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STEM, LGBTQ & You: Bridging the representation gap

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

An insight into oSTEM’s inclusive conference by Sophie Byrne

LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning) people in STEM often face different barriers than their counterparts in the arts and humanities, and compared to their cisgender and heterosexual colleagues. oSTEM Incorporated is a global organisation representing LGBTQ+ people in STEM. There are two chapters in Birmingham – oSTEM Birmingham Postgraduates and Professionals, and oSTEM at University Birmingham in the college of Engineering and Physical Sciences. We (oSTEM), represent and connect LGBTQ+ students who are studying, or interested in, STEM subjects throughout the University. This year we hosted our second annual STEM, LGBTQ & You conference, which sought to bring together STEM students and professionals who identify as LGBTQ+, or who are allies. Thanks to the Alumni Impact Fund and IoM3, we were able to offer travel bursaries to those who required them to travel to the conference. In doing this, we sought to make the conference even more accessible than last year and therefore, we could try to accommodate an intersectional group of STEM students and professionals.

Months of planning culminated as an intersectional programme of speakers, including STEM professionals from different backgrounds, identities, and STEM disciplines. The fields represented included computer science, engineering, physics, biosciences, volcanology, research support, and teaching. Some of our speakers were striking UCU members, so they decided to focus on their outreach work rather than their academic work. This was interesting to see, especially considering the historical links between the LGBTQ+ and Trade Union movements.

Common themes appearing throughout the day included the importance of role models, visibility, intersectionality, allyship, and overcoming toxic work environments. Chemical engineer and Vice President of oSTEM Inc. membership, Sindhu Sreedhar, gave some great tips on how to make the most of employee resource groups to improve and foster an inclusive workplace. Chloe Palmer (Rolls-Royce), along with Ele Brown and Calum Ridyard (Arup) spoke about their experiences in industry. Matt Mears, Beth Montague-Hellen, and Jazmin Scarlett spoke from an academic viewpoint. Finally, Izzy Jayasinghe gave her unique insights into her experiences being a trans woman of colour, particularly when travelling to different countries, or even continents, as an academic.

Travel is an issue which disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ people, particularly in academia and STEM. Academics are often expected to frequently move institution and location in order to progress their careers. This is an issue particularly pertinent to the recent opening of the University of Birmingham Dubai campus, as LGBTQ+ “activity” is outlawed here, as it is in 72 other countries.

To finish the conference, we held a panel discussion around the theme of being an LGBTQ+ educator. We heard from local maths teacher and University of Birmingham alumni Jade, Calum (also University of Birmingham alumni), Matt, and our own Leanne Taylor-Smith from Biosciences. It was interesting to hear how LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion differs between the education sectors. The recent protests in Birmingham surrounding LGBTQ+ inclusive school curriculums have made this an important and timely discussion.

Chloe raised the question of how academia and industry can support each other, particularly to ensure opportunities and representation of marginalised groups. This led to a captivating discussion on how collaboration between industry and academia is necessary, to ensure underrepresented groups are not held back in the job market, be it due to lack of opportunities or hostile work environments. Universities are an important reservoir for industry to recruit from – particularly from STEM degrees. If industrial companies can put pressure on academic institutions to improve their equality, diversity, and inclusion progress, then the normalisation of LGBTQ+ identities in STEM disciplines can be improved.

Some speakers mentioned how student activism is underestimated. If we work to normalise intersectionality and support underrepresented groups in STEM and the wider community, then we can influence the curriculum and how we are represented throughout the University and beyond. Studies show that diverse teams produce higher quality results than their less-diverse counterparts. So, if diversity is promoted then we can close the gap between “forgotten” groups and the rest of STEM. Allowing people to reach their full potential, which will facilitate further innovation.

From Issue 20

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