Being Openly LGBTQ+ in STEM

By Jess  and Chloe Robinson

Being openly LGBTQ+ in the workplace is widely considered more difficult in comparison to being ‘out’ in your social circles. Friends are often supportive and accepting of who you are as a person, which creates a welcoming atmosphere for being ‘out of the closet’. In the workplace however, the artificial ‘family’ assemblage of people can feel quite the opposite, often resulting in LGBTQ+ identifiers leading two very different lives in and outside of their place of work. Despite the existence of staff LGBTQ+ networks at a majority of universities, many LGBTQ+ identifying staff are not openly out in the workplace. It is hardly surprising that students find it difficult to be open about their sexuality when there is a lack of representation and supportive student-oriented networks.

This lack of LGBTQ+ student visibility made it incredibly difficult to connect with fellow LGBTQ+ students when we were both studying at university. Despite being at the same university, in the same subject area and based within the same building, we first connected through a dating app. The university-wide LGBTQ+ society is a great, inclusive society, however, it is notorious for organising events and socials more akin to the undergraduate night-life style. Meeting fellow lesbians interested in a career with animals and ecology was incredibly difficult organically. We were very much openly out in our workplace, however lack of student-based LGBTQ+ professional networks made meeting in person virtually impossible.

Jessica has a research background in Zoology and has previously worked as an auxiliary nurse at a veterinary practice. Before and throughout her degree, Jessica volunteered for the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) and National Bat Monitoring Programme (NBMP), which involved many hours of bat surveying, bat walks and rehabilitation of sick and injured bats. Jessica met me when I was studying for my PhD in environmental genomics at Swansea University. I had previously studied BSc Zoology and MSc Environmental Biology at Swansea, whilst volunteering for whale and dolphin charity Sea Watch Foundation. My research background is in molecular ecology, population genetics, and environmental DNA and I was offered a postdoctoral fellow position in the STREAM (Sequencing The Rivers for Environmental Assessment and Monitoring) at the University of Guelph not long after finishing my PhD.

Nearly three years later, we have been married for just over six months and working together at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (Guelph, Canada). Bat rehabilitation is something Jessica and I conducted as a wife-wife team and being the only two bat carers in South Wales (UK) meant a lot of poorly bats came our way.

Throughout our time at university, we have had similar experiences being women within the LGBTQ+ community in a STEM field. Being feminine women, we encountered comments concerning their lack of ‘stereotypical lesbian appearance’ from fellow members of staff at work and were told that discussing sexuality in the workplace is inappropriate. I felt that I was thought less of by my boss and senior colleagues after coming out in the workplace and was concerned that this would affect my career going forward after negative comments by members of staff. These type of comments on top of already being women in science, made the workplace feel like a more toxic environment than usual (again, no wonder most people feel they cannot come out in the workplace).

Luckily, Jessica was the Student Union’s LGBT Women’s officer and had the role of undergraduate representative for Athena SWAN. She encouraged me to join as a postgraduate representative, where we put forward a motion for an LGBTQ+ student network, LGBTQ+ staff representatives for the colleges and co-organised the first International LGBTQ+ STEM day. Along with a fellow openly gay ecology researcher, we decided to host a series of ‘rainbow’ talks, consisting of 3-minute research presentations, each associated with meanings behind the PRIDE rainbow flag (life, healing, light, nature, culture, sex) for the 2018 International LGBTQ+ STEM day. The rainbow talks were targeted towards LGBTQ+ identifying staff and students. Overall, we had presentations on an array of subjects, including population genetics of invasive crayfish, daylight flying of bats and the technology behind avoiding stress whitening in fridges. This day was incredibly inspiring for us and opened our eyes to the number of undergraduate and postgraduate students who identify as LGBTQ+ in the Bioscience department. We were honoured that so many students put themselves forward for presentations, many of whom are not openly out as LGBTQ+ in their work environment.

We both aspire to be the role models in STEM which we never had when joining university. We hope continuing to be open in our work­place will inspire fellow students and staff to feel inspired to be open themselves at work and we look forward to playing a role in the 2019 International LGBTQ+ STEM day at the University of Guelph.


About the authors:

Chloe (on the left) and Jessica (on the right) are a married couple working in the fields of ecology and environmental genomics at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (University of Guelph, Canada). Jessica works as an Imaging Technician and Chloe is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the STREAM project. Originally from the UK, Chloe and Jessica have a background in zoology and have both volunteered for UK-based wildlife charities Bat Conservation Trust and Sea Watch Foundation. Jessica previously worked as an auxiliary nurse at a veterinary practice and a freelance bat ecologist, whereas Chloe recently obtained her PhD in molecular ecology and has a background in population genetics and science communication.

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