Out in STEM at the Royal Society

Last night I attended a very enjoyable meeting at the Royal Society in London called Out in STEM. In the 356 years that the Royal Society has been in existence this is the first event that has been devoted to a discussion of LGBT+ matters, so I feel honoured not only to have been present but to have been one of the panellists invited to start off the evening by talking about the question:

“Choosing to be out in the workplace or when studying – what influences that choice?”

In my five-minute answer to this I talked about my own personal decision to be open about my sexuality when I started as a research student at the University of Sussex way back in 1985. In fact, three of the nine panellists as well as a number of other participants did their doctorates at the University of Sussex, an institution has clearly been a kind of incubator of LGBT scientists and engineers! My decision was heavily influenced by the events of the time, chiefly the ongoing AIDS crisis and the infamous Section 28. I felt at the time that it was necessary to stand up and be counted in the face of so much prejudice, a decision which I have never regretted.

Having never really been “in” for my whole research career, coming out wasn’t really an issue for me and I have been openly at every insitution I have worked in – Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff. Although I have encounted some isolated examples of unpleasantness, I can’t say that my career has suffered any adverse consequences.

Getting back to the question, I think what influences the choice is a combination of personal factors and the environment of the institution in question. For early career researchers, the choice – and it should always be a choice – can be affected by the perception that one’s career depends on the patronage of persons higher up the hierarchy, be that PhD supervisor, research group leader or departmental head. The less hierarchical the department is, the less likely one is to feel suffocated by the need to conform. It also helps if senior managers make it clear that any bullying or harassment associated with sexual identity or other personal characteristics will not be tolerated. I have tried hard to create such an environment in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, of which I am now the Head. I’ll leave it to others to judge whether or not I have succeeded.

In fact none of the nine panellists described any major adverse consequences of the decision to come out either, but stressed how positive it can be to feel liberated by being open about who you are.

After the nine short answers to the above question, we split up into small groups and discussed other questions. I enjoyed this part very much because the discussion was relaxed and wide-ranging. One theme that ran through many of the responses when groups were asked to feed back a summary of their deliberations was what a big difference it can make to have an LGBT staff network. I am proud to have played a role in the creation of such a network at the University of Sussex, although I am still saddened that it has taken so long for this institution to create one. I am also glad to say that the Institute of Physics is setting up an LGBT network of its own, with a particular emphasis on early career researchers, for whom the sense of isolation that is often involved in working on short-term contracts in highly competitive field can be exacerbated by the perceived need to conceal important aspect of their private life.

Once the discussion session was over we adjourned for wine and canapés, and informal chats. That was extremely pleasant, although I did perhaps have a bit too much wine before I dashed off to catch the train back to Brighton.

It was particularly nice to meet in person some of the people I’d previously known only through social media. I also met an old friend from my previous incarnation at Sussex, Tom Welton, who is now Dean for Natural Sciences at Imperial College. I haven’t seen Tom for over 20 years, actually. I hope we’ll be able to meet up again before too long.

Anyway, I’d like to thank the Royal Society for putting on this event, and especially to Lena Cumberbatch who did a lot of the organizing as well as trying to keep the panellists to time. I enjoyed it greatly and look forward to working with them again. I hope it’s not another 356 years until the next Out in STEM event!

 

 

 

5 Responses to “Out in STEM at the Royal Society”

  1. The Wikipedia page you link to has a lower-case Greek lambda as its symbol for LGBT topics. How common is that as a symbol in such contexts? How long has it been around? Presumably no relation to the cosmological constant. 🙂

  2. The concern I have is that the early stages of academic careers are extremely competitive, in the sense that only a small proportion of researchers can land permanent jobs, and the remainder have to leave academia. Early stage researchers need opportunities to prove their abilities, for example by getting access to quality projects and to get funding to get to conferences. Those opportunities usually come from established academics.

    As such, prejudice or unconscious bias can break the careers of researchers on fixed-term contracts. It is probably a matter of luck and chance that an individual from a slightly vulnerable group avoids needing support from an established academic showing bias or prejudice. That is as true for somebody from a sexual minority as it is for women, ethnic minorities or people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    There are real problems here. Peter is absolutely right in advocating less hierarchical university environments and university action to discourage bullying or harassment. Junior researchers need to be able to take initiatives themselves and not have to depend on others for permission or support. This is also an issue for research councils to address, as well as university departments. A less extreme imbalance between the numbers of PhD students and permanent jobs would help too.

    • I agree. Another thing which would help would be to require all positions to be openly advertized, and have at least some people not at the institute on the selection committee. Rank the candidates with justification and make the list public, or at least send it to all applicants after the position has been filled. (In some countries, this has long been the case, at least for permanent jobs.)

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, those are good suggestions. I’m not sure I’d agree about publishing candidate lists openly, but I wouldn’t object to sending a list to all candidates.

        I once found a list of candidates for some lectureships at my then home department lying abandoned on a printer. Each name had the candidate’s age alongside, which I believe was contrary to employment law.

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