By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


Today, 30 June, marks the last day of Pride Month, a worldwide celebration of LGBTQ+ communities. June as the month of choice is not arbitrary; it marks the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York that was a turning point in LGBTQ+ rights in many countries around the world (69 countries still criminalise homosexuality). The first official Gay Pride Rally in London was also born from the uprising, taking place nearly three years later to the day on 1 July 1972.

Pride Month is of course a marvellous thing which allows space to celebrate LGBTQ+ culture and communities, to remember the struggles and to keep pushing for inclusion and equality. But at the British Science Association, where equality, diversity and inclusion is a priority, we know that this push cannot be confined to one month – it must be year-long.

I spoke to Jae Sloan, co-chair of the Proud Science Alliance and an independent executive coach and consultant with 20 years’ experience in pharma, about their experiences as a non-binary person working in a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) industry, and the roles we can all play to create a better future.

In your opinion, what are the biggest obstacles facing LGBTQ+ people working in STEM today?

Probably the biggest obstacle is the perception that everything is ‘okay’ for LGBTQ+ people. In fact, Nature published the biggest study of its kind this year and reported that [in the US] LGBTQ+ scientists are 20% more likely than non-LGBTQ+ scientists to have experienced some kind of professional devaluation. LGBTQ+ scientists were also 30% more likely to have experienced harassment at work in the past year. The next biggest obstacle is moving away from a system that favours those who conform to the accepted straight, white, cis-gendered leadership archetype as the norm.

Why is it important that people of all genders feel comfortable to express their gender identity when at work?

Even though I’m very open about my gender identity and pronouns, it’s regularly, daily even, that I get misgendered because of the way I look. I find it exhausting to consistently correct someone and, frankly, easier to often let it go. However, it takes a toll, and I notice it negatively impacts my energy and engagement.

It’s right that we feel seen for who we are as human beings. That’s basic and necessary to feel validated in relationships with others at work. If we feel safe to be ourselves, including all aspects of our gender identity and expression, we are more engaged and perform better.

Is there more that employers and colleagues should be doing to enable that?

When I introduce myself, I generally include my pronouns. In addition, we all have an accountability to educate ourselves. There are so many great resources online and training opportunities available, and sometimes this means creating space for training in your organisation. In fact, the Proud Science Alliance piloted a gender identity and gender expression workshop with the British Science Association that we are now offering to other organisations. It’s important that we don’t put the burden of ‘teaching’ onto those who are outside the gender binary.

What are the benefits for employees and employers when all colleagues feel free and comfortable to be themselves?  

Within science, innovation is of particular importance when trying to solve problems that serve humanity. If an individual is using their mental and even spiritual energy to hide who they are, then they are closed off from using their full capacity to wonder, dream and creatively solve problems. What often happens is people try to conform to an accepted norm (often set by the straight, white, cis-gendered male majority), which leads to homogenic thinking. I often think of how much innovation has been lost because we haven’t allowed people to move into the space of uninhibited, collaborative thinking. So, creating a welcoming environment that celebrates difference supports more innovation.

Most STEM industries are dominated by men; do you think this lack of gender diversity plays a role in the problems around LGBTQ+ inclusion?

Of course, lack of gender diversity plays a role in inhibiting LGBTQ+ inclusion! I struggled for years to fit the prevailing leadership archetype. Essentially, I tried to be someone I was not. Through my inclusion work, I realised all that I bring and how I see the world is an advantage. A turning point came when I was reading a book which brought in lots of stories and quotes. Throughout the whole book he probably told stories about or quoted men 200-300 times. Less than 10 of those stories or quotes were from women. I wondered if any were from queer people. I realised then that I was trying to realise my ambitions in a system that was not really set up for me. I think this story is applicable when you think about a system that is often set up by men and often highly favours men.

How can we support LGBTQ+ youth at school or university looking to embark on a career in STEM?

One of the most impactful things individuals in the STEM community who identify as LGBTQ+ can do is be out, open and visible. This is one reason why I chose (and it was an active choice) to be so out and visible when I worked at GSK. The more role models we have in STEM, the better. Another way we can support young people is to engage with them. The Proud Science Alliance does this through events sponsored by EUROut and PinkNews Futures to provide insights into possible careers in the life sciences and healthcare. I know other organisations like Pride in STEM do this kind of work as their main goal. Longer term, I think it’s up to STEM organisations to create environments that are opening, welcoming and, importantly, supportive of LGBTQ+ people who want to work in STEM.

What can we all do in our day-to-day lives to drive equality and ensure that everyone feels included at work and beyond?

Non-LGBTQ+ people have a big part to play in creating safer, more welcoming, more supportive environments for people who are LGBTQ+. First, engage in open dialogue. If you experience silence in your organisation, be brave and start the conversation. If you hear discrimination, call it out. If you notice great practice, celebrate it. Second, I always recommend showing up. This is especially important for leaders. If there are events or training or opportunities to engage, then show up and participate. Lastly, if you’re able to, provide resources. Sometimes this means leaders allocating money to support events and activities that support inclusion. Other times it means offering your time. Leaders can make sure they help their team members to volunteer as employee network leaders. We all have a part to play, so let’s get going!

What does Pride Month mean to you? How have you been celebrating it this year?

Pride Month is always special because it creates focus for me on how we got to ‘here’. I always remember people like Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Riviera as representative of individuals who took a stand in June 1969 as part of the Stonewall Riots, which led to the modern-day LGBTQ+ rights movement. While many today focus on the celebration, I like to be reminded that Pride is and always will be a protest at its heart until we are all free to be who we are. I have been celebrating with this in mind by participating in quite a few events as a speaker and panellist. My intention is certainly to embody the spirit of ‘protest’ by doing this, but I always bring the same message to my LGBTQ+ siblings – we are amazing, we are powerful, we are here.