Being an ally in STEM

By Michaela Agapiou

A recent post on the Royal Society’s science policy blog, In Verba, discussed many aspects of equality, diversity and inclusion in academia. It ends on a call for collective activism, something I have been thinking about a lot lately. Specifically, I want to become a better ally to people who are underrepresented in the sciences. 

I think many people in STEM are aware that currently most teams, departments, or student populations are not reflective of wider society. But beyond just the numbers and percentages of different identities that make up a team, we need to be listening to and acting on the actual experiences of those underrepresented groups. 

This has started to happen and a few of these reports and studies were highlighted in the In Verba post. One of these was a joint report from three physical science societies in the UK which found that “28% of LGBT+ respondents stated that they had at some point considered leaving their workplace because of the climate or discrimination towards LGBT+ people”. There are also plenty of individual accounts of hostile encounters. For example, one academic wrote on The Physiological Society’s blog about her experiences of being misgendered and being confronted about placing her pronouns on her slides.

This is all to say there is much to be improved in the working environments in STEM fields, especially to enable diverse teams that thrive. My own experiences as a queer woman of colour in the life sciences has, for the most part, been positive. I have found allies in my supervisor, labmates and peers. And I think one of the reasons I feel so passionately about improving the working environment of fellow life scientists is that one of the best parts of my PhD is the collaboration. I have three supervisors with very different expertise, and I have worked in each of their labs along with several of the core facilities at my university. I love the days when I get to work in two or three different spaces in one day. But not everyone’s experience of switching situations is positive. There are multiple reports about graduates going back into the closet when they start their first job and the physical sciences report also quoted someone who felt they couldn’t be out to international collaborators. Labs can be exciting and dynamic places to work but I want them to be more inclusive too so that we’re not restricting, leaving out or losing fellow researchers along the way. 

There’s plenty out there on how to be a good ally and I would highly recommend seeking out information for specific groups and identities. I’m still learning how I can be a better ally and I wanted to share what I’ve learned from my own experiences of colleagues supporting me, as well as online resources. To start, there can be a lot of terminology that gets used in conversations about equality and inclusion. It’s ok to feel a bit lost and there are some useful glossaries out there such as those by Stonewall and TIGER in STEMM, that can help guide along the way. 

I’ve learnt so much from reading and listening to the experiences of people with different identities to my own and found Twitter a really useful place for this. This is not an exhaustive list by any means but a few examples are: @MinoritySTEM, @PrideinSTEM, @tigerinstemm and #DisabledAndSTEM. If there are events centred around diversity and inclusion at your institute, attend them to both listen and to be a visible supporter. Seeing one of my supervisors at such an event definitely made me much more comfortable talking to them about a microaggression I had experienced from someone in their lab. Even if you may not feel you can contribute to an event due to a lack of lived experience, giving what you can in time and effort is hugely important because minorities often have to carry the burden of educating people and spend more time setting up and getting involved in these events.

If you mentor or supervise students and/or early career researchers then make sure they know you are supportive of them attending events such as LGBTQ+ STEMinar or those run by Leading Routes, an organisation that aims to prepare the next generation of Black academics. It meant a great deal to me when my supervisor approved and encouraged me to attend events like these that weren’t directly related to my research. Additionally, if you are involved in organising events read guides and tips on hosting inclusive events.

Calling out problematic language and behaviour that you witness can be one of the most challenging things, but it can have a huge impact. If you don’t feel you have the toolkit to do that, consider reading bystander intervention guides, or even see if your department would host a training course.
Rainbow badges and pronoun stickers were available on LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2019 at The Biochemical Society event Translation UK 2019.

You can be proactive, even in seemingly small ways. You can wear a rainbow or ally badge at events or around the workplace. Normalisation of visible pronouns at conferences and in email signatures has a long way to go, so perhaps ahead of time you can email a conference organiser to ask if they can include pronoun stickers or badges. This was something that I did in one of my first steps to becoming a better ally. I emailed the Biochemical Society about a conference of theirs I was attending and from a quick five-minute email they are now going to have pronoun stickers at more of their events, not just the one I contacted them about. Other life science membership organisations like The Physiological Society are now also providing pronoun badges at all their conferences going forward. 

I am grateful for the allies I have found during my PhD and I hope we can all start listening more carefully to one another so that we can work together to make our workplaces more inclusive.

About the author:

Michaela (she/her) is a molecular biologist in the final year of her PhD at the University of Leeds. She works with D. melanogaster and is often found flipping flies or dissecting away while listening to hours of podcasts. 

Twitter: @MichaelaAgapiou



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