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Making academic departments welcoming for LGBT staff and students (essay_

Climate Change
June 21, 2013

When scientists talk about issues related to diversity or broadening participation in their disciplines, the focus is typically on supporting women, persons of color, or first-generation college students.  However, scientists who identify as part of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community are also a minority within the scientific community and may, likewise, find themselves marginalized. Moreover, scientists who would like to make their disciplines more welcoming to LGBT colleagues may be uncertain about how to do so.

The two of us are physicists who belong to the Organizers’ Board of LGBT+Physicists, a recently formed group that provides resources and networking to support members of sexual and gender minorities within the physics community. Over the past two years, the group has presented talks and networking sessions at American Physical Society meetings and created online Out and Ally Lists to build community connections. The group has also written a Best Practices Guide to help physics departments become more inclusive for LGBT scientists; many of the guide’s suggestions are also relevant for other STEM and academic disciplines.

This article highlights what individual department chairs or faculty members can do to begin making their departments more hospitable to LGBT colleagues. We refer readers to the Best Practices Guide for detailed discussions, examples of longer-term initiatives to consider, and some suggestions for fostering change at the institutional level.

Our discussion here will group actions into several categories: inclusive language, visibility, training and networking.  These give a sense of the wide range of issues requiring thoughtful engagement.

Use Inclusive Language

To begin, it is worth remembering that there is a difference between a person’s sex (a biologically defined characteristic) and their gender (culturally determined).  Persons for whom these two characteristics are aligned are termed “cisgender”; those who identify with a gender that does not correspond to the sex assigned them at birth are known as “transgender.” For example, a person assigned male at birth who identifies as a man is cisgender. In contrast, if that male-assigned person identifies as a woman she is transgender.  Separately, some individuals are homosexual (attracted to persons of the same gender) while others are heterosexual (attracted to persons of the opposite gender). Moreover, these qualities are all increasingly recognized as falling along continuums rather than being strictly either-or alternatives.

Because most individuals in our society are heterosexual and cisgender, many common ways of referring to people tend to presume that all of us are. This can leave LGBT individuals feeling invisible or excluded. Making an effort to employ gender-neutral language costs nothing and can make a community feel far more welcoming.

For example, many departments now use gender-neutral titles like “chairperson” or “chair” rather than the old-fashioned “chairman,” which used to imply that all incumbents were male. Extending this idea by inviting “you and your partner” rather than “you and your spouse” to department social events or by asking that “all students take out their books” rather than that “each student take out his book” avoids unnecessary and potentially alienating references to gender.

Moreover, there are situations, such as in hiring, promotion or award committees, where referring to an individual’s gender may not only be irrelevant, but may also introduce implicit bias.  The 2012 PNAS article by Moss-Racusin et al. (PNAS  2012 109(41) 16395) and the March 7, 2013 special issue of Nature provide clear evidence that evaluators view credentials differently depending on the gender ascribed to the applicant.  Adopting the convention of referring to candidates by surname (instead of first name or pronoun) can help keep the focus squarely on the person’s relevant accomplishments.

We would also note that when meeting an individual for the first time, asking “How would you prefer to be addressed?” conveys the sense that you would like them to be comfortable and covers a wide range of situations from gender expression to degree of formality to use of nicknames.  No need to press for details; a person will tell you what you need to know.

Make LGBT Issues Visible

Phrasing departmental materials so as to demonstrate that LGBT individuals are welcome and their interests are supported is a good first step.  

Recruitment is an obvious place to start.  Make sure that job announcements and student recruitment materials incorporate nondiscrimination statements including sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. An example of an inclusionary flier can be found in this advertisement featuring the physics major at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. The flier’s wording simply mentions LGBT students as one group among others who have found the department to be a positive environment. These kinds of efforts let members of the LGBT community know that the department wishes to be inclusive and may be a safe place to pursue a degree or career.  Moreover, just as your department may work with minority-serving publications or conferences to recruit employees or students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, partnering with LGBT organizations can demonstrate your broader commitment to inclusion.  If your discipline is not traditionally seen as welcoming to diverse students and faculty, this can be especially important.

As your department becomes more diverse, make sure that the selection process for awards and recognitions routinely considers all eligible individuals on an equal footing; a diverse cohort of prize winners should naturally follow.  If an awardee has been active in LGBT issues on campus or the broader community, then including this in the biographical segment of the press release about the award (with their permission) shows that work in support of the LGBT community is valued by your department.

When inviting speakers to campus, try to include as diverse a group as possible, including those who are out as members of the LGBT community.  Try to improve upon the increasingly common practice of offering women speakers the chance to meet with the local women in science group: Instead, ask all speakers if they would like to meet with any of a spectrum of networking groups (e.g., women in science, scientists of color, gay-straight alliance).  Introducing junior scientists from underrepresented populations to role models with whom they may identify is important – as is connecting them to majority-group allies who support their career aspirations.

Offer Training Opportunities

While department members may desire to be inclusive, some may not be fully aware of unconscious assumptions that, when inadvertently expressed, can contribute to an exclusionary climate. A diversity training session or workshop led by a trained professional can help alert individuals to such biases and signals, introduce department members to best practices, and facilitate discussion regarding LGBT+ inclusivity.

For example, a University Teaching Center may be able to provide training on creating a welcoming classroom climate for LGBT students as well as other under-represented groups. Topics might include the language used in the classroom, breadth of role models available to students, inclusion of welcoming language in course syllabuses, and prior assumptions implicit in the phrasing of questions.  Encouraging faculty and teaching assistants to take advantage of such workshops at the campus level or arranging for a workshop to be offered within the department conveys that these issues are important.

As another example, an office of faculty development, campus diversity, or human resources may be able to lead workshops related to inclusive hiring processes.  Understanding how to structure the search process in ways that encourage a diverse applicant pool, evaluate candidates’ potential fairly, and make all candidates feel welcome, can have a tremendous impact on the outcome.

In some universities, professional diversity training expertise exists on campus, through the sorts of offices mentioned above, or through an LGBT Resource Center. Alternatively, a LGBT center in the local community may provide contacts. These centers can be located through Center Link. Webinars are also available through Campus Pride.

Support Networking

The most immediate way to support professional networking for LGBT individuals in your discipline is to become an active node in such a network. 

Online, you might join an “Out List” or “Ally List” like those for astronomy and physics. Placing your name on a public list lets others know that you are open to discussing issues of concern to the LGBT community and intend to be supportive.  For an individual who is preparing to come out, move to a new institution, or apply for a job, being able to ask a few confidential questions of a knowledgeable, sympathetic colleague can be a boon.

In your bricks-and-mortar department, you could place a decal on your office door to signal willingness to engage on these issues.  For example, a Human Rights Campaign or PFLAG sticker conveys a message of welcome. If your community offers Safe Zone training this is a great way to familiarize yourself with relevant language and resources for conversations that may come your way,  and you will also gain a SafeZone sticker for your office door.

You can also use the department website or news bulletins to make department members aware of professional networking opportunities for LGBT scientists, just as you might do for scientists who are female, African-American, Native American, or Hispanic. Locally, there may be an LGBT Resource Center that holds events of interest to scientists, a student organization focused on issues related to gender identity and sexual orientation, or perhaps an advocacy group for LGBT faculty and staff.  At the national level, groups like oSTEM (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and NOGLSTP (National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals) provide valuable resources.

Conclusion

These approaches can help you establish an inclusive and welcoming climate for LGBT persons in your department.. At the same time, it is important to remain sensitive to individuals’ preferences about whether to be open in their identities or to keep these matters private. Not all members of the LGBT community will want to discuss their identities with their students and colleagues, or address them publicly at all.  That decision is theirs to make and must be respected; no one should ever be pushed to disclose more than they wish to.  The department’s responsibility is to promote an environment that is accepting and allows people to comfortably share these aspects of their lives if they choose to do so.

Any effort to change or amplify the culture of a department takes time and concerted effort.  We have suggested here some initial steps that members of an academic department can take to begin the process of making their community more welcoming to LGBT colleagues.  We welcome your suggestions of additional ideas on how to make progress.

Bio

Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics at Michigan State University. Ramón S. Barthelemy is a doctoral student in science education at Western Michigan University.

 

 

 

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