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Gender + Sexuality
Science + Tech

‘You Have to Be Brave and Stick Up for Yourself’

Three LGBTQ+ people talk about working in STEM and the struggle to find acceptance and understanding.

Hilary Leung 9 Jul

Hilary Leung recently completed a practicum at The Tyee. She is a student at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @hlary_l.

The maths and sciences world has been struggling — with some success — to increase women’s participation.

But what about the experiences of those who identify as LGBTQ+ in the world of STEM, short for science, technology, engineering and math? Are STEM-related occupations making an effort to make the workplace welcoming and safe for these individuals?

Perhaps not. A 2017 U.S. study found LGBT workers in STEM-related federal agencies reported more negative workplace experiences than non-LGBT employees.

I interviewed three people — two of them identify as queer women and one is non-binary — about working in STEM. They talked about workplace exclusion, the challenge of unconventional appearance, coming out at work, the assumptions their colleagues make, their joy at the surprising openness of other colleagues, and being a role model for young people. Their comments have been lightly edited for clarity.

Em Lim (they/them)
Marine sciences educator, Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre

On being the first:

When I was in high school, I hadn’t really figured out my gender or sexuality at that point, and so I was kind of thinking about it as if I would be a woman in STEM. Once I figured out the gender, then it was a little bit more stressful. I’ve never had a non-binary or gender-queer prof. There aren’t a lot of us at that top of the food chain, and so it’s a little bit intimidating, because you’re very aware that when you make it to certain milestones in your career, it’s a first, both for you and for the organization or the university.

On scientists open to learning:

I found in my experience that the really intelligent and really bright, brilliant scientists tend to be pretty comfortable with the fact they don’t know everything. And they also tend to be pretty comfortable with the understanding that not everything fits in the box. And so I found that 70-year-old white men who are scientists sometimes are actually a lot more open to my gender than I would initially expect, just because they’re kind of comfortable with that level of ambiguity or just not knowing everything. And so in some ways, I’ve almost found the scientific community to be more accepting than what I would have expected a general mainstream community to be, just because they seem to be OK or comfortable with that notion of being wrong or things not being binary. And I think we learned that even sex isn’t binary. And for them to accept that gender isn’t binary isn’t that big of a leap. But then, of course, there are also some old-timey scientists who think that they know everything and think that they’re never wrong and harder to change.

It came to [my undergraduate supervisor’s] attention recently that I was using they/them pronouns now. And he sent me this really thoughtful and lovely email, just clarifying the pronouns. He was asking me about other people including their pronouns in their email signature. And he just, on the spot, added his pronouns to his email, and that was such a nice feeling, not just to feel like he accepted or tolerated having students and using the pronouns, but that he was actually excited to try and change something that would positively affect not just me but other potential students.

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Em Lim hopes that the system will change so that it’s more accepting for non-binary people in STEM. Photo by Dexter McMillan for The Tyee.

On science’s leaky pipeline problem:

I see a lot of programs aimed at getting little girls excited about science. And I think that little girls are already really excited. I don’t think that we’re seeing a lack of women at those lower stages of undergraduate programs. I think it’s a pipeline problem. I think that there’s a huge inflow of them into the system, but they’re all leaking out. And I think they’re all leaking out due to harassment and men just being hostile.

There are a lot of us [non-binary folks] who are excited about science, a lot of us going into science, maybe not so many sticking around because of hostile environments and harassment and similar problems. And so I think that instead of trying harder to get more people, more marginalized people into science, there should be more work done to make the system friendlier towards people who are already there.

On feeling ‘not thought of’:

My personal experiences in B.C. with the groups I’ve been around haven’t been so much unwelcoming, but just unaware. It’s just this feeling of not being thought of, or just kind of being unincluded or forgotten. Not so much that they’re intentionally trying to make me feel excluded — just kind of an overwhelming feeling that I’m not even a blip on a radar, that the system isn’t designed for you, and that if you want things to be better, you kind of have to be brave and stick up for yourself. It’s more challenging for us to pursue STEM because we like to express ourselves, sometimes with less conventional haircuts, less conventional hair colours. A lot of us have a bunch of piercings, maybe tattoos. And sometimes the way that we present ourselves makes people uncomfortable, and don’t really align with conventions for being professional. It’s scary if you look kind of different. People sometimes treat you differently.

On being a role model for youth:

As a marine sciences educator, I teach students from Grade 5 to university to know about marine biology and ecology and oceanography, and all kinds of things. And I get a lot of really sweet, young trans students who come through, and sometimes they’ll talk to me in person or they’ll send me messages saying things like, “Wow, it was so cool to have a non-binary instructor, or to see someone with purple hair teaching, like you just changed my life. I didn’t realize that was possible.” And I feel like I’ve kind of tried to make it my mission to be that person for other people so that... those little sweet, queer and trans kids that come through Bamfield on field trips, they can see me and go, “Wow, this person is so loud about being non-binary and has they/them pins on their sweater and other associates like them, and they’re still doing this job. And that means that I could too.”

Cindy Xiao (She/her)
Firmware developer, Zaber Technologies

On being in a male-dominated field:

When I was in university, I was in a co-op program at the University of Alberta. And when I was working, there were definitely more things I noticed, or things that people said to me, that did make me feel uncomfortable. And it was kind of explicitly gendered. I think other things I’ve noticed are along the lines of sexual jokes, or really subtle sexual jokes, or even just lots of sexual comments that are made. I sometimes felt frustrated by this — I’m behaving in a professional way. But then other people feel like they have the latitude to not behave professionally.

Working in an engineering position, there’s still sometimes where you do notice that you’re in a really male-dominated field, and the culture of the company or the environment that you’re working in is still very explicitly or implicitly male-dominated. And I think sometimes that’s when people don’t really think about what they’re saying because they’re so used to working in an environment that’s mostly male. A lot of the times, even though this isn’t my job, a lot of times it does help if you show, “Hey, you know, I am a competent queer woman. I can do my job.” That’s what changes people’s minds. And that’s definitely one way that people can recognize their own behaviour. It’s not great, but I found that that works.

On being an ‘acceptable’ kind of queer:

If you’re a woman, and you’re slightly gender non-conforming in a masculine way, that’s typically something that people see as acceptable. So I think in some way, people see you as more acceptable in a group of men, for example. But for other queer women who are perhaps a lot more butch, or who are perhaps more feminine presenting than I am, I think they would fall into greater challenges just because of gendered appearance.

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Being a ‘role model for the future’ is something that Chloe Robinson takes great pride in. Photo submitted.

Chloe Robinson (She/her)
Postdoctoral fellow on STREAM project (collecting bulk DNA samples from rivers across Canada), University of Guelph

On not being taken seriously:

I found that I was not taken seriously quite often in university in the U.K. In group discussions I was often spoken over by men, and the way that we were managed as PhD students was very different depending on whether you’re a man or a woman. And that was very difficult to deal with, as a woman in that field where it was male-dominated anyway, at that point. As a woman, you’re supposed to sit there and listen to them play their bit, and you’re not really supposed to have much of an input to the conversation.

On the challenge of coming out:

In my situation here at the University of Guelph, I think I actually have a bit more of a say than some of the men in the group. And that’s because I kind of progressed. It feels different here. It could be the culture, which I know in the U.K. is quite notorious for being quite hierarchical and sexist in academia. So here in Canada it could just be different.

I don’t think you can feel like you can come out in the workplace, maybe not as in the same way that men can. I was one of only two sort-of out women in my whole building when I was at university. But I wanted to stop hiding that part of myself, because it was affecting my mental health, being two sort of different people, and having to be careful what I said in case I sort of let it slip.

On the loss of acceptance after coming out:

There’d be conversations such as “You need to find yourself a boyfriend, you need to stop collecting cats and, you know, settle down with someone” or “I wonder if Chloe is going to be the next one to get pregnant.” And those kinds of comments, from my supervisor or in general conversation — I would just feel really awkward about it. And I’d put it off for so long to the point where one day I just sort of said, “Well, that’s not going to happen, because I’m actually a lesbian and have a girlfriend.”

As a woman, I was feeling already a little bit left out and sort of under-appreciated, and I felt very much like a personal assistant as opposed to a researcher. And then when I came out, it was like going down another level.

After I came out, I didn’t have as many of the positive interactions with my supervisor. I was back to kind of an undergraduate in the post-graduate world, even though I was a PhD student who’d been there the longest and who was running the group and such. I was left out of a lot of that side of things. I wasn’t invited to go to conferences, whereas my peers were going abroad. I was kind of kept in the lab and kept away from people.

On being a queer role model:

Being a woman and being queer can bring you down, but I try and push against my own thoughts, these feelings, because I think a lot of it is that kind of self-doubt that creeps in from these wild stories or from actual people who have experienced discrimination, and which I’ve seen a lot on Twitter and various things. I know that’s what my supervisors were concerned about in the U.K., that me coming out would limit my chances going forward.

But I think being a role model is quite a big deal. Showing that I came out at this point in my career, and nothing has happened to me in terms of my career development, and I am continuing to blog and put the word out there on my personal platforms. I think sharing my experience, being a role model and trying to continue to contribute and encourage people to be who they are in the workplace.

The best thing [about being a queer woman in STEM] for me is being that role model for the future, because I wouldn’t want people to go through the same kind of experience I’ve gone through. But I want to show them that even if you do, you can get through this and it won’t affect your career, and you will be successful.  [Tyee]

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