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The STEM Village was created to build a community for LGBTQ+ scientists working in Scotland. At the end of August, the group hosted its first virtual symposium, which was watched by over 700 people from all over the world. Here we talk to Matthew Sinton about the group's work.
We wanted to build on the trailblazing work of other groups like Pride in STEM and LGBTQ+ STEM, and create a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ researchers in Scotland. We decided to name the organisation after Gay Villages, which were, traditionally, safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community where people could be their authentic selves, free from persecution and harm. The STEM Village is a space where members of our community can come together to discuss science, or the unique challenges they may face, without fear of being judged.
We wanted to provide a platform for members of the LGBTQ+ STEM community in Scotland to showcase their research. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to move the symposium to a virtual platform. Initially, we were disappointed that we couldn’t host a physical event, but we pivoted and turned the symposium into a global event, making it as inclusive as possible for people across the world.
I hoped we would reach a wider audience, but didn’t expect us to reach as many people as we did! We had people joining from countries like Egypt and Nigeria, where it is dangerous to be LGBTQ+, who likely would not have been able to get involved in a physical event.
I hope the symposium showed people that although they are spread across the world, we are a global LGBTQ+ STEM community, who will support and look out for each other. I also hope that this shows the wider scientific community that LGBTQ+ people are performing incredible research around the globe and that we don’t have to fit into a heteronormative mould to do so.
I think this was addressed really well by Mario Pelaez Fernandez (AKA Sassy Science) during our Drag in STEM panel discussion, who pointed out that scientific rigour is often associated with heteronormativity. It’s not something I’ve ever been able to put into words before, but it really resonated with me. Imagine going to a scientific conference and a man wearing makeup, nail varnish and high heels steps up to give a talk. I am absolutely certain there would be a section of the audience who would refuse to take that person seriously, regardless of how rigorous their research was. I think that for many people, there’s a fear that their careers will suffer if they are their true authentic selves.
One of the things that strikes me about academia is that career progression can be highly political and is heavily influenced by the relationships you establish. Firstly, if you cannot bring your authentic self to work, that stands to impact those relationships. Secondly, in a lot of industries if you’re unhappy in the workplace you can change jobs. Whilst this is possible in academia, it’s much tougher and the reasons for moving are more heavily scrutinised. For example, if you left a postdoctoral position due to harassment and you don’t have a research output to show for it, you have to fully justify this. But this can be really hard, and if you don’t feel able to share this experience you may be penalised, and this could hurt your career progression.
I think very simple actions such as wearing rainbow lanyards or having a rainbow sticker on the office door can make a space feel much more welcoming. Actively promoting events such as LGBTQ+ seminars and symposiums also shows that departments see value in these events for their staff. I think this sort of communication with members of your lab or department shows openness and will make researchers who identify as LGBTQ+ feel more comfortable being open in the workplace.
The key for us was to try and engage with the community. In our early days, we featured weekly “take-overs” where people could host our Twitter account and talk about their research, being LGBTQ+ or a combination of those things. The aim was to increase visibility and showcase LGBTQ+ scientists in Scotland, which made the conversation about the community rather than being about us. One problem with engaging with a wider audience on social media is that the algorithms are designed to show us people like us. It was really important for us to actively seek out different parts of the community, and it’s something that we’re continuing to work on.
We’re definitely planning future events, which will hopefully be physical in nature, but I think we’ll make these open to people who are unable to attend, using live streams and online Q&A sessions. Scotland has also just become the first nation in the world to introduce an LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum into its schools, which promotes the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community across all subject areas. As this initiative develops, it would be great if our community was able to engage with schools in Scotland, so we can show students the diversity of people working in STEM.