Archive for September 13, 2013

Where are all the LGBT astrophysicists?

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on September 13, 2013 by telescoper

Having scoffed my lunchtime pasty in record time today, I seem to have a few spare minutes to spend writing a brief blog post on a question which popped into my mind when I accidentally discovered that somebody had recently written a blog post (about Einstein’s Blackboard) which mentions me. I used to look after this famous relic when I was in Nottingham many years ago, you see.

There’s a sentence in the post that says

Professor Coles is one of the few out gay astrophysicists in the UK.

Well, it all depends by what you mean by “few” but I think there are more gay (or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered) astrophysicists out there than most people probably think. I know quite a large number personally, dozens in fact, most of whom are “out”. It’s a safe bet that there are many more who aren’t open about their sexuality too. However, it is probably the case that LGBT scientists are much less visible as such through their work than colleagues in the arts or humanities. Read two research papers, one written by a straight astrophysicist and one by an LGBT astrophysicist, and I very much doubt you could tell which is which. Read two pieces of literary criticism, however, and it’s much more likely you could determine the sexual orientation of the writer.

There have been attempts to raise the profile of, e.g., LGBT astronomers through such initiatives as The Outlist, but only a very small fraction of the LGBT astronomers I know have their names on it. I’m not on it myself, although I used to be. It seems I’ve been struck off.

You might ask why it matters if an astrophysicist is straight or gay? Surely what is important is whether they are good at their job? I agree with that, actually. When it comes to career development, sexual orientation should be as irrelevant as race or gender. The problem is that the lack of visibility of LGBT scientists – and this doesn’t just apply to astrophysics, but across all science disciplines – could deter young people from choosing science as a career in the first place.

It has always annoyed me that the Independent newspaper’s annual “Pink List” of the UK’s most influential LGBT people never – and I mean never – has a single LGBT scientist on it, despite the immense amount they do not only in research, but also in teaching and outreach. It’s very sad that this work is largely unacknowledged and even sadder that a great many potential role models are hidden.

The effect of this invisibility is to reinforce the perception that science just isn’t something that LGBT people do. I have known gay students in physics or astrophysics who were on the verge of quitting because of this. I think it’s important for established scientists to be as open as possible about their sexual orientation to counter this. I really don’t think the consequences of coming out are as frightening as people think. This is not to say that homophobia doesn’t exist, but that straight colleagues are much more likely to be supportive than not and (with a few exceptions) most workplaces nowadays won’t tolerate discrimination or bullying based on sexual orientation.

But that brings us to the question of why we should care about whether LGBT students might be deterred from becoming scientists. This is much the same issue as to why we should worry that there are so few female physics students. The obvious answer is based on notions of fairness: we should do everything we can to ensure that people have equal opportunity to advance their career in whatever direction appeals to them. But I’m painfully aware that there are some people for whom arguments based on fairness simply don’t wash. For them there’s another argument that may work better. As scientists whose goal is – or should be – the advancement of knowledge, the message is that we should strive as hard as possible to recruit the brightest and most creative brains into our subject. That means ensuring that the pool from which we recruit is as large and as diverse as possible. The best student drawn from such a pool is likely to be better than the best student from a smaller and more restricted one.

Big companies haven’t become gay-friendly employers in recent years out of a sudden urge for altruism. They’ve done it because they know that they’d be discouraging many excellent employees from joining them. It’s exactly the same way for research.

At Sussex University we will soon be welcoming well over a hundred new students about to start their degree programmes in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. It’s a reasonable estimate than one in ten of these will be an LGBT student. The same will be true for many other departments around the country. So, regardless of your own orientation, if you’re reading this and you’re involved in teaching science just try not to assume, just because you’re talking to a science student, that you must be talking to a straight student. That shouldn’t be be too hard, should it?