Archive for the 'LGBT' category

How to Encourage a Supportive Environment

Apr 07 2016 Published by under conflict, empathy, empathy gap, LGBT

I read an article recently about casual racism and how the victim didn’t know how to respond. It’s complicated. But what if you are not the victim. I think that someone who is not a victim of the comments has a responsibility to respond. But how?

I was recently talking to a senior professor, let’s call him Prof A. He was commenting on a senior professor at another institution, Prof B. Prof B happens to be a transgender man. The comments had nothing to do with the fact that he’s transgender.

The problem is how Prof A was referring to Prof B. He repeatedly, and not even just once or twice, referred to him as her. He would always eventually correct himself. But then every time he would go back to saying “she.”

Prof B has been transgender for longer than I have been in science. He makes no secret of his status. Why would it be difficult to remember the correct pronoun? Was it purposeful disrespect? Even if it wasn’t, it was disrespectful by lack of trying.

Given the obstacles and issues transgender people face, perhaps this is only a microaggression. However, given all the obstacles and issues transgender people face why would anyone with any empathy want to add to that with microaggressions?

What is my role? Does my silence support this kind of behavior? Would saying something raise awareness and promote respect or just irritate people? Does the power differential between me and the speaker affect how I should react? Workplaces can be respectful of gender transitions. I would like to support that kind of environment but I am not sure of the best way to help others work toward that goal as well.

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Schrodinger’s Gender

Today’s guest blogger is a PhD statistician, mother of two, and thirty-something transgender woman. She works in the medical device industry as an applied statistician, with specialization in the areas of experimental design, statistical process control, product reliability, and bad math puns.

An on-the-job gender transition is fraught with uncertainties. Or at least mine was. In the months leading up to my coming out at work, my mind was quite skilled at dreaming up transition-related uncertainties for which I could not provide a good probability estimate.

  • Will my consulting work suddenly dry up if my scientific colleagues are uncomfortable working with a trans woman?
  • Will there be massive riots regarding the restroom I use, as anticipated by my very nervous HR representative?
  • Will I be tolerated as a quirky and benignly amusing math nerd?
  • Will I be accepted for who I am, and be allowed to thrive in my career as both as a professional statistician and a (trans) woman?

In the 11 months since my coming out at work, the vast majority of my colleagues have fallen somewhere on the spectrum between tolerance and acceptance. No bathroom riots have broken out, no lurid gossip has been floating around, and none of my most important colleagues have ceased working with me.   Not only was there an absence of disaster, but there was a deluge of kindness in the days after my coming out. Many colleagues wrote me heartfelt emails of support, and the vast majority quickly honored my request to call me by my new legal name and my desired (female) pronouns. A few brave colleagues were even willing to stand up for me when, shortly after my transition, they heard a non-supportive individual casually dropping some transphobic slurs behind my back. The colleagues immediately challenged the language and later reported the incident to the relevant manager. These outpourings of support left me quite overcome with amazement and joy.

To be sure, there were challenges in the transition process. It was something of a logistical nightmare to time my legal transition to be on track with my changing body, and to navigate the IT and HR bureaucracies regarding my name change.   Health insurance coverage has been an ongoing battle. As a final logistical hurdle, there was no corporate funding to provide education on transgender issues, so my allies and I had to organize our own education session shortly after my coming out. Despite the challenges I faced, being a trans statistician has largely been a non-issue. Being a female statistician, however, is an ongoing adventure.

As hormones have helped my appearance to align with my own (female) identity, the way in which colleagues treat me has changed in subtle yet pervasive ways. Transgender women provide a rather unique lens into sexism and women’s issues, given that we essentially form our own controlled gender experiment of size n=1. That is, I have all the same mathematical skills as I did before transition, and I would argue I’m an even better statistician now that I’m not distracted by the angst of gender dysphoria. So the differences I notice between my male and female working lives are likely clues to the subconscious structure of workplace gender. A few negative observations include

  • When I teach classes within my company, there often are one or two guys staring at my body rather than listening to my lecture. To be clear, the majority of my students are entirely respectful, but the change in behavior is noticeable.
  • I teach exactly the same classes as I did before transition. My teaching has always garnered good reviews in class evaluations, but only after transition have I noticed outliers (usually 1-2 people per class) who give me negative feedback. Overall, my post-transition reviews are still fantastic.
  • In large meetings, I need to work harder to get my voice heard, especially if I am the only female present.
  • Even with my PhD, occasionally guys (with very little statistical education) attempt to “man-splain” to me some statistical concepts that they don’t actually understand. My statistical knowledge is doubted more now, especially by men who never knew me before transition.

None of the above issues prevent me from being successful; I just need to work a bit harder as a woman to gain the respect of new colleagues.

The forms of sexism I’ve encountered are infinitesimal in comparison to all the positive changes I’ve experienced in the workplace. Overall, my relationships with my colleagues—both male and female—are much better now that I no longer need to wear a mask at work.  I’m happier by multiple orders of magnitudes than I ever was before, and I believe that my positivity makes me more effective as a statistical consultant. Despite all the jokes about statisticians being boring introverts, I think the most effective ones are actually quite good at building relationships with scientists, and I feel such relief that now I can finally build those relationships on a footing of personal truth. I am so proud to be a transgender statistician, a female statistician, and a statistician who no longer is afraid to speak the truth.

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OUT and About in Science: Being a Lesbian in Research and Academia

Today’s guest contribution is by a postdoctoral fellow in Portland, OR.  She holds a Ph.D. in Immunology and her research focuses on the contribution of the immune response to neurodegeneration and brain inflammation after stroke.  Oh, and she’s gay!

I knew that I wanted to be a scientist from the age of twelve.  What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t be open about until graduate school, was that I was gay.  What does one have to do with the other?  Everything, when you’re a lesbian in the sciences.

I grew up in the conservative center of the Bible Belt.  Although my family was relatively liberal, I will always attribute my late “coming out” to the environment in which I was raised.  For me it was simple; I had no LGBT role models as a child.  It wasn’t something that was known or accepted.  Being gay wasn’t an option.  Similarly, there is a noticeable lack of out and open LGBT individuals in the sciences.  Why does sexual orientation matter in the research setting when one’s science can speak for itself?  Without visibility of LGBT science role models we will fail as a community to encourage young science minded individuals from all backgrounds to enter the field. In my case, when I knew I wanted to be a scientist but was questioning my sexual orientation, I could have benefited from a strong, lesbian scientist role model. Maybe I would have had the confidence to come out earlier.

As many women in the sciences know, being a postdoc can be a pretty isolating experience. That isolation is compounded as a gay female postdoc. The lack of LGBT community in science professions is staggering. As a graduate student in the Midwest, I didn’t know of another gay grad student or postdoc in my department. Currently, I’m doing my postdoc in a larger, more liberal city but still am only aware of a handful of LGBT grad students, postdocs and faculty.  If isolation is one of the primary factors leading to women leaving the pipeline to tenure faculty, then the path is even less conducive for lesbian scientists.

Now I’m getting ready to face the major decision that every scientist has to make in their career: whether to pursue a position in academia, industry or leave the sciences all together.  Being gay will play a huge role in that decision.  If I’m so concerned about visibility of LGBT individuals in the sciences, why would I consider leaving academia?  Shouldn’t I stay and be that strong, lesbian scientist role model for other youth that I always wished I had?  I struggle with this daily.  But looking for positions in academia often means major compromises in location. I’m not sure that I’m willing to risk the possibility of living in a conservative city or state to stay in academia.  Even though I have experienced very little homophobia in my field, both my wife and I have dealt with our share of homophobic incidents outside of the workplace.  Additionally, we plan on having a family soon and it is a priority that our children grow up in a safe space where they won’t be bullied or feel different for having two moms. Since we both grew up in the conservative Midwest, we want a different upbringing for our children. Our location restrictions will severely limit my academic options.  Therefore, I’ve been preparing myself and my resume for non-science positions in order to stay in the very LGBT friendly city that we currently live in. I have absolutely no issue with my career taking second place to our comfort, safety and happiness.

When I look at my decisions and mindset on the future of my career in science, I completely understand the lack of out LGBT individuals in the sciences, specifically, in academia.  Being women in science, we also understand the importance of diversity in academia.  As the visibility of women in faculty positions increases, I am excited for LGBT to follow.  Although I may not end up being the lesbian role model that is so necessary in academia right now, I will always volunteer with girls and LGBT youth interested in STEM fields.  We still have a lot of work to do to pave the path for new LGBT scientists and the issues that I’ve discussed are only a small part of what LGBT scientists face every day,  but I can see things getting better over time and that gives me so much hope for young LGBT investigators.

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