Dr Clara Barker is a thin film material scientist and Laboratory Manager of the Centre for Applied Superconductivity in the Department of Materials. She is also the Chair of the Oxford University LGBT+ Advisory Group and a Stonewall School Role Model as well as running LGBTI+ youth groups and advocating for equality in her spare time. Here, she explores the importance of LGBTSTEMDay.
5 July 2018 saw the first International LGBTSTEMDay — the International Day of LGBTQ+ People in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. This event was celebrated by many STEM institutions and universities. It is easy to imagine that STEM subjects are accepting of all, and that being LGBT+ does not impact your career as a scientist. However, in the last few years there have been various reports that show this not to be the case. A report by the American Physical Society released in 2016 showed increased isolation and increased hostility or exclusion as an LGBT physicist compared to non-LGBT+ people, with transgender and gender non-conforming people experiencing these issues to the greatest degree. A 2018 paper by Hughes showed that LGB people are more likely to leave the sciences than non-LGB colleagues, and an earlier report by Yoder & Mattheis showed that many STEM researchers felt unable to be out at work, with some fields being worse than others.
These type of results are not a surprise to LGBT+ people in STEM fields but having data shows that the barriers we face are real. It shows there is a need to highlight LGBT+ role models in STEM fields and the need for peer LGBT+ groups so that our scientists are able to connect and support each other. Many groups have formed over the last few years such as Pride In STEM and House of STEM, and together they were part of the driving force for LGBTSTEMday in 2018. Seeing events held at venues such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council, UK Atomic Energy Authority, CERN and others celebrating LGBT+ STEM workers is something I never thought I would see.
Over the last few years the LGBT STEMinar has been held annually, highlighting research by STEM researchers of various fields and career stages; we are proud to say that we will be hosting this at Oxford University in 2021. This conference is supported by many learned societies including the Royal Society, the National Physical Laboratory and the Wellcome Trust. In addition to this the Institute of Physics (IOP), The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) commissioned a report to determine the climate for LGBT+ people working in the physical sciences. The report, using data from a survey with over 1,000 respondents across the UK, was released in June 2019. Again, this report showed that LGBT+ scientists feel isolated at work, experience increased harassment and exclusion and are highly likely to leave STEM careers due to the climate. This is against a societal backdrop when hate crimes, particularly against transgender people, have risen significantly in the last year. Again, while these results are not a surprise to LGBT+ people, the research into the climate and advertising of the results is a strong and positive step forward. Without data, it is hard to know if change truly is necessary and without acknowledging the issues faced by LGBT+ people, it is impossible to really affect a change in culture.
Another positive step forward is the highlighting of LGBT+ role models by the learned societies. Education in Chemistry, an RSC journal for teachers, has featured a number of articles aimed at highlighting the work of LGBT+ scientists. The Royal Society has held panels during their Summer Exhibition as well as profiling some LGBT+ scientists for LGBT history month, and the IOP have included LGBT+ scientists in their careers booklets. More recently, the RAS has highlighted support for its transgender members in response to questions asking whether transpeople should be eligible to apply for certain grants, and Nature released an editorial showing support for LGBTSTEMday 2019. Oxford University has also taken steps to improving the climate for trans staff and students with a new policy and guidelines released in 2018 and increased LGBT+ visibility.
These are all steps I welcome. The IOP/RSC/RAS report showed that nearly a third of LGBT+ scientists thought about leaving STEM because of the hostile environment semi-regularly, while 20% of trans people felt like leaving often. I was one of those people, as I have discussed in a previous article for Oxford University. I assumed I could not have a scientific job as a transgender person, as I did not see any other transgender scientists around me. Now that I am vocal in sharing my experiences, these misconceptions have proven to be wrong. However, I was very close to never knowing that.
It’s clear we need to start talking about our LGBT+ scientists, showing their work and making them feel welcome. It is both blinkered and naive to believe that science is not impacted by prejudices, that they do not exist and do not impact our output. We can only truly have the best scientific minds in science if we make everyone feel welcome, if we can choose from the largest pool of researchers. There are papers that show that diversity in groups can improve a group’s impact, if measured by citations (here only gender and race are considered), thought to be due to the larger mix of ideas and solutions to scientific questions. We need to actively make our scientists welcome, allow all to have equal opportunities to reach their maximum potential. Not only for LGBT+ scientists, the same is also true for race, gender, nationality, disability and socio-economic background. By allowing all of our researchers to be themselves at work, and allowing them to be confident to truly experiment with scientific idea with no fear of harassment for who they are, then science can only become stronger.
Clara is the chair of the LGBT+ Advisory Group at Oxford University and runs the local LGBT+ youth group TOPAZ in Oxford as well as being a member of an Oxford County Council anti-LGBT+ bullying group. Clara also writes blogs about diversity in STEM, and the world in general, and talks about these subjects to anyone who will listen, including various local schools. She was also a volunteer on the Out in Oxford project and the current Beyond the Binary project. She received a Points of Light award from the Prime Minister for her work with LGBT+ youth.
In her spare time Clara climbs, writes music reviews for an online punk magazine and plays D&D.
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