There is increasingly a perception that because minority rights have been on the agenda for some time, the world must have moved beyond discrimination, and that as equality legislation has begun to roll out to minority groups, there is no longer any need to talk about the issues they face. Unfortunately however, discrimination, both in wider society and in science, remains widespread – women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, LGBT+ and more all still struggle for equity of treatment.
In the academic science environment, individual group leaders have significant control over the junior researchers they supervise. Indeed, a single individual can make or break the careers of the young scientists working with them, through the support they give and the references they write. Sadly, the majority of supervisors in senior positions are non-diverse. Studies have shown that their conscious and unconscious biases can adversely affect references written for female researchers. Furthermore, they can create research environments that are neither supportive nor inclusive to those with diverse needs.
One of the unique features of LGBT+ diversity is that it can easily remain hidden. Given the obviously tough time experienced by those scientists whose diversity is clearly visible, is it any surprise that many LGBT+ individuals choose to hide their true identities? In many cases, they have very little idea how the person in charge of their future prospects will react. Creating open and inclusive environments is vital to encourage hidden diversity to step out from the closet.
Indeed, a major survey of around 1500 LGBT+ people working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) found they were much more likely to be ‘out’ to their friends and family than they were to their work colleagues. These individuals live double lives, concealing their true identities from those they work with, making it difficult to form meaningful work relationships, contribute effectively to the teams that are so vital in modern scientific research, or even simply chat over a coffee about what they did at the weekend. This is massively damaging on a personal level, but also to the teams they work in and the science they do.
Intriguingly, the ‘hidden diversity’ workplace effect is subject-specific – social scientists are significantly more likely to be ‘out’ at work than those working in physical sciences or engineering – clear evidence that in the prevailing STEM environment, many LGBT+ people feel the need to hide who they really are. This is a damning indictment of the workplace environments scientists are creating, and should make us think long and hard about how we can ensure that everybody feels included and supported.
The survey also made clear that people are more likely to ‘come out’ at work if they know their workplace is safe and welcoming, and less likely to come out if their workplace is unsafe or hostile. Surprisingly, however, people are even less likely to be out if they do not know how their workplace will respond. It is therefore vital for workplaces to clearly signal inclusivity, and for individuals, especially in senior positions, to be visible, either as diversity advocates, or ‘out’ LGBT+ staff members themselves. In my own career, I did not personally come out until after I had secured my own academic position. Ultimately, I came out in a very visible way because on a personal level I was exhausted by lying, but on a broader level, I wanted younger LGBT+ scientists to know that it was ok, that they could succeed, and there were people like them, who would support them.