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Blog Article: Creating Inclusive Environments for LGBTQ+ in STEM

Niamh Pride Blog

Written By: Niamh, Kavanagh, IEEE Photonics Society Diversity Oversight Chair

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LGBTQ+ people make up one of the largest minority groups in the workforce, especially in STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields. Support structures tend to focus on more visible minorities, such as those related to gender, race or age. While these groups also include LGBTQ+ people, an LGBTQ+ orientation or identity in itself is inherently less visible and so often overlooked. This invisibility is heightened by the fact that many LGBTQ+ employees choose not to ‘come out’ at work for fear of discrimination, exclusion or unconscious bias. In a 2009 Irish survey, one in four LGBTQ+ employees said they had been verbally abused on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity (GLEN & BeLong To).

LGBTQ+ people must regularly decide if disclosing their orientation or identity will have negative consequences for their career — if an LGBTQ+ employee does decide to ‘come out’, it’s not something that’s done only once; coming out is a constant process in the case of new colleagues, new clients or in a new company. Thus, many LGBTQ+ people choose to conceal their true selves in the workplace. In a 2013 study, only 43% of LGBTQ+ employees in Ireland reported that they were ‘out’ to everyone in work (Out Now Global LGBTQ+2020). Of course, if a person wants to keep their private life private, this should be respected and protected. However, the mental effort of constantly self-regulating to hide a stigmatized sexuality has been shown to substantially increase stress, anxiety, depression and other negative health outcomes (Meyer, 1995, 2003; Pachankis, 2007). This, of course, has knock-on effects for the business too — reducing workplace satisfaction, lowering productivity and increasing turnover.

STEM-orientated workplaces bring their own unique challenges to the table. Research has shown that anti-LGBTQ+ bias is particularly evident in STEM-related environments, compared to other professional settings (Cech & Pham, 2017). This may be due to the stereotype that persists of a white, male ‘scientist’ and the correspondingly rigid expectations of gender expression and sexual orientation that go along with it (Nassar-McMillan et al., 2011). On top of this, individual identity factors are sometimes considered irrelevant in STEM fields and the myth of a meritocratic ideal that ‘all that matters is the work’ prevails. While it is certainly true that an individual’s race, gender and sexual orientation do not determine their intellectual ability, it may determine the opportunities that that person is presented with.

Diversity is relevant and has actually been shown to be a good business decision because diverse teams have better results, as discussed in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by authors David Rock and Heidi Grant. In another HBR article, by Laura Sherbin and Ripa Rashid, they elaborate further about the importance of inclusion, as well as diversity; ‘In the context of the workplace, diversity equals representation. Without inclusion, however, the crucial connections that attract diverse talent, encourage their participation, foster innovation and lead to business growth won’t happen’. Embracing the principles of diversity and inclusion helps to attract and retain the best and the brightest people. If a company wants to remain competitive in today’s global economy, they need to increase recruitment and retention of talent from all demographics. Not only this, but as Apple’s slogan says: ‘Inclusion inspires innovation’ — diverse teams make better products that cater to the wants and needs of the diverse consumer market.

In order to achieve diversity and inclusion, it is important to create a culture where LGBTQ+ people feel that they can be their true selves in work. This openness has benefits for both the employee and employer. Several researchers have found that LGBTQ+ employees who are open about their LGBTQ+ orientation or identity report higher job satisfaction, lower anxiety and fewer work/home conflicts (Day & Schoenrade, 1997; Griffith & Hebl, 2002). Also, they can earn more! It was discovered that LGBTQ+ respondents who were ‘out’ in safe workplaces earned 50% more than those who were not (Congress & GLEN Guide, 2011). Unsurprisingly, it has been shown that LGBTQ+ employees are more likely to be open about their orientation or identity if they perceive their colleagues to be supportive of LGBTQ+ people and if their employer enacts LGBTQ+-supportive policies (Ragins et al., 2007). Further studies demonstrate that LGBTQ+-supportive policies and workplace climates are linked to greater job commitment, improved workplace relationships and improved health outcomes among LGBTQ+ employees (Badgett, 2013). As the saying goes ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’; revised discrimination policies and more inclusive practices can benefit everyone in the workplace, not only those in minority groups.

Diversity training can be a great first step in fostering a culture of inclusivity; reducing discrimination, exclusion and unconscious bias. Training can improve awareness and encourage dialogue among all levels of employees. Additional factors have been shown to create a culture in which LGBTQ+ employees feel that they can safely disclose their orientation or identity (Colgan et al., 2007), such as a feeling of safety within an institution, the presence of an institutional LGBTQ+ group and the visibility of other LGBTQ+ colleagues (especially in senior positions). Employee groups can be a very effective way to begin promoting change within institutions. These groups can raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues, contribute to enhanced diversity climates and lobby for institutional change. However, it is important to resist solutions that delegate responsibility solely to those within minority groups, such as relying on senior LGBTQ+ employees to mentor junior LGBTQ+ personnel.

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On a personal note, it was in the sadness, fear and feeling of solidarity surrounding the hateful attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando which prompted me to come out to my family and start living my life more openly as a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. We exist in all walks of life. We deserve to be respected as people, we deserve to feel safe and we deserve to be protected from discrimination, harassment and hate — especially in the workplace. Most full-time employees spend at least a quarter of the hours in their week at work; no-one should feel afraid to be themselves in that time for fear that their career might suffer. Employers need to step up and openly support, strictly protect and actively include their LGBTQ+ employees. I’ve talked about how it’s good for business but really, at the end of the day, it’s just the right thing to do.

This blog article is supported by the IEEE Photonics Society’s Diversity Oversight Committee and its inclusive ‘IEEE Pride in Photonics’ initiative. The initiative is intended to showcase and celebrate the scientific and social impact contributions of LGBTQIA+ people in STEM, especially in the fields of photonics, optics, physics and engineering. Pride in Photonics seeks to create a space to openly share personal experiences, and increase acceptance of inclusion best-practices.