LGBTIQ rights: ‘Being gay in Stem workplaces can be difficult’
Kathmandu/Pahichan – In 2015 a US survey found that LGBTIQ scientists felt more accepted in their workplaces than their peers in other professions did. The Queer in Stem survey, published in the Journal of Homosexuality, surveyed 1,400 LGBTIQ workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They found respondents in scientific fields that had a high proportion of women were more likely to be out to their colleagues than those who worked in male-intensive disciplines.
This is heartening news as it’s not necessarily that way in most Australian workplaces. Last year a report found that nearly half of LGBTIQ Australians hide their sexual identity at work. The research was conducted by Dive In festival on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The report also found six in 10 LGBTIQ people have experienced verbal homophobic abuse in the workplace, while two in 10 have experienced physical violence.
Discrimination still takes place in Stem workplaces around the world. The 2016 survey LGBTIQ Climate in Physics, published by the American Physical Society, found that more than one in five physicists from sexual and gender minorities in the Unites States reported having been excluded, intimidated or harassed at work because of their sexual identity. Transgender physicists and physics students faced the most hostile environments, while women experienced harassment, intimidation and exclusion at three times the rate of men.
Despite apparently progressive attitudes, being gay in Stem fields can be difficult.
For me, it was a bit of a miracle I made it as an astrophysicist at all. When I went to enrol in high school in the UK, I was told I would be forced to wear a skirt. My reaction was akin to that of an 11-year-old boy. Dressing up in a skirt wasn’t an option for me, so I didn’t attend another day of school after the age of 11. My parents were accommodating and I taught myself at home, but not everyone is fortunate to have that amount of flexibility and autonomy in their education.
I came out as gay aged 17. It was 1997 – the start of more enlightened times in the UK. Despite this, my girlfriend’s mother wanted us to keep our relationship a secret in case she got sacked from her job as a college lecturer. I was working at the time as a part-time nanny, but my employer (who was a lovely person) asked me to keep my relationship a secret in case she lost custody of her children.
At university, I volunteered my time as the student union’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender officer, providing frontline support to students. It was an uplifting experience to listen and provide a social support network to fellow students coming out.
I have been intimidated and belittled many times owing to my sexuality and gender but, frankly, insults from individuals are the easiest type of flak to take. It’s the campaigns by well-funded groups to curb human rights that scar deeply. Campaigns to fight an unequal age of consent, a ban from the armed forces, a ban on blood donation, a ban on adoption and, more recently, a ban on same-sex marriage in the UK were successful, but not without a measure of blood, sweat and tears. And there’s more work to be done in Australia.
So, what does this have to do with workplaces? Given that so many LGBTIQ people are likely to face barriers to inclusion in their jobs, this affects their mental health (LGBTIQ people are three times more likely to experience depression compared with the broader population) and it also has a detrimental effect on engagement, which is closely linked with productivity. Having witnessed this problem in several Stem working environments around the world, I wanted to help tackle it.
In 2014 I led a team of Astronomical Society of Australia members to launch the Pleiades awards – a framework for astronomy organisations to engage in self-reflection and improvement of their workplace culture and practices. The project has led to many positive actions improving our professional community, for instance every workplace in Australia for astronomers now has a diversity and inclusion committee.
And these have introduced initiatives including mentoring programs for students, guidelines for the prevention and reporting of harassment at conferences and scholarships to enable researchers who have returned from parental leave to host a conference and “get back into the game”. This has emboldened astronomers to open up at the Astronomical Society of Australia’s annual conferences on inclusion and diversity to discuss hard issues including race, cultural and linguistic background, ability, health, sexual and gender expression and how these play out in our professional community.
Whereas 10 years ago I was speaking at meetings about women in Stem, I’m now as likely to be talking about intersectional issues faced by LGBTIQ scientists and, happily, I am also more likely to share the stage with people from different cultural backgrounds speaking their truths. Astronomy is slowly improving its listening skills.
At my workplace, the CSIRO, we are working hard to improve the way things are done. In the astronomy and space science business unit, we’re undergoing a deep period of self-scrutiny and improvement called the Culture Project. In parallel, our diversity and inclusion group is working alongside the human resources team on positive changes in the areas of hiring, training, flexible working arrangements and facilities to improve the workplace for all.
There are improvements across the organisation, too. Staff run an active LGBTIQ network and are setting up an LGBTIQ Ally network, to equip people with the skills and knowledge required to effectively support LGBTIQ employees. We are taking part in a pilot of the national Science and Gender Equity program, which employs an evidence-based approach to identify areas for improvement in equity and inclusion.
The organisational will is there but complacency has absolutely no place in the process. We must push on. In our global economy and with our truly global workforce within Stem, we must work together to make things better. Playing a positive and active role in these activities shows our fellow humans that we take time to listen to their experiences, and respect and acknowledge the different path they have taken in life from us.
In our fractured world it’s time we listened more and judged less. Take the time to stand together and support each other. It’s basic human kinship.
And I’m happy to do my part.
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