[Image: LGBTQ+ STEM]
The word “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) traditionally evokes a mental picture of a white, heterosexual, masculine scientist—perhaps wearing a white lab coat and studiously examining a beaker containing a mysterious chemical concoction. For those who don’t fit this mold, STEM disciplines can be intimidating arenas to work in. LGBTQ+ STEM, a project that highlights the diverse people who occupy STEM careers, aims to shatter the traditional archetype of what a scientist should look like and to provide diverse role models for students and early-career scientists.
OPN talked with Alex Bond—conservation biologist, senior curator at the U.K. Natural History Museum and an organizer of LGBTQ+ STEM—about the organization’s impact over the past six years and about the upcoming annual LGBTQ+ STEMinar conference, which will be held virtually on 8 January 2021.
How did you first become involved with LGBTQ+ STEM?
About six years ago, Beth Montague-Helen [University of Nottingham, U.K.] was discussing representation of queer folks in STEM fields. It was very different landscape. I’m from Canada, and at the time I had met one other out scientist, professionally. Ultimately, we saw this gap, a community that we weren’t reaching—there was nothing that cut across all of STEM that was there for LGBTQ+ scientists.
It began with the website, and then Beth organized the first LGBTQ+ STEMinar event in Sheffield, U.K., in 2016. We had about 40 people show up. Then we started inviting friends that we knew from Twitter, and at our last in-person seminar in January 2020 in Birmingham, U.K., we had 250 people attend. After the first seminar, I joined Beth to help run things, and it’s been an absolutely amazing journey—one that I could never have imagined five years ago.
[LGBTQ+ representation in STEM] is a rapidly evolving landscape, but our focus has always been supporting the queer scientific community.
How would you describe the STEMinar conference? What has the reception been like?
The seminar is a science conference for LGBTQ+ people, not an LGBTQ+ conference for scientists. For us, the science has always been at the forefront, but our science is informed by our identities and our experience. You really can’t grasp the impact of walking into a professional conference and seeing a 10-foot-wide rainbow flag on the wall, and to have that personal and professional validation in the same place.
It is the most fun conference, and it’s because the people there are just free to be themselves. As LGBTQ+ people, when we’re in mostly straight crowds, we do a lot of code switching, which is acting in certain ways and using certain words. That facade drops away when you’re among other LGBTQ+ people because you know there’s going to be absolutely zero judgment.
Predominantly, attendees are based in the U.K., but we’ve had folks from Sweden, Spain, France, Germany and Ireland quite regularly, even Canada and the U.S. Hopefully this year the ability of online tools to reach much further will be quite useful. And in the future, after we’ve returned to in-person conferences, we can hopefully extend [our reach] with that added online component.
Since the STEMinar is open to all branches of STEM, I would imagine that there’s a wide range of presentations.
Absolutely. We cover every aspect of STEM—we say, “diverse science and diverse identities and diverse people.” When we’re putting together the program, we’re trying to balance career stage, individual identity and intersectionality, but also subject area. We’ll have talks from astrophysicists, quantum chemists, ecologists, photonics and optics, but also health practitioners, industry, software and civil engineers, and even patent-law science—because we’re not just academics.
Everyone comes in as a general scientific audience, so if you’re going to talk fiber optic networking and how we can talk via Zoom between England and Washington D.C. using fiber optics, it’s not going to be overly technical, but it’s still got to be scientifically rigorous. It can be a tough balance to achieve, but I think we’ve hit the mark pretty well every year with the talks.
In your opinion, what is the current landscape of LGBTQ+ representation in STEM?
[Image: Alex Bond]
Queer folks are less likely to pursue STEM subjects. In university, they’re less likely to complete STEM degrees, and they’re more likely to face discrimination than an equivalent straight person. Up to 40% of physical [LGBTQ+] scientists aren’t even out at work, so there’s a heck of a lot of work to do.
There’s a great report by the IOP, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Astronomical Society two years ago on the climate of physical sciences, in particular, for LGBTQ+ folks, and that revealed some pretty staggering things. I think it was a quarter of gay men were not out at work—and in the LGBTQ+ community, that’s the demographic that has the most privilege and social capital.
People ask, “what’s it like being a queer scientist?”, and I essentially say, “think of all the stresses, all the anxieties, all the challenges of being a scientist, then think of all of the stresses, all the anxieties, all the pressures of being a queer person, and layer them on top of each other.” That’s the lens that we’re working through.
I think our biggest struggle at the moment is achieving what I call object permanence. For a lot of queer people, we can sit in meetings, endlessly, and working groups and task forces and talk about these issues. But as soon as somebody who isn’t directly affected leaves the room, those issues just go completely out of their mind. And they could be in another meeting where decisions are being made that might influence queer people, and those earlier conversations don’t even register. We’re scientists, we’re members of the professional community, and our needs are not being met in a lot of ways.
What do you think STEM institutions, companies and universities can do to create a more inclusive environment for the LGBTQ+ community?
The cheeky answer is that Google is your friend, because we’ve been yammering on about this for years!
But I actually think there are three things. First of all, it’s got to be backed up by money. We do a lot of free labor in EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion] spaces—organizing the seminar and running LGBTQ+ STEM I do for absolutely no compensation at all.
Secondly, actually implement it. Lots of organizations have policies and initiatives, but as soon as they encounter something else, which often has a financial implication, it goes right out the window. Organizations will often say, “diversity is one of our core values, it is embedded throughout our organization,” which it’s not, because we’re still having these fights that we’ve been having for the last decade.
And third, show some leadership. It can’t be queer folks pushing this all the time. Otherwise, we’re all gonna burn out. And until we get that buy-in from outside the LGBTQ+ community, it’s still going to be a struggle.
The LGBTQ+ STEM website talks about the relationship between scientific innovation and diversity. Can you expand on that point?
Unless you’re bringing your full self to your professional life, you’re not at your peak. But equally, the way that you approach certain questions, the people you work with, and where you work can also be influenced by your identity. Coming from a queer background and a queer perspective, you just have a different outlook on the world. You tend to see injustice a little bit more because you’ve experienced it, and you tend to think of ways that you can circumvent challenges in different ways.
And that is innovation, right? It’s new ways of doing things. And you can only do that when you can bring your full self to the job.
What you would define success as for this organization?
I think we’ve achieved a lot—we have a fantastic community, we have influenced professional societies and we’ve influenced academic bodies in how they approach certain things. Ultimately, however, our goal is to create this network of queer scientists and provide them with the opportunity for them to be themselves personally in a professional setting.
Also, we’re a very white, gay, male group, so we’ve got to really work on how we better represent queer people of color. We’ve made the first steps, we’ve got an organization that exists, but we still have a long way to go for it to be useful to as broad a cross-section of the LGBTQ+ STEM community as possible.