Queer Academic Freedom: the ability to be yourself

Diversity of experience and thought can lead to better research. But that’s not always what LGBT+ scientists experience in their work.

Dr Lilian Hunt of EDIS
Dr Lilian Hunt of EDIS

As a scientist, being LGBT+ and comfortable being yourself in the workplace should be the least of your worries when grappling with malfunctioning lab equipment or experiments that just won’t work.

However, for too many this sits at the top of the list and a recent report ‘Exploring the Workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists’ sheds some light on how it is to be a queer scientist in 2019.

The survey of over 1,000 physical scientists by the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry found that:

  • 28% of LGBT+ respondents sometimes considered leaving their workplace because of the climate or discrimination towards LGBT+ people, and
  • Almost a third of respondents had witnessed exclusionary behaviour.

The amount of mental capacity it takes for someone to hide who they are in the workplace can easily become overwhelming and exhausting in a negative environment. People often don’t realise how many times they mention their partner, children, family or friends at work but every time someone asks something simple like ‘how was your weekend?’, in that moment you decide whether to come out or not. Thoughts race through your mind like: do you know this person well enough to make a judgement on their reaction? What if the reaction is bad? What if they ask questions? Even a confused look on someone’s face can be hurtful as it’s a reminder that you’re ‘not normal’ in their eyes.

Being out in the workplace

Scenarios happen like this every day, multiple times. It’s said that you never come out once, you come out every time you meet someone new, and it can be exhausting and difficult to come out over and over and over again. A scientist’s brain can be put to much better use than juggling who to tell and who not to tell about their wedding, adoption, or anything else that might out them.

In 2013 a survey of over 1,400 LGBTQA people in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers found that 43% of respondents had no colleagues who knew about their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, for those that are out the pressure doesn’t stop there. Often being out at work comes with an expectation to be a role model, a face for people to recognise and feel comfortable around, and someone to support others who may be earlier on in their journey to being out. This is especially true in science where the number of notable queer scientists appears limited, although possibly through overlooking some great LGBT+ scientists’ work.

A scientist’s brain can be put to much better use than juggling who to tell

It becomes a chicken and egg concept; people are less likely to be out at work if they can’t see others who are also out, so it does take some bravery for whoever ‘goes first’. For those that are able to do this, setting up an LGBT+ network is often a great first step to improving the workplace climate for LGBT+ inclusion.

Celebrating LGBT+

On 5 July, LGBTSTEM Day is being held to celebrate and acknowledge the great achievements of the LGBT+ community in science, technology, engineering and maths. For those not currently out in the workplace, it will hopefully help them along that journey by bringing visibility to the community and stories of success (even if they’ve taken a messy path).

The day will also acknowledge the challenges we still face, both in society and in the sector. If you consider the number of scientists thinking about leaving their job because of LGBT+ discrimination, that’s a large amount of talent that could be lost. With the UK committed to investing 2.4% of GDP on research and development by 2027, we can’t afford to lose those in STEM careers because of ignorance or bigotry. If you want to be an ally, think about how you can support your LGBT+ colleagues by educating yourself about the barriers they may face, engaging with network events (not just during Pride month) and sharing why you’re an ally with all colleagues.

Diversity leads to better science

Diversity of experience and thought can lead to better ideas and research, as teams think more creatively as a collective and are likely to critique and improve each other’s ideas using their own perspectives. This isn’t just true for LGBT+ diversity, but also gender, ethnicity, disability, neurodiversity, socio-economic status … the list goes on.

One thing to remember is that scientists are seeking knowledge to improve life, and therefore we are accountable to everyone. This means we need to make sure everyone feels comfortable to be a scientist and that everyone can benefit from its discoveries.

Dr Lilian Hunt (she/her) is Programme Manager at EDIS

EDIS is a coalition of organisations building a powerful, connected and coordinated movement to advance equality, diversity and inclusion in science and health research. Find out more

The British Ecological Society has an LGBT+ Facebook Group for the LGBT+ community to network, collaborate and share advice.