Speaking out for more LGBT inclusion in STEM

STEM

By Megan Berger

We all know that women in particular face challenges when it comes to pursuing a career in STEM fields. But another group of people faces similar issues around a lack of role models, lack of inclusive work environments and lack of understanding: the LGBT community.

Approximately 43% of LGBT+ employees in the STEM fields remain closeted, which results in a 30% decrease in productivity. In the UK this a potential loss of £11.2 billion in GDP each year. At the university level, numbers of male LGBQ undergrads is dropping off as well.

Thankfully, there are people standing up and speaking out in an effort to increase representation in these fields. One of these people is Callum Smith, a Geospatial Consultant at Aurecon’s Auckland office.

Callum has been working at Aurecon for just over a year, in his first role since graduating from AUT, where he completed his post-graduate geographic information systems studies. “It’s a really close knit company. There’s a huge focus on digital innovation, so there’s a lot of freedom to kind of go off and solve problems your own way, which is exciting,” says Callum. “My day-to-day tasks involve working with geographic information systems, so in a nutshell, solving problems and helping with decision making by interpreting, analysing, and manipulating locational data.”

A university’s role

As a recent graduate, Callum knows well the challenges that face LGBT students in his field, as well as the work being done by universities to create more inclusive environments. His alma mater, for one, is making great strides in providing support for the LGBT community. AUT was the first university in New Zealand to become accredited with the Rainbow Tick and is often seen actively engaging in community groups and events.

It wasn’t until Callum came out that he realised the toll his efforts to hide a part of himself were taking. “I noticed that I’d be putting so much energy into hiding my true self that I was depriving myself of that energy elsewhere,” says Callum. “It affected my studies for a little while, so I understand that it can also do the same when you’re in the workplace. If you’re hiding a part of yourself, that energy is coming from somewhere else.”

Starting a movement

Callum has been instrumental in establishing an internal LGBT network at Aurecon, AureconPRIDE, which now has a presence in every Aurecon office in NZ. Initially just for Australia-based offices, Callum kept bringing it into conversations with leadership until it was a reality in New Zealand.

Aurecon has strong support for LGBT inclusion coming from the most senior levels of leadership. Carl Devereux, Regional Director of Aurecon NZ, has been a very strong supporter and champion of AureconPRIDE and the initiatives currently being rolled out, including going through the Rainbow Tick certification process and hosting networking events.

“If you’re hiding a part of yourself, that energy is coming from somewhere else.”

In addition to his work duties, Callum also started up the New Zealand industry group, LGBT in STEM, a group aimed at improving the visibility of LGBT individuals in the STEM fields and providing a networking and support platform.

“One day I was reading an article about LGBT inclusion in the STEM fields and there were a couple of statistics that kind of shocked me,” says Callum. “I didn’t realise it was bad as it is in the STEM industries, so I decided to take action and do my part.”

Though the group started up in New Zealand just last year, it has already hosted a number of events for working professionals in the STEM fields across various organisations and beyond to meet and discuss issues with like-minded people. “It’s a great support platform that people can turn to, and it’s just nice to have that visibility, knowing there are others like you in the industry,” says Callum.

At the group’s core is the goal of improving visibility and providing a support platform for LGBT individuals, which will in turn create a safer, more inclusive and comfortable working environment that will encourage more of the LGBT community to come out. For Callum, the response from his peers in the industry has been great. “A group like this might not matter to everyone, but if I can make a few more people feel welcome and comfortable in the STEM field, then it’s worth it.”

A recent quote from a New York Times piece gives a perfect example of the importance of improving visibility. “An essential step is to break self-perpetuating patterns of concealment. Teachers must come out not just to colleagues, but to students — some of whom will need role models, and all of whom must get used to visible LGBT+ professionals to prepare for future workplace settings”. In other words, it’s time to break the chain of continuously concealing these hidden characteristics so we can redefine the STEM fields diversity and inclusion stereotype.

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