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Opinion: STEM isn’t very gay-friendly — and that’s a problem

Improving STEM for LGBTQ+ people requires rethinking our working and lab environments
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""The research environment presents an equity, diversity, and inclusion challenge," writes Tony Hu." COURTESY OF ANDREW JAY/UNSPLASH

How is your equity, diversity, and inclusion in STEM? I’ve never had any complaints!

If you excuse the horrible reference to RuPaul’s Drag Race, I have some thoughts on being a LGBTQ+ person in STEM. While I have not experienced any overt discrimination for being LGBTQ+ in STEM, I do not find it to be a particularly safe or welcoming space.

First, let’s recognize the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community. The LGBTQ+ community contains some of the strongest people alive. Despite the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, bullying and harassment remain a rite of passage for many. I myself have been verbally and physically assaulted for who I am.

But despite our strength, LGBTQ+ representation in STEM is still lacking.

This question might be framed as, “If there aren’t any rules explicitly preventing LGBTQ+ people from being in STEM, why aren’t there more LGBTQ+ people in STEM?”

But there are in fact LGBTQ+ people in STEM — they are simply not visibly represented among students and researchers. So why the lack of visibility?

My answer, as someone who is sometimes asked why I am not out in the STEM community, is simple. Although institutions may claim to be a safe space for LGBTQ+ people, the reality is that many do not feel safe revealing their sexuality.

Inclusion is an active process

A 2013 survey indicated that LGBTQ+ workers in STEM fields feel more comfortable being open about their sexuality to friends than colleagues. The issue then is that LGBTQ+ people in STEM exist but are not visible.

A lack of discrimination isn’t enough to make STEM inclusive for LGBTQ+ people. What’s needed is an active effort to address the discomfort scientists and students might face in being out to their peers. If more members of the LGBTQ+ community came out, it would improve their visibility in STEM — but that is not so easily achieved.

The visibility of LGBTQ+ people in STEM is particularly challenging to improve because, unlike race and gender, sexuality is not immediately obvious. The lack of obvious indicators of being LGBTQ+, coupled with heteronormative assumptions, makes it easy to hide your sexuality. And it is often the environment that makes someone hide their identity.

On a fundamental level, it is the immediate environment in which we find ourselves that determines how safe and comfortable we are, not just the rules protecting minoritized communities against discrimination. It takes a lot of courage to come out in a potentially hostile space. Given the uncertainties surrounding coming out, there is the very real potential of your sexuality creating obstacles in your academic career.

This fear results in few LGBTQ+ people coming out in STEM, creating a cycle whereby the fewer people who are out in STEM, the less inclusive STEM feels, which prevents more LGBTQ+ people from coming out.

This is not hypothetical — a 2018 survey suggested that almost a third of UK-based LGBTQ+ physical scientists have considered leaving their positions because of their workplace environment.

So creating an inclusive and safe environment for LGBTQ+ people in STEM means actively asking why current environments feel unsafe.

The research environment

The research environment presents an equity, diversity, and inclusion challenge. In academia, within a department, faculty members run their own research groups with graduate students, postgraduate students, undergraduate students, and lab staff.

These research groups exist as distinct environments; it is a system marred by fragmentation where each lab can have wildly different working environments. The lack of standardized training culminates in varying cultures of openness, diversity, and inclusion within each research group.

Additionally, research is very collaborative with researchers frequently collaborating with other groups. Even if your group is inclusive and supportive, you might need to collaborate with a group that is not. Groups from other institutions and disciplines have varying levels of openness.

Consequently, creating more welcoming environments in isolation is not enough to make STEM more inclusive. Researchers at all levels of their careers and at all different locales around the world need to be aware of this issue.

Considering solutions

Here are some solutions to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion in STEM, particularly for LGBTQ+ people. For LGBTQ+ researchers and students, connect with other LGBTQ+ researchers and find LGBTQ+ mentors in STEM. A quick Google search will provide a number of STEM-centric LGBTQ+ organizations and events, such as 500 Queers Scientists and the annual LGBTQ+ STEM conference hosted by the University of Windsor. Connecting with other members of the community is one of the best ways for LGBTQ+ people to feel safe in their own environments.

For non-LGBTQ+ researchers, learn about becoming an ally. You can do your part to ensure that the STEM community is a safe and inclusive space for LGBTQ+ people. Start by recognizing the difficulties faced by LGBTQ+ people in STEM. Consider your reasons for being an ally — sometimes, performative allyship is worse than no allyship at all. Leverage your strengths to make the STEM community more safe and inclusive for LGBTQ+ people.

Equity in STEM extends beyond LGBTQ+ issues, encompassing other underrepresented minoritized groups in STEM including women, people of colour, Indigenous people, and many more. These equity issues are all interconnected.

If you feel strongly toward increasing LGBTQ+ visibility in STEM, you should feel strongly toward having more Black people in STEM. You should feel strongly toward having more Indigenous people in STEM. You should feel strongly toward having more women in STEM.

Our work is not done once LGBTQ+ people achieve equal status in STEM. Our work is only done when all people are treated equally.