What’s it like to be an LGBTQ person in STEM?

17 Apr 2018

Image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Shaun O’Boyle is behind a new initiative called House of STEM, which aims to connect LGBTQ scientists and create an inclusive community. Here, he outlines the challenges faced by the LGBTQ population and the plethora of inspiring efforts to overcome them.

“I’m not afraid to hear ‘no’ and I know it’s a numbers game … I knew I would probably have to ask 99 people to get one ‘yes’.”

Arlan Hamilton is the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital, a seed investment fund that backs underrepresented start-up founders. Arlan said this as we were recording with her for the Inspirefest podcast last year.

We recorded this when I had just come out of organising the March for Science. I was trying to figure out how to apply what I’d learned there to creating a new initiative for LGBTQ scientists, and Arlan was like a perfectly timed oracle, sent by the gay gods.

That day, I started putting together my list of 99 people.

A lot of careers and workplaces are challenging for LGBTQ people. If we don’t feel comfortable or safe to be ‘out’ at work, then we spend every moment monitoring what we say and how we say it. That takes its toll on a person’s mental health.

A career in science, of course, has its own specific set of challenges. For example, scientific research often requires us to travel for fieldwork or conferences, sometimes to countries where it’s dangerous or illegal to be LGBTQ.

‘While the scientific process treats all data equally, science does not treat all scientists equally’

There are also cultural challenges. Science is a field founded on objectivity, and that can be a difficult environment in which to discuss personal experiences. While the scientific process treats all data equally, science does not treat all scientists equally.

In the weeks following Inspirefest last year, I was a third of the way through my 99 people. I met with colleagues and friends, charities and state bodies, allies and fellow LGBTQ scientists – and almost every conversation was a ‘yes’. We all recognised the need for a national discussion in Ireland, and for a network that could drive that discussion and connect with international groups that are already doing incredible work.

By January this year, that network had become House of STEM, a community-led initiative to connect LGBTQ people working in STEM in Ireland. We organise events, campaigns and initiatives to connect LGBTQ scientists with each other, and with the issues that are important to them. We also send a monthly mailing with news, resources and opportunities to get involved.

We’re having our first public event on May the 4th – ‘Star Wars Day’. We’ve teamed up with Pride in STEM to bring their Out Thinkers event series to Dublin for the first time. Kicking off in Science Gallery Dublin at 6pm, it’s free, and you’ll hear some great talks about research and life as LGBTQ scientists.

And then there’s #LGBTSTEMDay.


LGBTSTEM Day logo. Image: TwistedDoodles

It turns out that very exciting things can happen when some of the 99 people on your list begin introducing you to their network. On 5 July, House of STEM will team up with Pride in STEM, InterEngineering and oSTEM to present the first ever International Day for LGBTQ People in STEM.

This global push towards visibility and inclusion is already gathering momentum, and our official supporters include Science Gallery, Ecsite, LGBTQ CERN, The Royal Society of Chemistry, Wellcome, AAAS, the Institute of Physics and many more.

We’re doing all of this because LGBTQ people in STEM still struggle to be themselves at work and in their careers. While we don’t yet have data on the experiences of LGBTQ researchers in Ireland, international research is giving us a sense of the challenges. LGBTQ people working in STEM fields with better representation of women, for example, are more open about who they are – and so, biologists are more likely than engineers to be ‘out’ to their colleagues. In the US, LGB students are more likely to drop out of STEM degrees.

‘Science communicators belong on the frontline of diversity issues in STEM. We can handle uncomfortable conversations, and we can help amplify diverse voices in our field’

Behind these statistics are people and stories, and I relate to many of them. While I don’t currently work in research, I did do a PhD and some postdoctoral work before becoming a science communicator full-time. I think science communicators, particularly those of us who no longer work in academia, belong on the frontline of diversity issues in STEM. We can handle uncomfortable conversations, and we can help amplify diverse voices in our field.

In joining this movement, I joined a community of people already doing incredible work to improve the experiences of LGBTQ scientists.

  • Pride in STEM is challenging society’s perceptions of what scientists should be like
  • oSTEM is helping to create safe and supportive environments for LGBTQ scientists across the US
  • LGBT+ Physics is amplifying the voices of LGBTQ physicists
  • LGBT STEM showcases talented LGBTQ scientists from around the world, and brings them together at the annual LGBT STEMinar
  • InterEngineering works to foster greater inclusion in engineering in the UK
  • NOGLSTP advocates equal employment opportunities and professional development

Many more groups and organisations are working tirelessly to support our community.

I think Irish LGBTQ scientists have a lot to offer, and I’m excited that House of STEM can represent them in this global movement.

By Shaun O’Boyle

Shaun O’Boyle is a science communicator, producer and the founder of House of STEM.

If you are LGBTQ or an ally, working, studying or teaching in a physical sciences field in the UK or Ireland, you can help improve data on the experiences of LGBTQ scientists by completing this survey.

Are you a PhD researcher? Can you explain your work in three minutes of engaging chat? Then you could be our next Researchfest champion. Find out how to apply here.