

However, they are still damaging as they ignore nuances and suppress individuals from being themselves. They exclude many people and dampen their potential. Further, each stereotype also creates an expectation of how people should behave and act, which can limit the range of individuals we recruit and retain in our profession. As we strive to do better, we can explore the literature and note the value of delivering through diversity, as presented by McKinsey and co., which indicates that workforce diversity, together with inclusion and equality, increases profitability and longer term value creation for companies.

Evidence based

Working in an international community, I can see how being LGBTQ+ impacts people on a global scale. For instance, personally, I would struggle to travel to Russia as there is limited freedom of expression for LGBTQ+ issues and I have concerns about violence towards LGBTQ+ people there. Even in the USA, there is limited protection and this varies hugely by state. Back in the UK, I would not be able to take up a job in Northern Ireland while the Democratic Unionist Party continues to veto gay marriage.

I would like to pretend that it’s okay once gay marriage is in place, but unfortunately that would be a lie. Gay marriage is an important legal victory, but changing cultures remains a substantive challenge. For LGBTQ+ individuals, recent research due to be released as part of the LGBT+ physical sciences climate survey run by the Institute of Physics, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry, indicates that only 40% of LGBTQ+ people are fully out or out to most people in their place of work.

Furthermore, there is systematic evidence of LGBTQ+ related inequalities in American workplaces, as in the paper Queer in STEM organizations: workplace disadvantages for LGBT employees in STEM related federal agencies, published in Social Sciences in 2017. This is likely correlated with data from the American Physical Society’s 2016 LGBT climate in Physics report, which indicated that 50% of trans people, 10% of LGBTQ+ men, 30% of LGBTQ+ women and 40% of gender non-conforming people have experienced exclusionary behaviour at work.

Further research in the UK by the Trade Unions Congress revealed that seven out of 10 LGBTQ+ people have been sexually harassed or assaulted at work, and an eighth of LGBTQ+ women have been seriously sexually assaulted or raped at work.

Fortunately, my homosexual rage can now be channelled as a force for good. I am a Trustee of UK-based charitable trust, Pride in STEM and our informal mantra is to queer up science spaces and science up queer spaces. This is an online initiative aimed to provide international visibility and a voice for underrepresented LGBTQ+ individuals in STEM, supported by an amazing range of partners.

We march in the London Pride protest parade, we present an evening series of talks from LGBTQ+ people called OutThinkers, and we advocate for change. On 5 July 2019, we celebrate the second #LGBTSTEMDay together with House of STEM, InterEngineering, Out in STEM, LGBTQSTEM, QueersInScience, 500 Queer Scientists, and LGBT+ Physics.

Check yourself

Together with our straight and cis-gendered colleagues, we have to engage in conversations where we welcome, encourage and support the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues at work, and create inclusive spaces. I caution and remind you that a discussion of being LGBTQ+ at work is not about sex. Instead, this is about enabling human connections and the ability for human beings to share a part of themselves and their ups and downs with colleagues and friends, as well as tackling harassment, bullying and assault in the workplace.

In terms of work-based attitudes, it is no longer reasonable to encourage covering up of people’s identities, i.e. encouraging people to act more straight, as frankly this is institutional harassment.

Furthermore, while I as a white, middle-class, well-educated, able-bodied, cis-gendered gay male can ‘pass’ as straight, this should be unnecessary as it is emotionally exhausting to continue to have to censor my behaviour. I am also incredibly fortunate that my employer, Imperial College London, spends time and resource to grow and sustain a welcoming and inclusive culture.

However, as part of my job I work in many places and with lots of different people. This creates opportunities for me to experience microagressions and homophobia – and IOM3 is not immune to this. For example, I still recall an awkward moment of despair at an IOM3 awards dinner when the recipients were gathered on the steps at Carlton House Terrace for a group photo. One gentleman awardee quietly chuckled to the mostly male group, ‘Watch out, we don’t want to stand too close together or our wives may get the wrong idea that we’re homosexuals’.  If only someone would have stood up on my behalf my silver medal now would remain untarnished by that homophobic outburst.

At this point, you might be frustrated or annoyed. Fear not, we are making some progress, and perhaps you are reading this and wondering, ‘what can I do?’

An ally for change

If you identify as LGBTQ+, you have no obligation to change. As a member of a typically underrepresented group, fixing society does not rest on your shoulders. If you can, be out and share your story as that itself has enormous power. You can be a role model and enhance the visibility of LGBTQ+ STEM professionals, and hopefully together we can form a critical mass and be well represented.

If you want to be an ally, please listen to individuals from the LGBTQ+ community. Please spend some time and energy educating and empowering yourself. This will enable you to be an effective ally and actively challenge bad behaviour, such as standing up for or speaking out in support of someone faced by prejudice. You can amplify LGBTQ+ voices and spend your social capital to advocate for change within your organisation. You can challenge heteronormative – the assumption that everyone is in a heterosexual relationship – behaviour and stereotyping.

For employers, the most important thing you can do is stop assuming that everyone is straight. Review your policies for LGBTQ+ employees, ask your LGBTQ+ employees what matters to them, prioritise protecting people and the creation of an inclusive working environment. Consider supporting visible icons, e.g. flying the pride flag, to share your culture with your employees as well as those who you work with. Support the development of networks, both through providing money but also encourage senior management to attend and engage with social initiatives and meetings.

It is especially important to consider how you and your workplace support trans and gender non-conforming people. For instance, it is often trivial to create gender neutral bathrooms, like the one you have at home. These will, for example, have an intersectional benefit for fathers taking their daughters to the toilet, and mothers their young sons.

Hopefully together we can help continue this shift in the fabric of our society and our profession, of the power that comes from embracing and understanding equality, diversity and inclusivity.

We shouldn’t need an article to reaffirm the idea that our lives outside of work are important. I would love to spend my time and energy to just focus on the science, but I know culturally we are not yet celebrating the differences of individuals. Ultimately, we LGBTQ+ people want to be ourselves and do the best work we can.


Pride in STEM is a charitable trust run by an independent group of LGBTQ+ scientists and engineers from around the world. For more information about the organisation, visit the website at bit.ly/2WJFB7C or @PrideinSTEM.