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Looking through the lens of LGBTQ+ people in science

This February, the theme for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender+ (LGBT+) History Month 2023 is #BehindTheLens.

At the National Centre for Atmospheric Science we are committed to promoting and maintaining equality and diversity, but recognise that scientists from sexual and gender minorities remain at a disadvantage.

Science professionals who are lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, queer are more likely to experience career limitations, harassment, and professional devaluation than their peers. 

And, estimates suggest that LGBTQ+ people are around 20% less represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics than expected, compared to other sectors. 

At the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, we recognise that our organisation benefits from diversity and the different perspectives of our staff, and last year we asked them to tell us about themselves. 

Of around 100 of our staff, 10.9% said they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual or asexual. This is compared to the UK population, where in 2020 the Office for National Statistics found that 3.1% of people aged 16 years and over identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

We were inspired by the 500 Queer Scientists visibility campaign for LGBTQ+ people and their allies working in STEM and STEM-supporting jobs. So far, the campaign has 1,726 stories and counting.

This February, we asked staff across all roles and sites of our organisation, who identify as LGBTQ+, to share their experiences of, and advice for, working in science. 

We hope that by sharing their perspectives we can show our support and nurture a more inclusive science community.

Why is it important to you that your employer or organisation nurtures an inclusive workplace?

Nurturing an inclusive workplace is all about making people feel respected, comfortable and welcome at work. This spans all protected characteristics and is something I’m very passionate about in my work at NCAS. If by NCAS improving it’s inclusivity towards all people, including those in the LGBTQ+ community, we allow people to feel themselves and happy in the workplace, that is the most important outcome for me.

Member of staff at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science

Expressing why they think it is important to nurture an inclusive workplace, another person explains:

“I think that just because an organisation is diverse, it doesn’t mean the workplace culture or the employees are inclusive. Diversity focuses on staff demographics, and in relation to LGBTQ+ people, this is captured by sexual orientation and gender identity information. For NCAS, diversity data suggests that for every 10 people, 1 person identifies as LGBTQ+. The UK average is 1 person in roughly 33. Senior leaders want their staff to thrive so they can do their best work and build a reliable workforce, but there’s so much up against LGBTQ+ people that sets them up to struggle. Many LGBTQ+ people choose to hide or limit their identity and not be ‘out’ or open at work, for fear of how it might affect people’s idea of them or for a lack of perceived safety. Unconscious or implicit biases affect everyone – you think better of someone if they are similar to you. So if you’re not like most people, you can start to understand why people might hold back from revealing that – especially when it comes to your career. The constant effort of changing or omitting information, double-checking and doubting takes a toll. In my experience, and I’m sure for most, it’s pretty tiring. For me, it feels brave and fortunate to be out and authentic at work, and only with the people I feel closest to and trust.”

Do you have any pieces of advice for LGBTQ+ people in science?

If you have the energy, if you feel safe, then show people you exist. Challenge perceptions, strike out as a role model for others, and give visible signals to your early-career colleagues and more senior colleagues that being recognised for who you truly are is important. You never know who you might secretly inspire and support.

Member of staff at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science

Are there challenges you face at work in relation to your LGBTQ+ identity?

Coming out later in life, after being married to a man, I have to deal with heteronormative assumptions – and I don’t always correct people because it feels easier. But that eats away at me. I feel like my identity is changing, and that as I get older more of ‘me’ is being revealed. Workplaces, and colleagues, need to be cognisant of people changing without making them feel embarrassed, or going through a phase, or not fitting in like they used to.

Member of staff at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science

Have there been any supportive and important moments you’ve experienced at work in relation to your LGBTQ+ identity?

Just in general, it’s important to me to know that I can walk through the office door confidently. The colleagues that welcome and value me always greet me with a smile and ask genuinely about my life, and listen.

Member of staff at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science

Sharing an important aspect of discussing LGBTQ+ identity at work, another person says:

“Speaking openly to my colleagues about my sexuality before I spoke to other people in my life about it gave me validation, confidence and security in my feelings.”

We are all different and we are not defined by one aspect of who we are. Are there any intersectional considerations or experiences you want to share?

In line with the demographic of NCAS, it is likely the majority of the people we hear from will be white and able bodied. White and able bodied persons are the most listened to and most respected in all protected characteristic groups, and therefore the less oppressed. Hopefully we can use our organisation’s platform to elevate the voices of those we do not currently represent well, and prove our allyship to those outside of the white and able bodied category in the LGBTQ+ community.

Member of staff at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science

On discussing protected characteristics and intersectional inequality or discrimination, another person shares:

“I identify as white British, am a ciswoman (my gender identity matches by sex assigned at birth), use the pronouns she/her but they/them is also fine, and am bisexual. As a woman, there are definitely times that I’ve come up against thinly disguised misogyny during my career and studies. And within the LGBTQ+ community, I haven’t always felt like I’ve belonged because of being ‘too straight’. But then I don’t feel right, or truly myself, in heteronormative groups either. I am aware of my privilege as a white, cis, straight-passing person, but there are still mild disadvantages due to my gender and sexuality, both separately and combined. It makes me very sad and frustrated on behalf of the people out there who are dealing with intersectional issues like homophobia and racism, ableism and sexism, and so on. I think more needs to be done to support people with intersectional identities, as part of a more inclusive science culture and community.”

What are the ways that your colleagues and employers can support LGBTQ+ people in science?

Take an individual approach – LGBTQ+ people are all different and we are not defined by one aspect of who we are. Respect people’s privacy, let them share personal information about themselves only where they feel comfortable doing so. Be guided by the terms people use to describe themselves, their partners, their friends, their families. Avoid stereotyping by making positive or negative generalisations or assumptions about groups of people. If you make a mistake or worry that you’ve made someone feel uncomfortable, apologise, learn, and move on. And look out for when someone may need your support, or a sign that you’ve got their back!

Member of staff at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science

Highlighting the importance of active bystanders, another person adds: “Be an active bystander and pull up your colleagues when they say something derogatory or bigoted towards the LGBTQ+ community. One word or a phrase may not seem impactful at the time, but it continues a history of oppression and harassment which we want to stop in places we have the power to do so.”