#OutInSTEM at the Royal Society

#OutInSTEM, a round table discussion addressing issues affecting LGBT people in the STEM workplace, was the Royal Society’s first LGBT event in 346 years. I’m not L, G, B or T, but as a female physicist I am in a minority where I work and I’m also convinced that in order to support minority groups, we’ll need as many people involved as possible. In the physics department at Imperial, a male professor leads our JUNO committee for equality and diversity and male students champion the majority of the union’s ‘FemSOC’ events. Tonight my research group and I are at the Royal Society, supporting our ‘B’ mate @jobium– a chemist turned physicist who specialises in flexible solar cells.

Unsurprisingly the panel were the most diverse I’ve ever seen, spanning every sector of ‘STEM’ and ‘LGBT’. For 5 minutes, each of the panellists introduced themselves and their experiences of ‘coming out’ in the workplace: Jamila Barrett was up first- an extremely eloquent civil engineer who works at TFL. Jamila’s story is the hardest to hear of the night: growing up in Brixton, she didn’t realise she was in a minority until she studied engineering at university. Jamila noticed that students tended to group amongst racial lines, which in a class of thirty left her with one other black student. Jamila joined the BAME society, but found where she was less anonymous racially; she was more uncomfortable about coming out. As a black female engineer, Jamila has spent the majority of her career dealing with gender and race imbalances- LGBT is less of an issue when you’re already invisible. I couldn’t believe how much she’d been through and was honoured to be able to hear more from her during the round table discussions. At TFL Jamila has chaired their LGBT network and is particularly insightful about how to best support minority groups. From a panel of 8, it turns out most people have a STEM degree from Sussex University. Joby’s the first to describe moving from Sussex to Imperial and how open he was in the two environments. It’s clear that compared to industry; universities offer a slightly more inclusive environment. Joby spent two years as a in the Department of Physics before he started talking about his sexuality, motivated by the openness of a colleague who ‘made their transition’ from female to male. Thankfully, Joby says he’s not been faced with any hostility- only one co-worker saying, “I thought you were just arrogant”.

Samantha Jayne-Nelson is a transgender Offshore Engineer. Women make up a shocking 1 % of offshore engineers- for the beginning of her career; Sam spent her time at sea being a man. Offshore works on a ‘two-weeks on, three-weeks off’ timetable, and Sam would wait until she was home to become herself again. She was a manager who promoted honesty, integrity and openness- with a secret. Her male colleagues found out about her double life via social media, and with their support Sam became herself both on and off-dry land. The support has led Sam to do wonderful things- she crosses the world as president of her offshore company. One of the biggest laughs of the night went to Fran Cowling, LGBT representative for the NUS, who realised during her MSci in Chemistry at Nottingham that she was gay. Her evenings were spent telling her flatmates she was ‘going to the library’, when she was really going gay clubbing. They thought she was a total nerd. When she eventually told them the truth the support was universal, and now Fran spends her time encouraging other students to do the same.

Sam’s not the only senior figure on this panel, demonstrating both the need for minority group networks in the STEM industry and the ‘pull’ of the Royal Society. Nadine Thomson is a technology pro who has headed up the IT teams of some big name companies. When Nadine’s at work she chooses whether or not to come out based on four criteria: company culture (particularly informal culture, think ‘everyday sexism’), visibility (are there other gay positions of authority?), opportunity (she wants to come out in a positive way, not correcting ‘what does your husband do?’) and position (as a woman in tech, adding ‘L’ adds ‘otherness to her otherness’). Professor Tom Welton is the Dean of Natural Sciences at Imperial- who never really felt he ‘came out’- he was ‘bloody obvious’. When he did his PhD at Sussex (!) he was known as ‘Camp Tom’ even in the (then named) ‘gay society’. Tom says he has never found coming out an issue. From my experience of being a student in his department, he’s changed the culture to be a more inclusive and welcoming space for everyone.

Phil Nicol is from the charity Diversity Role Models, which runs teacher training and interactive workshops for primary and secondary students, tackling bullying and encouraging children to understand issues relating to sexuality and gender. Professor Peter Coles, head of astrophysics at … you guessed it … the University of Sussex, has crossed the country to teach students about the solar systems. From his vast experience he can see wherein lies the issue: universities and academia are all about unspoken degrees of hierarchy. PhD students feel subservient to their supervisors, who are under the watchful eyes of heads of groups and heads of departments. Then there are grant awarding bodies, faculty coordinators and research assessment exercises to answer too. Unless we ‘blur these lines’ and redistribute power no one will feel comfortable in their own being. Finally there is the equality and diversity consultant and Cambridge, Kevin Coutinho. Like Jamilia at the start, Kevin felt that there were so many layers to his personality he didn’t know how to fit in.

We took to the round tables next, where my group discussed best practise and what ‘works in the work place’. I feel like me and team nanoanlaysis short-changed the rest of our group, leaving 4/8 of not L, G, B or T, but we had a good discussion regardless. On our table was Jamilia, a life sciences PhD student at Imperial, academic at UCL and two gentlemen from the Francis Crick. Jamilia has run great schemes at TFL that are appropriate to all minority groups. The LGBT employees all conduct ‘reverse mentoring’ with senior people within the company, who are often heterosexual old white men, informing them of the kinds of issues they might face and how to best use pronouns. Jamilia sees the permanent full-time employment of staff dedicated to diversity and equality as an incredibly important asset; to ensure the continuation of initiatives, enthusiasm and momentum. We recognise that making senior positions aware of issues affecting minority groups with award schemes such as Athena Swan, the quietest voices can be heard.

I was really moved by the whole evening. I think I’ve been guilty of Joby’s initial description of life as a scientist: I thought it was just the science that mattered. If you’re a good scientist, it doesn’t matter what you’re like when you get home. #OutInSTEM made me recognise that to have a genuinely happy and productive workforce, you have to be true to who you are.

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