LGBT STEMinar, Sheffield Jan 2016

Journal entry, 18 Jan 16:
On Saturday afternoon, Paul and I made our way by train from Sheffield to Manchester; the snow on the Pennines reminded me of a similar journey I made several years back on Good Friday.
We had gone to Sheffield so that I could attend the LGBT seminar featuring some of the best and brightest scientific researchers in the UK and beyond. The event had been organised by Beth Montagu-Hellen, and included presentations about heart disease, rodent predators, cancer crowdfunding, and photovoltaic cells. We had keynote talks from Dave Smith and Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, who have spent years studying the sociology of LGBT issues in the science and engineering field.
I had looked online for a suitable hotel to stay at, and found something called the Harley – the website did not make it obvious that this was a well-known rock bar which played grime and grunge and hard happenin’ house music from 11 till 4.00 in the morning.
We initially asked the manager if we could check out rather than stay for our second night, but he charmed us into staying put (the breakfast was superb).

Journal entry, 10 April 98:
Good Friday. Il neige! Il pleut! Downstairs the door lock is broken; can’t get key in. Yesterday Sheila and I went to Ciba in Macclesfield to see their labs (spacious and well-equipped) and their canteen (clean and smart with flowers on the tables) and their workers (hunky guy with a Bandit 600).
Went to Manchester on the train (snow on the hills between Sheffield and M’cr), went round Arndale Centre then to Rembrandt and Clone Zone and Paddy’s Goose, a gay Irish bar where everybody was watching footie on TV. Bought a novel called ‘Call Me’. There was a Goth night at the Railway Tavern in Derby – ‘666 Night’ but I didn’t go.


LGBT STEMinar, Sheffield University 15 Jan 2016.

Last Friday, 15 Jan, I attended the first UK seminar devoted to scientific research projects being carried out by LGBT workers.

I don’t remember having ever seen any event of a similar nature listed in the UK; indeed, when we were about to leave Leicester Poly in 1986, the Careers advisor told us that “The chemical industry is a rather conservative environment, and your managers are not likely to be impressed by any unorthodox personal or political views that you might hold”.

And over the past twenty years I have attended numerous job interviews, where I have been asked ‘Are you married? – Why not? – Have you got a girlfriend? – Do you see yourself getting married?’ etc.

(Subtext: “Are you married? We don’t really care, but we want you to know that we are carefully watching for any sign of discomfort when you reply, and we have no qualms about asking an illegal question.”)

When I was embarking upon my career as a humble polymer chemist, I would have been strongly encouraged by knowing that there were other members of the gay community working in engineering, or chemistry, or astrophysics. Instead, I was left with a vague idea that any discussion of my private life would be severely frowned upon. “You must remember” said one interviewer, “This is a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business, and you won’t be able to keep any secrets from people round here.”

Anyway, Friday’s STEMinar was a really enjoyable event: we had over a dozen speakers presenting papers on a range of topics including biochemistry, astrophysics, psychology, solar cells and the predatory rodents of Gough Island.

I wouldn’t normally attend a lecture series covering these topics; but here it felt completely natural to listen to experts in unfamiliar fields of research, giving an enthusiastic account of their work and placing it in context.

We also had two keynote presentations from distinguished speakers: Professor Dave Smith from York University, who has explored the invisible nature of LGBT personnel in STEM fields, and Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, Professor of Enterprise and Engineering at Sheffield University.

It was great to be able to discuss openly some of the issues relating to sexual identity in the STEM workplace; if you are the first person in your department to come out, does this make you a role model? And should workers feel pressured to come out in order to make life easier for the next wave of employees?

My own experience has been in the field of industrial coatings, on old-fashioned sector which seems to operate on a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ basis. On one occasion I had just started a new job and my boss was taking me through the employee induction checklist – health and safety, timekeeping, holidays and pensions etc – and when we reached the ‘Diversity and Equalities’ section he just said cheerfully ‘Well, that’s not relevant to you’ and moved on to the next item.

I mentioned this to a couple of friends, adding ‘Well, obviously he doesn’t realise that I’m gay’, at which point they fell about laughing. But being aware of this mistaken assumption left me permanently on my guard against giving away anything about my personal life, a rather stressful state of affairs.

My own contribution to the seminar was a poster outlining some research work carried out 25 years ago into the adhesive bonding of polypropylene. I found that by scrubbing the surface of PP with silicon carbide paper through a wet layer of primer solution, we could obtain strong adhesive bonds. During my time in industry I’ve mentioned this project to various senior colleagues, all of whom have been dismissive: “No, you’re mistaken; everybody knows that you can’t bond polyprop, ‘cos it’s got an inert surface.” (A standard example of status-quo bias, refusing to acknowledge any challenge to the prevailing dogma)

Sooner or later, some producer of plastic items is going to try using this technique, and will find that it gives them a commercial advantage; in the same way, a few engineering firms will start recruiting non-straight technical staff and will find that the diversity helps them to solve problems in a dynamic, more creative way.

Many thanks to all those involved with setting up the LGBT STEMinar, especially Beth Montague-Hellen, and all the speakers, who were splendid ambassadors both for their technical research fields and for the wider LGBT community. Hope to see you all again next year!


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