Written by Michael Pascoe

What are the experiences of LGBT people working in STEM fields? What can we do to improve inclusion? These were some of the questions answered by a trio of early career researchers, who discussed their research and lived experiences to “sci-curious” attendees of this year’s Out Thinkers session at the British Science Festival.

The event was headed up by Ares Osborn, an astrophysicist who identifies as non-binary and trans. Ares introduced the audience to some of the weird and wonderful examples of star systems in our galaxy and then discussed their own research on the impact of the metal content of stars on the formation of alien planets. Scott Dwyer, a cis gay man, discussed his research on insect-eating fungi; these fungi can protect honey bees from the varroa mite and so can be used as a natural bio-pesticide. Finally, Ellis Monaghan, who also identifies as cis and gay, discussed his research on soil microbes, their importance in agriculture and how he is using them to hunt for new antibiotics.

As well as describing their ground-breaking research, the trio discussed their experiences of being LGBT in STEM. Overall, they each had positive experiences and felt well supported by their departmental colleagues. However, Ares highlighted major issue I hadn’t considered before: even in the case of legal changes in name and gender, “academic journals do not allow the authors list to be amended after publication”. This means trans scientists face the difficult choice of either listing pre-transition works in their CV under their “dead name” (and outing themselves to prospective employers) or dissociating themselves from their past research and losing out on employment opportunities. To address this issue, UK journals should engage trans scientists and take a leading role in revising their publication policies, according to Ares.

Credit: Alfredo Carpineti 

The Out Thinkers session was hosted under the banner of Pride in STEM, an organisation conceived in 2016 by a group of friends, including Alfredo Carpineti. Alfredo is an astrophysicist, science journalist and Chair of Pride in STEM. “We started simply as a marching group for London Pride”, he explained. “Groups applying to march required an online digital presence, a central ethos and email address so that others could join us on the parade. Within a couple of weeks, we were receiving emails from scientists across the UK about their experiences of being LGBT in STEM”. Whilst some described incidents of workplace bullying and life in the closet, others sought advice on how to set up LGBT support networks at their home institutions.

Within a year, Pride in STEM was registered as a charitable trust with a network of UK volunteers. It’s mission statement: to raise the profile of LGBT people in STEM, as well as to highlight the struggles LGBT STEM people often face. While promoting LGBT STEM day, the Network also uses its Out Thinkers events as a flagship vehicle for achieving their goals. 

Whilst some might think universities to be liberal oases of acceptance, a recent report from the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society of Chemistry paints a considerably different picture. Their survey of LGBT STEM researchers indicated that less than half of LGBT scientists are out to everyone at work and 28% had considered leaving science due to discrimination. For trans people, those having considered leaving rose to nearly 50% whilst 20% stated they considered it often. A sizeable number of respondents reported experiencing or observing exclusionary behaviour and half felt there was a lack of awareness about issues which affect LGBT persons.

Even in the last year, LGBT inclusivity has been negatively targeted by UK academics.  For example, in April, 30 academics, including Professors from Oxford University and University College London, wrote an open letter urging universities to cut ties with the LGBT charity Stonewall, which provides LGBT sensitivity training to staff and has fought for LGBT acceptance since its founding in 1989. Pride in STEM has also been on the receiving end of attack. I was stunned to learn from the presenters that, “in addition to regularly receiving hate mail, several academics had made efforts to deprive the charity of funding by directly contacting organisations such as CERN and the European Space Agency”. Alfredo explained that, whilst they had developed working partnerships with these organisations, Pride in STEM is almost entirely funded by grassroots donation. Fortunately, this had protected them from these abuses of position and influence.


Credit: Pride in STEM

Promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace isn’t just beneficial for social justice. Being out and open at work improves staff retention and increases research output. Maintaining a diverse academic workplace provides professional role models for LGBT undergraduates and LGBT students want greater staff training on LGBT issues and increased representation in course materials.

When questioned on other changes they would like to see within STEM, Ares called for increased awareness of trans issues and for the importance of not making assumptions on people’s sexuality and gender. “I wish more conferences gave you to the opportunity to register preferred names and pronouns” they explained. Many conferences insist on using your legal name to register and use this name on conference badges. For individuals who have not yet changed their name legally, this can create confusion and uncomfortable situations when they engage by other scientists who don’t know them.

The Out Thinkers session was a fantastic session to close the final day of the British Science Festival. The charity is planning to expand its activities and launch its volunteer network before the end of October. Despite some challenges remaining, things are improving for LGBT scientists in the UK and it is encouraging to see the growing interest in Pride in STEM.