Thursday, 13 June 2013

Homophobia, STEM and the NUS

In 2011 my girlfriend (now my wife) went to the NUS LGBT Compaign Conference. She and a number of her fellow delegates were particularly disturbed by the following motion that was passed by the conference:

604 Homophobia in Science

Conference believes:
1. Students of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects suffer the highest amount of homophobia from staff and other students than any other subject areas.
2. Due to overt homophobia displayed by members of staff or lecturers, LGBT STEM students are far less likely to reveal their sexuality.
3. Because of this institutional homophobia LGBT people do not feel safe or comfortable studying STEM subjects so are more likely to chose a more liberal subject.

Conference further believes:
1. The grades and mental health of science LGBT students suffer due to the homophobia
2. Less LGBT people go into STEM subjects due to isolation and perceived homophobia

This motion was brought by some non-STEM students and passed by a conference that was overwhelmingly made up of arts and humanities students. So I wondered if there was any basis in this and whether it was mostly based on arts vs science prejudices and assumptions.

I was particularly worried about the 2nd point "Due to overt homophobia displayed by members of staff or lecturers ..."

If the points made here are true, then this is very serious and action needs to be taken to change things. Overt homophobia could well be an illegal and sack-able offence in the UK if it was detrimental to a students ability to participate in their course.

If these allegations are not true, then this motion may well add to the assumption that STEM subjects are homophobic, increasing the difficulty in encouraging LGBT+ students into STEM subjects. I would hope that this outcome is the exact opposite of what the conference were hoping to achieve.

As a response to this, I set up a survey. However, not being a social scientist and having a full time job doing other research I didn't really have the time to chase up responses and I didn't really feel I had enouh data to publish properly. So, it now being a few years down the line, I thought I would report the results here instead. However, if any social scientists are reading this and would like to help take this research further, I would be happy to talk about a collaboration...


We asked both LGBT defining respondents and non-LGBT defining respondents to answer the survey and had approximately equal numbers of response:

Both LGBT defining and non-LGBT defining students reported very low numbers of having seen homophobia by STEM Staff (should be pointed out that not all respondents were STEM based and so some many have had limited exposure to STEM staff).


Non- LGBT:

Here are the comments that were left by those that had seen homophobia:

- Friends neglecting, and change of attitude as if my identity was finally known due to something I did

- Very mild, due to carelessness rather than malice. Use of "gay" as a mild pejorative, stereotyping of LGBT people (e.g. gay male == always camp, gay female == always butch), etc in conversation. I've never seen what seemed to be deliberate malice, just things that could contribute toward an unwelcoming environment for anyone feeling vulnerable about their orientation.

- Jokes and comments - on one occasion about another postgrad who was not present. However, mostly the level of homophobia has felt consistent with the 'outside world'.

- Disparaging remarks, said in joking manner, about gay members of staff but highly offensive e.g in reference to anal sex or other gay stereotypes

There were also some comments which suggested that Transphobia was a big problem, however I have not address Transphobia as it was not mentioned in the original motion.

It would have been nice at this point to see whether the numbers of homophobic incidents were similar in other departments, however we neglected to ask this (see, I said this wasn't my field).

We were interested in whether the atmosphere or perceived atmosphere had an effect on whether people come out or not and how comfortable people were in their department. The majority of respondents (LGBT only) did not feel that the atmosphere in their department had any effect on their decision to come out to people. It was also encouraging in that of the people who were influenced by the atmosphere, more people suggested it was welcoming rather than not.

The majority of respondent did not feel isolated due to homophobia in their departments. However, it is disappointing that in the UK in the 21st Century we should have any respondents who felt they were isolated.

If we split these questions into STEM responders and non-STEM responders. We see no real difference in response for the question of whether the atmosphere in the department encourages or discourages people to come out. The vast majority said that it didn't make a difference, this suggests that question 2 of the motion is not true.

The responses on whether the department felt isolating were slightly different between the two groups, however this may be partly due to the small sampling.

Finally, we asked whether perceived departmental homophobia had an effect on the choice of subject.

It appears not.


Although the rooting out of homophobia in academia as elsewhere is an ongoing project, there does not appear to be a pervading culture of homophobia in STEM departments as the NUS seems to believe. 'Overt Homophobia' does not appear to be preventing STEM students from coming out and does not appear to be affecting LGBT students choice of subject.

Although, I'm sure the vast majority of students had no idea that this motion was passed, statements like this can actually be hugely damaging to the perception of STEM subjects. It may be that in the past these subjects were filled with a macho homophobic culture, but in the 13 years that I've been studying and working in STEM I have never come across it.

If any LGBT students are reading this and thinking about heading into STEM - do it. I think you'll actually find that it's a hugely welcoming and rewarding field to work in.

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