LGBTQ+ visibility in optics and photonics

Recently, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ+ employees from discrimination. It's tempting to think that these kinds of legal coverages mark the end of the struggle for LGBTQ+ people at work, but until they feel welcome at every workplace, the fight is far from over.
01 November 2020
By Josh Henry
LGBTQ + Community Resources

After facilitating "Stories of Pride" as part of the SPIE celebration of Pride Month this past June, I found myself questioning what is it truly like to be an LGBTQ+ person in the optics and photonics community and why LGBTQ+ visibility is important in STEM. To learn more, I spoke with several LGBTQ+ scientists about their experiences and those of their LGBTQ+ colleagues. As in the world at large, the LGBTQ+ experience varies from person to person, but these interviews indicated one thing clearly: visibility and representation matter.

STEM fields have a problematic history in regard to diversity. In the United States, women make up only 28 percent of the STEM workforce, only 5 percent of STEM employees are Black compared to 11 percent in the national workforce, and only 6 percent are Hispanic compared to 16 percent in the national workforce. A study from Rice University found that there are 20 percent fewer LGBTQ+ workers in government STEM-related jobs than should be expected based on statistics reported for the general workforce. While gender and ethnic differences are usually obvious, LGBTQ+ identity can often be hidden. Nearly half of the LGBTQ+ STEM workforce is closeted, 43 percent according to a 2015 study.

It is important that we make space for LGBTQ+ employees at our workplaces. As Maryann Tung said in her article for SPIE Stories of Pride, "If you do not know any queer or trans people at your workplace, then you likely have not created an inclusive environment in which your LGBTQ+ colleagues feel safe coming out to you."

Representation is directly correlated to visibility and this starts with the hiring process. Nearly all of the LGBTQ+ scientists I spoke to stated that they would be less likely to seek employment with organizations that lack diversity, as this suggests that their identity may result in discrimination or simply erasure within the company.

LGBTQ+ employees are more likely to be negatively impacted by the work-first mentality of the STEM community. STEM communities have always had a strong professional focus, which leaves little room for the personal identities of their employees. This leads to a decrease in the visibility of LGBTQ+ employees that results in lower productivity levels, lower job satisfaction and, consequently, lower retention rates. According to the article "The Value of Belonging at Work" published in Harvard Business Review, employees who feel like they belong perform 56 percent better, are 50 percent less likely to quit, and take 75 percent fewer sick days. This means that LGBTQ+ inclusive workplaces are not only better for employee morale, they are better for business.

Recently, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ+ employees from discrimination. It's tempting to think that these kinds of legal coverages mark the end of the struggle for LGBTQ+ people at work, but until they feel welcome at every workplace, the fight is far from over. Every organization has an obligation to make their workforce match the communities they work in because an organization that represents and welcomes the full spectrum of the human experience is an organization that is primed to reach its full potential.

Throughout my career with SPIE, I've had the opportunity of working on several projects that work toward making our events and the scientific community we serve more equitable, diverse, and inclusive. I encourage you to check out the SPIE Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion webpage to learn more about programs and services available to our constituents.

Josh Henry is an SPIE Meetings Manager and EDI Specialist.

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