Politics & Society

LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2021: Is Science Inclusive?

Introduction: What is LGBTQ+ STEM Day?

Prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community is well documented across the world- including in STEM fields. In a recent report by the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Royal Astronomical Society, it was stated that about 28% of LGBTQ+ scientists had considered quitting their workplace due to hostility. The report also went on to talk about how a substantial amount of the population also reported experiences of discriminatory behaviour and uncomfortable workplaces.

While things have improved drastically, being part of any minority group comes with feelings of loneliness. STEM fields require collaboration on an international level; whether it is due to a lack of visibility or culturally accepted prejudices, this means that it will be a long time before LGBTQ+ people are fully accepted.

This raises a need for awareness. LGBTQ+ STEM day is an annual event intended to highlight the challenges that people in the LGBTQ+ community face in the world of STEM. It takes place on the 18th of November and as of 2021, has been celebrated for four years.

Prejudice in STEM and Why We Should Care

In the recent past, we have seen staggering development in society’s perception of LGBTQ+ individuals. We live in a more accessible world than those who came before us: through the internet and widespread education, people are being educated about the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity.

That being said, there is still so much to do. As of 2021, only about 24 countries have legalized gay marriage. Even in countries where being transgender is legal, the process of being legally recognized as such is often incredibly difficult. It is safe to say that it will be a long time before we achieve a world that is truly and completely inclusive of all people.

STEM suffers from an assumption of rationality. It is common for people in scientific fields to assume they have no biases against other people because logically speaking, there isn’t any reason to be. In an ideal world, science would be a field free of prejudice and political divide. Scientists are fundamentally a people searching for truth. Identity has nothing to do with that goal.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world, and the data does not support this notion. LGBTQ+ people in STEM commonly report that their work environment is hostile, many of them even consider giving up their careers for the sake of security. The problem with this picture is that if people refuse to admit that there is a problem, things will never change.

We can only solve the issues we are aware of. In science, huge discoveries have been made by challenging accepted ideas. In a similar vein: if we, consciously or subconsciously, hold hostility towards a certain subset of the population, we have a duty.

In the end, identity is a deeply personal quality. Identity is a word with quite a lot of weight. The question of who we are is one we have been asking since the dawn of time. To paraphrase a New York Times op-ed by Dr. Rebecca Oppenheimer, a person reporting a fact about their identity has likely questioned it for longer and in more depth than any other person. Every member of the LGBTQ+ community has had to question themselves, and the answer they come up with, to once again reference the aforementioned article, is “an absolute fact”.

We do not live in an ideal world. Reality is always going to be far more complicated. The simple truth is that LGBTQ+ people do face discrimination in STEM, leading to the necessity for days like the 18th of November. Science, of all things, should not push away people because of their identity.

The Aims of Inclusivity

Creating a completely welcoming environment for the LGBTQ+ community isn’t something that can be achieved overnight: prejudice is systemic, it will take time and careful education to remove it from society.

Still, that does not necessarily have to mean that people that are part of the community should simply have to grin and bear hate until the world fixes itself.

Institutions seem to be catching on to the fact that this is an issue. With growing visibility of the LGBTQ+ community, it seems to have become more common to put an effort into making workplaces more accepting.

On an individual level, it is important to be supportive of peers that come out as a part of the community. It is still more important to treat them as who they are, first and foremost: people.

Contrary to the message promoted by opponents of the community, LGBTQ+ people didn’t appear out of nowhere ten years ago. They have always existed. STEM has had its fair share of historical figures that happened to not be straight or cisgender. Many of them contributed greatly to their respective fields, and also to advocacy for fellow members of the community.

German Physician Magnus Hirschfield, for example, who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries advocated for the rights of homosexual people. He went on to establish the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee along with some of his peers, which is widely regarded as the first gay rights organization.

Alan Turing, a British Mathematician responsible for the deciphering of the Nazi Enigma code during the second world war, and whose work in early computational devices earned him the title of the Father of Artificial Intelligence.

American Astronaut Sally Ride, who, aside from being the third woman in space, went on to serve as part of the presidential commission responsible for investigating both the space shuttle challenger and columbia disasters. She also did PhD studies in astrophysics and went on to do research in the field.

These are three people, among the countless that we know of and several more whose names and contributions seem to have been lost to time.

The idealized version of STEM communities seems like a beautiful thing. A place removed of all personal identities and all that matters is a determination to solve all the questions the universe has to offer. Regardless of whether or not we get there someday, it is a wonderful thing to aim towards.

On days like this one, it is important for people in STEM to listen to the struggles of their fellows. It is important to confront internalized biases that may have contributed to those struggles. LGBTQ+ people have always existed: days like LGBTQ+ STEM day are an opportunity to reflect on why their existence has historically been used to justify denying them a place in society.

Conclusion:

Despite the progress we have made, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is still a widespread issue, even in STEM. As previously stated, it seems as if scientists are often reluctant to confront their personal biases, for fear of losing their notion of “objectivity”.

But all this means is that the problem is ignored. The truth is that humans, even those part of STEM fields, aren’t always rational, we are not always perfect: we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. The truth is also this: LGBTQ+ people have always existed. Ignoring the community’s struggles won’t make them go away, treating them as less than will never change the fact that they are, first and foremost, people.

It seems as if things are improving, and it has taken us far too long to get to a point where this is a discussion we can have without fear. Still, this is unfortunately only true for a small portion of the world. Some countries do offer a relative amount of safety and security, but the unfortunate truth is that they are the minority.

The journey towards making the world a better place for LGBTQ+ people has been a long one, and we have longer still to go.

Bibliography

[1] Copeland, B.J. 2019. “Alan Turing | Biography, Facts, & Education.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alan-Turing.

[2] Dyer, Jennifer, Angela Townsend, Sheila Kanani, Philippa Matthews, and Ale Palermo. 2019. “Exploring the Workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists.” https://www.rsc.org/globalassets/04-campaigning-outreach/campaigning/lgbt-report/lgbt-report_web.pdf.

[3] Hughes, Bryce E. 2018. “Coming out in STEM: Factors Affecting Retention of Sexual Minority STEM Students.” Science Advances 4 (3): eaao6373. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aao6373.

[4] “LGBTQ+ STEM DAY.” 2019. Pride in STEM. November 17, 2019. https://prideinstem.org/lgbtstemday/.

[5] Oppenheimer, Rebecca. 2018. “Opinion | Transgender Lives: Your Stories: Rebecca Oppenheimer.” The New York Times, September 13, 2018, sec. Opinion. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/opinion/transgender-today/stories/rebecca-oppenheimer.

[6] Aleksandra Djajic-Horváth. 2018. “Magnus Hirschfeld | German Physician.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Magnus-Hirschfeld.

[7] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. 2019. “Sally Ride | American Astronaut.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sally-Ride.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *