On October 4th and 5th, 2019, the University of Windsor hosted the LGBTQ+ in STEM conference, a first of its kind event in Canada, with participants from across Canada and a few from the US. The Chemical Institute of Canada was a proud supporter of this event, which brought together LGBTQ+ people and allies to build community and celebrate research in STEM.
The conference was organized by James Gauld, MCIC, and Tricia Breen Carmichael, MCIC, from UWindsor’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. They began organizing the event three months ago, when they were inspired to do something about the lack of visibility of LGBTQ+ people in STEM fields. Gauld explains that “as an openly gay chemist I have long seen advertisements for LGBTQ+ in STEM conferences being held in the USA, UK, Ireland, and elsewhere but saw nothing similar being held in Canada.” He and Carmichael stepped in to fill that gap: “we saw that there was (and still is) a need to recognize and hear directly from LGBTQ+ people in STEM; to talk not only of their research but importantly to also share and hear their personal stories of being LGBTQ+ in STEM.”
Carmichael, an ally with personal connections to the LGBTQ+ community, notes that her “experiences as a woman in STEM are not the same as the lived experience of members of the LGBTQ+ community, but we have some really important challenges in common: enduring frequent microaggressions, lack of support and a strong networked and accessible community, often feeling like an outsider, and the isolation of often being without similar people at conferences and meetings.”
In July 2019, with Gauld becoming Head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Carmichael the Interim Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research in the Faculty of Science, they were perfectly placed to create this conference with strong support from UWindsor and Dean of Science Chris Houser. Indeed, throughout the sessions in the conference, speakers and attendees emphasized the importance of having LGBTQ+ people and allies in positions of power in order to increase visibility and create meaningful and concrete change within Universities and organizations.
Nola Etkin, MCIC, kicked off the conference with a plenary talk for around 90 attendees and immediately made clear the importance of recognizing STEM researchers as more than just scientists, but also as people with intersecting identities. During Etkin’s talk, “it became clear that this was not going to be an ordinary STEM conference,” reflects Carmichael. “Nola’s talk, which was so incredibly open, vulnerable, and powerful opened the door to everyone there and invited them in to be part of the conversation.”
As vital parts of that conversation, the other invited speakers also reflected on the role that being part of the LGBTQ+ community has played in their careers in STEM, while showcasing their fascinating research. Gauld was particularly struck by how enthusiastic invitees were, noting that “every single person we invited and who was not already committed said yes, some within minutes of receiving the invitation.” From these speakers, attendees learned about a variety of topics like wine production with waste water, black holes, and network science. Erika Merschrod, a chemist and CIC member, discussed how embracing her identity as an outsider has allowed her interdisciplinary research program in biomaterials to flourish.
Throughout the event, there were also panel sessions and, as Carmichael explains, “the rest of the conference was so engaging – panel discussions took on a life of their own, everywhere I looked people were engaged in conversations, many of which continued well into the evening.”
In addition to their research, speakers and panelists also discussed some of the barriers that they have faced in their careers as LGBTQ+ people in STEM. Gauld recounts that he was surprised “hearing about some people who would have been forced out of academia by homophobia from their PhD supervisor if it weren’t for finding a strong ally. Many also spoke during the panel on the fears and/or anxieties that they had or still have of being out at work or in their studies; how tiring it can be having to come out again and again.” Speakers and attendees also honed in on how gender, race, religion, disability, and immigration status intersect with their identities as LGBTQ+ people, providing some with more privilege than others.
Alongside much-needed discussions of these challenges, the conference also offered uplifting stories and support. Etkin explained that even though she did not have any LGBTQ+ role models when she was training for her STEM career, she found important allies and mentors who advocated for her. Based on the comments from audience members, this event offered students exactly what Etkin and some of the more established attendees had been missing earlier in their careers: a strong slate of role models who could discuss their ground-breaking STEM research and their identities as LGBTQ+ people.
Many presenters also mentioned the outsized impact that small changes could have towards making everyone feel welcome, especially things like choosing to use more gender-neutral language. All-gender washrooms were discussed as vital to making everyone welcome. As Carmichael puts it, “gender is diverse, non-binary people exist, and it’s time to update our thinking about public restrooms. Universities and schools should be leaders in making spaces that are inclusive to all people.”
By organizing this extremely successful event, Carmichael, Gauld, and their team more than reached their goal of providing “representation, role models, connection, and community.” Carmichael emphasizes the importance of ensuring that all young people feel welcome in STEM, “and that they have visible role models and vibrant communities to show that STEM has a place for everyone. How many people have made decisions to not pursue careers in STEM or stay in STEM because of a lack of representation and a feeling that they would not ‘fit in’?”
“We wanted people who attended to go away from it with something that they could build upon or implement,” explains Gauld. “For instance, we hoped that institutions may better understand how to develop inclusive practices and policies and an understanding of at least some of challenges LGBTQ+ face, in particular in academia. Meanwhile, for those of us who are LGBTQ+ we hoped that, for example, some may gain a sense of community and also that you can be LGBTQ+ and be a part of STEM, and be happy and successful.”
Gauld, Carmichael, and their team at UWindsor plan to host the event again next year, which will attract even more participants, while building on the community from this event. For next year’s conference, they are also discussing the possibility of connecting with local high schools for youth outreach. In addition, according to Gauld, they “hope to build upon the tremendous sense of community generated to aid the formation of a national network/organization (similar to those that already exist in the US, UK, and elsewhere) to continue addressing EDI challenges in STEM.”
The success of this inaugural conference was incredible, and Carmichael enthuses that “organizing this conference and being a part of it has been the most gratifying experience of my career.” The CIC is also happy to be working with Gauld, Carmichael, Etkin, and the Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition (CCCE) organizing committee to offer an LGBTQ+ in STEM session at CCCE 2020 in Winnipeg. This session will include invited talks, panel discussions, and also contributed talks from students. While there is still much more work to be done, the UWindsor conference made a great start at building community and the session at CCCE and future LGBTQ+ in STEM conferences will continue that work. As one of the speakers, mathematician Anthony Bonato reminded us, “diversity is a fact. Inclusivity is a choice.”