If enhancing diversity is generally perceived as progress in science, objections are still raised for the fact that this may represent a process of ‘social engineering’ that artificially favors certain individuals and not others – as underlined by the controversy on the suspended CERN physicist Alessandro Strumia.
Science can be a highly serendipitous process, where inventions and discoveries may occur at the intersection of pure chance and intent. In a research environment where the interpersonal exchanges are more complex, and draw from a wider array of experiences and backgrounds, successful outcomes may be accelerated. An academic environment too homogeneous may produce the effect of an echo chamber or “a feedback loop in scholarship that privileges and publishes the majority voice”, as recently pointed out by Times Higher Education.
This is why diversity matters so much in science. And this is why a proven lack of diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) may be an issue.
Is science really that stereotyped?
The pressure to conceal aspects of identity is felt more intensely by those whose identities fall outside the stereotype of a straight, white, middle-class, man.
A recent study describes findings from an inquiry of how LGBT individuals working in STEM fields develop and navigate personal and professional identities. “The pressure to conform or conceal aspects of identity” researchers say, “is felt much more intensely by those whose identities fall farther outside the stereotype of a straight, cisgender [eg, whose gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth], white, middle class, man.”
Educational research has been focusing a lot recently on why women and ethnic minorities are harder to retain in STEM careers. A study published in Science found that STEM disciplines are also losing LGBT undergrads, negatively impacting productivity and the chances to secure a talented workforce in STEM.
“Despite tremendous progress in some institutions”, says Dr Alfredo Carpineti, astrophysicist, science writer, and Chair of the charitable trust Pride in STEM, “LGBT+ people in STEM continue to face discrimination from peers as well as higher ranking members of staff. There is a general lack of resources available for them. Often there is a lack of protection. It’s not altogether common that people are made to feel welcome and that they belong in their field of study”.
What can be done in practice for equality of opportunity for everyone to contribute to science?
If fears are finally dispelled that political correctness is not artificially securing ‘quotas’ of minorities of all kinds, and that bad physicists or engineers are not hired just to tick the LGBT or feminist box, what improvements can be made in practice?
Training, availability of resources, and actively promoted policies are essential, according to Dr Carpineti. “If institutions are serious about addressing homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia, they need to take visible and encompassing action. Tackling LGBT-phobic hate cannot be just a reaction to news of harassment within the university. I believe that training should be given to members of staff, and it should be comprehensive, covering all aspects of underrepresented groups: women, people of colour, disabilities, as well as LGBT specific topics”.
Particularly transgender people, one of the most marginalized groups, may face discrimination and bullying. “The identities of LGBT people, and in particular trans and non-binary people”, continues Dr Carpineti, “shouldn’t come into question in events and material promoted by institutions”.
Joining the talk
The LGBTSTEM Day – the next one is on July 5th – is a day of recognition that goes a long way in helping raise awareness and increase support. It is an important component of the global push to increase diversity and inclusion in STEM.
“Last year LGBTSTEM Day was celebrated by tens of thousands of people worldwide via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram”, says Dr Carpineti. “We hope that many more people join us this year. We have more communities and professional networks helping to co-organise the day and over 50 official supporters, including CERN and the European Space Agency. There are events being organised all over the world to mark the date. We are really excited to see what people decide to do on the day!”
You can read further BMC blogs on diversity and inclusion:
Pride in STEM is a charitable trust working to showcase and support LGBT+ people within STEM disciplines. They organize events where these people have a chance to discuss their work and their experiences, challenging the assumption that they do not belong in STEM. Pride in STEM members also lend their voice to many causes to improve the conditions for LGBT+ people in academia, and they are one of the organizations that spearheaded the global LGBTSTEM Day initiative.