It’s Pride month, which seems like as good a time as any to pose this puzzler that has been cartwheeling around my brain for the better part of a year now: why is it so difficult to get ecological or organismal professional societies to engage on LGBTQ+ diversity? And why is it when they do, they often muck it up?
For the last 3 years, I’ve been going to/organizing/hosting/thoroughly enjoying the LGBTQ+ STEMinar, a day-long all-STEM conference for LGBTQ+ scientists. It remains one of the absolute highlights of my year. At the most recent edition, a number of professional societies in the physical sciences announced they were banding together to look at diversity of and climate for their LGBTQ+ members, and knowledgeable sources have told me they had a fantastic response. This is a coordinated effort by the UK’s main professional bodies in physics, chemistry, and astronomy.
When July 5th was launched as the International Day for LGBTQ+ folk in STEM, even CERN got on board. CERN! Just look at the supporters on the Pride in STEM webpage… only the Society for Applied Microbiology to represent life sciences. Pathetic, I say. (And yes, I have sent this around to numerous ecology/organismal societies to encourage them to support it, and yet…)
And yet when I broach this subject with their equivalents in non-medical life sciences, it’s met with deafening crickets. On the surface, this seems counterintuitive. Life sciences is traditionally viewed as a more diverse field, particularly so for women, and so it should follow that it’s more likely to engage on other diversity & inclusion topics. But perhaps it’s because of this history of being more inclusive that the impetus to do more just isn’t there.
An equally plausible reason is the fragmentary nature of the professional landscape. There are of course the large bodies, like the British Ecological Society or the Ecological Society of America, but then each taxon has its own group, and even sub-groups (I know groups who focus just on one order of birds, for example). So there’s no overarching body to provide the leadership and demonstrate buy-in.
Or, the larger societies (*cough* ESA *cough*) tend to really get things wrong when they do try and do something. Rainbow “Ally” ribbons in Baltimore, anyone? Or the steps taken are mostly paying lip-service out of the desire to be seen to be doing something. Or they are putting all the labour on their LGBTQ+ members without support.
All is not rosy for LGBTQ+ scientists, dear reader. In a field in which many people spend time in the field, and with increased globalization of research I repeatedly have to explain that there are about 80 countries where being gay is illegal and I don’t exactly like going there. And neither do some other folks. Instead this is looked on as an annoying inconvenience (tell me about it!).
Compared to even 3 or 4 years ago, there has been an uptick in LGBTQ+ events at conferences (though as recently as 9 months ago, one ornithological society insisted that there was no need since everyone was welcome). Utter poppycock of the most foul variety. And it’s great to provide this social & networking opportunity, but a lunch, or evening social to “tick the box” of having done something isn’t sufficient.
So if you’re a member of a professional society in ecology or organismal biology, why not ask them what they’re doing for your LGBTQ+ colleagues? Why not encourage them to do more? And if they won’t, why not re-evaluate the idea of your membership in a professional body that values some members less than others?