Get talking – LGBT+ and the data disparity in STEM

Materials World magazine
3 Jun 2020

Emily Radley, Chemist & Materials Engineer and Lead of IOM3Pride, discusses data disparity within STEM and the effects it has on its LGBT+ workers.

The 2010 Equality Act lists both sexual orientation and gender reassignment as protected characteristics. LGBT+ is a blanket term that covers both of these two distinct protected characteristics, which are often evaluated separately in surveys and studies, but are societally still considered together. Much like any other minority groups, there are many overlaps in experiences and issues. However, the two groups do have differing experiences and, in my opinion, have been brought together through necessity for support, rather than because one solution will cover both groups’ needs.

Some protected characteristics are well surveyed, documented and monitored within the UK, such as age and gender. Sexual orientation and gender reassignment are among the least well represented within existing data. Estimates from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggest that 2.9% of the population identify as LGBT+ (2.3% LGB and 0.6% other). However, according to the 2018 National LGBT Survey Summary Report, the Government Equalities Office believes that no robust and representative data of the LGBT+ population in the UK currently exists. The ONS has determined that there is even less data or provision currently for gender identity or gender reassignment. 
In the workplace

The National LGBT Survey reveals that at work 30% of LGBT+ employees hide their status from colleagues or employers out of fear of discrimination, and 18% have experienced negative comments or conduct in the last 12 months due to their LGBT+ status. A Trade Union Congress (TUC) survey found that 68% of LGBT+ people report being sexually harassed in some way at work and the TUC survey reported that 42% have had colleagues make unwanted comments or ask unwelcome questions about their sex life. These are anecdotally described as more graphic or intrusive than the questions asked of their heterosexual counterparts.

Furthermore, 7% of LGBT+ men and 12% of LGBT+ women experienced serious sexual assault or rape in the workplace. These figures were even higher for all measured intersectional groups, including BME LGBT+ women at 27%, Trans LGBT+ women at 22% and disabled LGBT+ men at 20%.

Data disparity

There could be an argument that the STEM fields do not have these issues. That may be true, but the data simply doesn’t exist. What we do know is that, according to the two reports – TUC just a bit of banter, and the ACS sexual harassment in the sciences: steps forward – male-dominated workplaces will typically have higher rates of sexual harassment and STEM is still a largely male-dominated area, particularly for engineering.
Data that does exist for LGBT+ experiences in STEM appears to mirror the UK workplace. A recent Wellcome Trust report shows that 43% of people under the protected characteristics category have experienced bullying or harassment. Of the LGBT+ respondents to the survey, 24% say they would not feel comfortable discussing LGBT+ discrimination in their working environment. 

The joint physical sciences’ report, Exploring the workplace for LGBT+ physical scientists, found similar levels of discrimination to that previously discussed in the general workplace. These were the worst for trans respondents at 32%, non-binary respondents at 32% and lesbian respondents at 22%. There is some comfort in that 70% of respondents agree that the climate for LGBT+ people in the physical sciences is improving. This is also a feeling generally within the larger UK LGBT+ population reported in the national survey mentioned earlier.

Things are getting better, yet there is a long way to go. People who are transgender, non-binary, or meet the definition of having the gender reassignment protected characteristic are the most discriminated against and harassed, but are catered for the least. In addition, women and people of colour consistently experience higher levels of discrimination.  

As a STEM community, we can improve our understanding of the experiences of LGBT+ people, as well as other minority groups, by increasing the data we gather about all protected characteristics. We can use this data to improve the experiences of these groups and ensure that our legacy is not one of discrimination and harassment, but that of genuinely inclusive, equal working groups. As the lead for IOM3’s new LGBT+ support network – IOM3Pride – I can say that it is one of the key goals of the network to gain a better understanding of the issues facing LGBT+ people within materials, minerals and mining. It is the key to working together to improve often overlooked but damaging wrongs. 

What can we do about it?

Take a minute – my challenge to you is to pause and think, is there a way that I can ask this question that doesn’t assume their gender or that of their partner? Can I ask what their preference is? What impact will my words and actions have on the people around me?

Education – as individuals we can gain a better understanding of LGBT+ people and their issues. As employers, provide education for your staff around LGBT+ issues, as well as harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment. For LGBT+ individuals, we can use moments of ignorance to educate colleagues.

Understanding – as employers, we can enshrine protection for the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our workforce and membership in our policies, processes and actions. As an LGBT+ community, including allies, we can remember that most of our colleagues didn’t learn anything about minority sexual orientations or gender identities at school. As individuals, we can remember that high levels of discrimination and negativity affect our most vulnerable people. We can also acknowledge our privileges and use them to increase equality going forward.
*Addressing data disparity, IOM3 will be asking members to update their diversity data later this year.