LGBT+ network launches survey of working and studying in STEM with event at IOP

6 March 2018

The first survey into the working and studying environment for LGBT+ physical scientists in the UK and Ireland was launched on 1 March with an event hosted by IOP.

LGBT+ network launches survey of working and studying in STEM with event at IOP

IOP Chief Operating Officer Rachel Youngman welcomed participants to the launch and networking event, where speakers from the LGBT+ community shared their perspectives on creating a climate that enables everyone to be fully themselves in the workplace or place of study.

,The LGBT+ Physical Sciences Baseline Survey managed by IOP, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) on behalf of the LGBT+ Physical Sciences Network, opened on 1 March and closes on 30 April 2018.

It is open to physical scientists who identify as LGBT+ or their allies and to those who have left a career in the physical sciences as they felt excluded because of their gender identity or sexual orientation – a point emphasised by keynote speaker and chair of the meeting, Professor Peter Coles (pictured above), who is a theoretical physicist at Maynooth University and at the University of Cardiff. 

Stressing the need for LGBT+ staff to be visible, he recalled an undergraduate at Cardiff several years ago who had been thinking of leaving a physics course because he believed there were no gay members of staff in the department. Having been introduced to Professor Coles, he decided to stay and completed his degree. “That’s an example of where lack of visibility almost put someone off being a physicist – just having someone visible working in the department made a difference to somebody,” Coles said.

He had decided to come out in the 1980s because of the wider climate in society rather than any issues in the workplace, he said, though he did believe the environment for LGBT+ people was more difficult in the physical sciences than in, for example, the arts and humanities. Omitting to mention sexual orientation, when publicising diversity policies for example, could give the impression of lack of care or even hostility, he argued.

“My experience is that managements are not actively hostile, they just don’t always think about things or know what to do so somebody has to push,” he said. He hoped that the survey would produce some practical ideas for new structures, new recognition and new ways of tackling homophobic bullying or harassment.

LGBT+ network launches survey of working and studying in STEM with event at IOP

Dr James Claverley, a scientist at the National Physical Laboratory and a member of IOP’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, urged anyone in the physical sciences community who is LGBT+, or is an ally or supporter, to fill in the survey. In a broader anonymous survey of IOP’s membership in 2015, 12% of respondents identified as LGBT+ and it was following the launch of the results of that survey that the LGBT+ physical sciences network was set up early in 2016.

The IOP, RAS and RSC have since been involved in sponsoring a programme of events including three LGBT+ STEMinars. “We have been doing a lot but we have got to a point where we need a little bit more direction and help to focus us,” he said. “We want to know what it’s like working, teaching or studying in the physical sciences. There are eight or nine questions about your experiences – how comfortable you feel, the behaviours that you observe and the support that your workplace puts in place. We want to hear particularly from people for whom the climate was a factor in leaving the physical sciences.”

The survey would also collect anonymous demographic information to help establish where belonging to more than one group, for example, being black and being gay or being a woman who identifies as LGBT+, may lead to a better or even worse experience of the work or study climate. The learned societies had considerable influence over the physical sciences workplace and IOP had been able to change the landscape in gender equality over the last few years, he said, mentioning IOP’s work in this area through Project Juno. The first Juno principle included obtaining quantitative and qualitative data regarding gender equality, and the survey aimed to collect similar data around LGBT+ issues, he said. To obtain Juno Excellence status, current Juno Champions were encouraged to take what they had learned about gender equality and apply the principles across the board, he noted.

LGBT+ network launches survey of working and studying in STEM with event at IOP

Niamh Kavanagh, a PhD student based at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork who won IOP’s Early Career Physics Communicator of the Year Award in 2016, said she had come out following the Orlando shootings, also in 2016. She had become involved in the recently launched House of STEM, a network for LGBT+ STEM scientists in Ireland.

She mentioned a US climate survey published by the American Physical Society in 2016, which showed that more than one in five LGBT+ physicists reported having been excluded, intimidated or harassed at work because of their sexual identity or gender expression in the last year. She said that assuming that science and therefore scientists were free from bias could lead to the claim that “diversity is irrelevant” and be used to close down discussion. “Assuming everyone in your workplace is straight leaves LGBT+ people isolated,” she said. “We need to create a culture in our workplaces where LGBT+ people feel they can be who they are.” This was linked to higher job satisfaction, better health outcomes and higher productivity, she said. “You deserve to be protected from hate, especially in the workplace, where you spend a quarter of your time. This is good for business but at the end of the day it’s the right thing to do.”

LGBT+ network launches survey of working and studying in STEM with event at IOP

Dr Ashley Spindler, an astronomer at the Open University, said coming out is very difficult and you don’t decide to do it only once but over and over again in different contexts. She spoke about the importance of people who have privilege being prepared to speak out on behalf of others who don’t. “I have privilege, I am white, I don’t get misgendered in public and most people don’t realise that I was born on a council estate because I have managed to get a good education and am well-spoken,” she said. “I have tried to use that privilege for good and I really feel that if you are safe to speak you have a moral obligation to do this.” Ashley also had advice for allies, encouraging them to use their voices to support LGBT+ colleagues.

LGBT+ network launches survey of working and studying in STEM with event at IOP

Professor David Smith, from the University of York, said that LGBT+ staff were often hidden in the workplace and there could be a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, while many staff came from a background where such issues were swept under the carpet. A lot of LGBT+ people in STEM worried about their career prospects typically being in the hands of a white middle-aged man with a lot of power within a hierarchical structure, he said, adding: “These are issues faced by all minorities in science.” He said: “If we only care about science and not the people who do it we won’t achieve the best results and it will be appalling in terms of human capital.”

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