By Shaun O’Boyle, founder of House of STEM
Today is the first International Day of LGBT+ People in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, celebrating and encouraging diversity in science.
We do better science when our teams are made up of diverse people, with different perspectives, skills, and ideas. To achieve that diversity, however, we must first remove the roadblocks that are causing some minorities to remain underrepresented in science.
These roadblocks can arise early. A recent study by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found that 29% of LGBT+ young people choose to avoid a career in STEM because they fear discrimination. We know from research published in Science Advances that those who do enrol in STEM courses are more likely to drop out.
Of those who do pursue a career in science, more than 40% are not ‘out’ to their colleagues, and this is having a negative impact on their career prospects. Remaining ‘in the closet’ also takes its toll on a person’s mental health, as they spend every single day monitoring, policing, and editing what they say and do. In the United States, one third of ‘out’ physicists have been told to stay in the closet to continue their career, and half of Trans physicists have experienced harassment in academia. We therefore need to work on the environments LGBT+ scientists work in, to make them more supportive and welcoming.
Take fieldwork, for example. For a scientist, field work can be dangerous—collecting samples near active volcanoes, gathering data in areas of conflict, risking insect-borne diseases while documenting species in the rainforest—and so we prepare as best we can to minimise those risks.
When an LGBT+ scientist is invited to do field work, we must first make sure it’s not to one of the 72 countries where it’s illegal to be LGBT+, or one of the eight where our identity carries the death penalty. Even in countries with no legal barriers, we must make sure that we are not going to a region with a high incidence of hate crime. These are complex risks to minimise. For example, we must make a choice about “coming out” to our colleagues—whether it is better to have their support, or if telling them risks us being accidentally outed on the trip.
LGBT+ scientists and our allies are working to ensure no one struggles to be themselves at work—whether it’s fieldwork or lab work, teaching or studying. Research initiatives such as Queer in STEM and the LGBT+ physical sciences climate survey are doing what scientists do best: gathering data. By having a clearer understanding of the experiences of LGBT+ scientists across different disciplines, we can develop supportive policies, and create more inclusive environments. Initiatives such as LGBTSTEM and 500 Queer Scientists are improving the visibility of LGBT+ scientists, helping to create role models for others in their fields.
Visibility is at the heart of a new initiative to amplify the voices of LGBT+ scientists around the world. Today is #LGBTSTEMDay, the first ever International Day of LGBT+ People in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. The initiative is being led by an international collaboration between four groups—Pride in STEM, House of STEM, InterEngineering, and Out in STEM—and supported by more than 40 organisations, including CERN, EMBL, Wellcome, and The Physiological Society.
#LGBTSTEMDay will see live events and get-togethers happen at physical locations from Brazil to Scotland, Toronto to Switzerland. Primarily, however, it will be an online campaign, and an opportunity to highlight the powerful work already being done by people, groups and organisations all around the world to advance the inclusion of LGBT+ people in STEM. We hope you’ll join us in celebrating the diversity of science.
Shaun O’Boyle is a science communicator and producer with a degree in Physiology and a PhD in Developmental Biology. He is the founder of House of STEM, a network of LGBT+ people who work in STEM in Ireland, and one of the organisers of LGBTSTEMDay.