Nobody should have to hide who they are. Unfortunately, many people in the LGBT+ community feel too shy or nervous to come out in the workplace. Following our #DiversityInEcology theme, in this blog post PhD student Chloe Robinson tells us what initiative she has been recently involved with that aim to support students, help tackle any issues of discrimination or unfair treatment in the workplace due to LGBT+ status, and to provide professional LGBT+ role models.
Being openly LGBT+ in the workplace is widely considered more difficult in comparison to being ‘out’ in your social circles. Friends (being the family you chose for yourselves) are often supportive and accepting of who you are as a person, which creates a welcoming atmosphere for being ‘out of the closet’. In the workplace however, the artificial ‘family’ assemblage of people can feel quite the opposite, often resulting in LGBT+ identifiers leading two very different lives in and outside of their place of work. I have been openly lesbian to friends and family for between 2 – 5 years (some were very scary to come out to!), however it is only in the last year I have felt comfortable enough to be open with my sexuality to colleagues at university. Working in the field of ecology I have met many people from various backgrounds, yet noticed the lack of openly LGBT+ staff, despite the existence of staff LGBT+ networks at most universities. It is hardly surprising that students find it difficult to be open about their sexuality in the work place when there is lack of representation or supportive student-oriented networks.
In July 2018, there was the launch of the first ever International LGBT+ STEM Day, which aimed to promote visibility of staff and students working or researching in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields, and provided a fantastic opportunity to host an event to create a safe and inclusive atmosphere to encourage participation from people across the university. A fellow openly gay ecology researcher and I decided to host a series of ‘rainbow’ talks, consisting of 3-minute research presentations, each associated with meanings behind the PRIDE rainbow flag (life, healing, light, nature, culture, sex) and a keynote speech from a member of the Swansea University LGBT+ staff network. The rainbow talks were targeted towards LGBT+ identifying staff and students and overall, we had presentations on an array of subjects, including population genetics of invasive crayfish, daylight flying of bats and the technology behind avoiding stress whitening in fridges.
The LGBT+ STEM day was incredibly inspiring for me and opened my eyes to the number of undergraduate and postgraduate students who identify as LGBT+ in the Bioscience department in particular. I was honoured that so many students put themselves forwards for presentations, many of whom are not openly LGBT+ in their work environment. On a personal level, this event was a big thing as despite being at Swansea University for 8 years, many members of staff are unaware of my LGBT+ status, meaning my presentation felt like coming out all over again. It was a very strange yet liberating feeling, being covered in rainbows and presenting my research as a gay researcher, being 100% me as opposed to 60-70% (on a good day) of myself. I couldn’t help but wonder, how do other students, who may be too shy or nervous to come out in the workplace, manage to cope without the existence of a professional support network here at Swansea and other universities?
Since the LGBT+ STEM day, here at Swansea we are campaigning for the establishment of LGBT+ professional student groups in each college to support students, help tackle any issues of discrimination or unfair treatment in the workplace due to LGBT+ status (which am afraid I have first-hand experience of) and to provide professional LGBT+ role models through linking this new network with the existing (and very active) LGBT+ staff community. The openness and gumption of students from the LGBT+ STEM day inspired me to push for building this network whilst in my role of postgraduate rep for Athena SWAN and I will continue to push for this now I am a member of staff because I feel it is vitally important to give every single student a place they feel safe and welcomed and hopefully (in the not-so-distant future), more students will be bringing 100% of themselves to work.