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LGBTSTEMDay: The importance of community and visibility

News and Views

LGBTSTEMDay: The importance of community and visibility

News and Views

Shaun O’Boyle
Founder, House of STEM, Ireland & LGBTSTEM Day co-organiser, shaunoboyle.org


On any given day, a scientist, somewhere, is speaking to a group of young people, encouraging them to consider a career in science. We tell them how exciting it is to be part of that process of discovery, and how fulfilling it is to be in a line of work that is driven by curiosity and questions. But we don’t always ask ourselves if every young person in that room will feel welcome in their first lecture, in their first lab, at their first conference. And I think we should.

During my PhD, I began the challenging and never-ending process of “coming out” and telling people I’m gay. That didn’t always go well, and I didn’t always feel welcome in my department, but I was lucky to have the support and love of my lab group. I completed my PhD four years later, and I spent one more year at the bench as a postdoctoral researcher. My postdoc was in a new city, and I hid the fact that I was gay from most of my colleagues. That was exhausting.

While the scientific process does its best to eliminate human bias, scientific careers happen in offices, in labs, in meeting rooms, and in lecture theatres filled with humans and our biases. Like any other job, science happens in buildings and societies where sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and classism exist. It takes a lot more energy to do your science when you also have to deal with any of these, and even more energy when you have to deal with more than one of them.

Not surprisingly, 29% of LGBTQ young people avoid careers in STEM because they fear discrimination, and those who do enrol are more likely to drop out (Hughes, 2018). 40% of LGBTQ people in STEM are not “out” at work (Yoder & Mattheis, 2016), and there are significant risks faced by LGBTQ researchers who are required to do fieldwork in regions where it is dangerous or illegal for them to exist.

Something I’ve learned over the years is that scientists are very good at forming communities. When I did my PhD on early zebrafish development, I discovered that there is a “zebrafish community” full of helpful and friendly people who like to dance at conferences, and who will share all of their plasmids with you if you ask them. After my postdoc, I moved into a career in science communication, and began to spend more time on Twitter. One day, I followed @PrideinSTEM, and in doing so I discovered an incredible international network of LGBTQ scientists and science communicators that would eventually feel like my extended family. This sense of community is important, because it gives us a stronger voice and it serves as an important support, particularly for new students and early career scientists.

Like many minorities in science, we find each other online and through social media. We also work hard to improve the experiences of current and future LGBTQ scientists. The first LGBTSTEMDay was organised last year, on 5 July, by a small team, but supported by 48 scientific organisations including The Physiological Society. It brought people together all around the world for events that ranged from coffee mornings to exhibitions, and panel discussions. It sparked important conversations, strengthened peer support, and improved visibility. Online, the #LGBTSTEMDay hashtag reached 11 million people on Twitter and 64 million people on Facebook. Visibility like this is important, because it makes LGBTQ scientists feel less alone, less isolated, and it helps connects us to a supportive community.

This year, nine groups will join forces to organise LGBTSTEMDay 2019, and to help spark more conversations, more get-togethers, and even better representation of the diversity of LGBTQ people who work in STEM. We will offer support to anyone who’d like to organise an event or initiative to showcase LGBTQ talent in STEM, to highlight the challenges faced by the community, and to show support and solidarity.

In an initiative supported by The Physiological Society, I’m excited to be teaming up with Alfredo Carpineti to put together a collection of stories from LGBTQ scientists around the world. We hope that these stories will be a source of support, advice, and insight into what it’s like to be LGBTQ in STEM, and we will be sharing them as a free e-book this year.

Science can be an incredible career, and an incredible journey. It benefits from having a diverse workforce, with a range of perspectives and experiences, but there are aspects of working in science that can hinder that diversity. Conferences, for example, are held in locations that are unsafe for LGBTQ people, or where people can be denied accommodation or service based on sexual orientation or gender identity (e.g. USA, Singapore, Russia). We talk about science’s “leaky pipeline” for talent, but I think it’s more like a pipeline with a series of selective filters that allow some people through while holding others back. My hope is that we will continue to work together to change that, so that when we speak to that room full of young people, we can confidently recommend a career in science, knowing they will all be respected equally.

#LGBTSTEMDay Organisers on Twitter:
LGBTSTEMDay @LGBTSTEMDay
Pride in STEM @PrideinSTEM
House of STEM @HouseofSTEM
Out in STEM @OUTinSTEM
Inter Engineering @InterEngLGBT
Queers in STEM @QueersInSTEM
LGBTSTEM @LGBTSTEM
500 Queer Scientists @500QueerSci
Queers in Science @QueersInScience
LGBT+ Physics @LGBT_Physics

For more information, visit lgbtstemday.org. If you would like to get involved, email lgbtstemday@gmail.com.

References

Hughes BE (2018). Coming out in STEM: factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students. Science Advances 4, eaao6373.

Yoder JB, Mattheis A (2016). Queer in STEM: workplace experiences reported in a national survey of LGBTQA individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Journal of Homosexuality 63(1), 1 – 27.

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