Working scientist podcast: Gender, sexuality and representation

Creating safe and welcoming working environments for all scientists helps to improve scientific collaboration and ultimately advances science. In our latest podcast, we hear about ongoing initiatives to foster welcoming spaces for LGBTQIA+ researchers, and practical steps for organizations such as the ISC and others who wish to be better allies for LGBTQIA+ colleagues.

In the fourth episode of the Nature ‘Working Scientist’ podcast series featuring voices from the ISC’s network, we explore representation and visibility in science workplaces, networks, and spaces for international collaboration. We hear how important it is to be able to express the whole of your identity in a safe and welcoming environment, where you can see allies and other people who are like you. Marine biogeographer Huw Griffiths talks about initiatives for LGBTQIA+ scientists in polar research, and chemical engineer Abhijit Majumder, who’s part of the Global Young Academy, discusses the role of science organizations in fostering welcoming spaces, including through explicit statements of support.

Listen to the podcast and find the full transcript below:


Transcript

Abhijit Majumder: When we think of diversity in science or in academia in general, even if there is no, just for the argument’s sake, there is no measurable outcome. Still, I think it is our duty to make sure that this world is a safe, habitable place for everyone. No one should feel threatened.

Marnie Chesterton: Welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council, where we’re exploring diversity in science. I’m Marnie Chesterton, and in this episode, we’ll be looking at representation and visibility, we’ll be hearing how important it is to be able to express the whole of your identity in a safe and welcoming environment, where you can see allies and other people who are like you. And we’ll look at the role of organisations in fostering these spaces in science, including through explicit statements of support, which really can make a difference. We’re starting by going to Antarctica.

Huw Griffiths: I can spend two or three months on a ship, living amongst the icebergs looking at what lives on the bottom of the sea. And one of the really exciting things is being able to discover new species. So probably about 10 to 20% of what we find is brand new to science.

Marnie Chesterton: This is Dr. Huw Griffiths from the British Antarctic Survey.

Huw Griffiths: I work in mostly the polar regions. A marine biogeographer is someone who looks at where animals live, and why they live there. So why they’re distributed in some places, and maybe not found in other places for example.

Marnie Chesterton: Huw is also involved with the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, or SCAR, which is a thematic organization of the International Science Council.

Huw Griffiths: So the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, or SCAR, as it’s called, which sounds like a Bond villain’s kind of name, actually has been sort of a huge part of my career. So early on, I was involved with scientific projects that were led by other people within SCAR. And today, I am the co-chair of one of the biology programmes within the organization. But also I’m on all sorts of other committees and things as well. So, for me, it’s a brilliant way of networking with international colleagues and because Antarctica is such a huge place, where no one country can do all the research, you do need to connect up with other nationalities and SCAR is that kind of ideal way of both meeting new friends and colleagues and for helping to get brand new collaborations that help answer some really big questions.

Marnie Chesterton: According to Huw, this need for collaboration within polar research means it’s home to a very diverse community of scientists, in all senses of the word.

Huw Griffiths: All sciences are covered in Antarctica, we’ve got engineering, we’ve got biology, we’ve got atmospheric sciences, we’ve got all these different things. And so it’s a melting pot for different types of science as well as different types of people. And because it’s so international, you’ve already got to deal with lots of different cultural backgrounds anyway. So it’s not a huge step for us to move on to include things like sexuality, gender, or disability for example.

Marnie Chesterton: Indeed, on the 18th of November – the international day of LGBTQIA+ people in STEM – the polar research community got together for the first Polar Pride day.

Huw Griffiths: We put out a load of things on social media and thought it would be a few pretty pictures and people you know, with rainbows and penguins and things, but actually, there were some really heartfelt comments in some of the things that came back to us, like people saying that the fact that we’re giving out pins and badges to senior members of staff to wear, that showed that they were allies, meant that there were people staying within polar research because they finally found a place where they felt welcome and safe.

Marnie Chesterton: Something as simple as a badge can go a long way to making people feel secure, that science workplaces or conferences are a safe space, where they are welcomed and accepted. The importance of creating environments like this within science can’t be overstated.

Abhijit Majumder: Unless any person feel safe, feel welcome, how do we expect that we will get the best out of those people? So, I think it is very important whether it is a lab, it is any institute, it is any organisation, we need to make the place safe. And in this particular context, just making it a safe place is not enough, because there are, you know, lots of taboos that is associated with it. So that’s why it is very important to explicitly mention that we don’t care what sexuality or gender expression you are, we are open to you. So this explicit statement is important in this context.

Marnie Chesterton: That’s Abhijit Majumder, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, and part of the Global Young Academy, an affiliate member of the ISC.

Abhijit Majumder: The purpose of our Global Young Academy is to be the voice of young academicians heard, both in terms of improving the quality of the life of the researchers quality of science, as well as interaction between science and society. We look into how as young investigators, we can contribute towards the society.

Marnie Chesterton: Within the GYA, Abhijit is co-leading an initiative that works towards creating a safe space for people to discuss discrimination faced by LGBTQIA plus, and other minority groups within academia.

Abhijit Majumder: I was inducted into Global Young Academy in 2018. So in 2018, when we were inducted, and then in the first AGM annual meeting, we found that there is no group or no incubators, no working group is there, which is kind of addressing this issue of gender expression and sexuality. Our first goal is just to let the new people, new members know that this is a safe place and they can express themselves, their gender expression and their sexuality will not be judged rather, it will be embraced. And we are trying to at least to make this mark in the Global Young Academy that okay, it’s a safe place.

Marnie Chesterton: That has included adding new language to the Academy’s public statements on diversity.

Abhijit Majumder: The statement says that Global Young Academy is open to all various different kinds of race colour, etc, etc, gender, etc. But however, the explicit mention of sexuality and gender expression, these were not present in that diversity statement. So then we kind of brought up this topic and it was again, very heartily accepted. And then now it is part of our diversity statement.

Marnie Chesterton: Statements on diversity by international organisations such as the ISC and the GYA, have an important role to play in showing support, breaking down barriers and ultimately sowing the seeds for change.

Abhijit Majumder: They need to increase the awareness first of all, but also to get actively involved with the national academies and to ask them, get them into the discussion table and, whether the government will follow that or not, that is obviously a very different question. But at least if the national science academics, they put pressure on their respective government to at least to start with, to ask at least legalise the gender expression and various forms of sexualities. I think that will be a great start.

Marnie Chesterton: Having an explicit statement on openness and diversity can be a useful starting point. One of the five key missions of the ISC is to defend the free and responsible practice of science. This principle is reflected in all of the ISC’s policies and operational guidelines, and they have a dedicated committee to oversee this. Commitments like this are particularly important for scientists who need to travel and collaborate in different settings, which may be less accessible than their usual places of work, or even unsafe.

Huw Griffiths: Sometimes you just need some guidelines and help from people who have been through these experiences or who are disadvantaged to help set up different ways of working. For example, the new ways of working in the pandemic have really helped us to show that disabled people can attend conferences or work remotely on field work and things because we’ve had to set up different ways of communicating. And we should bring them forward with us, even when hopefully Coronavirus is long behind us, to show that we can actually change the way we work so that we don’t stop doing things in countries where it may be illegal to be gay. But then we allow people to attend or participate in events there, where they feel safe, whether it’s through safe spaces or actually just remote attendance, for example. But it is hugely impactful on people’s careers. That is something where if conference organisers and things are made aware, then that can all be fed into guidelines, and make people within science a lot more comfortable. And even just knowing that somebody thought about it, even if a solution is not perfect, will make you feel as if you’re part of a community where things are at least being considered and they’re doing their best for you.

Marnie Chesterton: For organisations like the ISC, the freedom to participate in science is something that needs to be reasserted continually in the face of barriers. And that also means recognising that people may experience different types of discrimination that intersect.

Huw Griffiths: It is really important that we recognise things like intersectionality, or developing nations or countries where people don’t have the same rights and freedoms as we do. And we learn from each other’s experiences, because I’m a cisgendered, white male. So my experience as a gay man in science is very different to a black female LGBT person for example, I don’t have a whole bunch of other barriers, I have quite a bit of privilege. So although I can recognise where I may be disadvantaged, actually, I can’t speak for everybody in the community.

Marnie Chesterton: Diversity and inclusion is about making science accessible for each and every person. And by doing that, all of science stands to gain.

Huw Griffiths: It’s very important that we open the doors to everybody to have a voice. And if those voices are heard, then it’ll be better for everybody if you make a nicer working environment, or a more friendly place to be, everybody benefits. So it’s not a pie where if I have my slice, you’ll get a smaller slice. It’s something where, if I’m happier then other people don’t have to put up with me being miserable. So it’s a win win.

Marnie Chesterton: The ISC’s Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science is currently reexamining and rearticulating what scientific freedom and responsibility means for the 21st century, including when it comes to equal access to the scientific endeavour and its benefits for all. More information about this work, and about the ISC members and networks mentioned in this podcast is available online at council.science. Next week, we’ll be talking to two early career researchers about the importance of democratising knowledge and access to tools, data and infrastructure, and how as well as securing basic human dignity it can also support different routes into science for people from diverse backgrounds.

Please note that this episode, first published on 3 March 2021, has since been edited for clarity.


Huw Griffiths

Huw Griffiths is a marine biogeographer with an interest in the Polar Regions. He is an editor of the The SCAR Biogeographic Atlas of the Southern Ocean and the Co-chair and theme leader for Spatial Ecology of the SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) scientific research programme AntEco (State of the Antarctic Ecosystem), and a member of the SCAR Expert Group on Antarctic Biodiversity Information, the international steering committee of ANTABIF (Antarctic Biodiversity Information Facility) and a SCAR Delegate to the governing board, Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). Huw is a member of the steering committee for the Marine Ecosystem Assessment for the Southern Ocean (MEASO). He has worked for the British Antarctic Survey since June 2000 and has participated in several expeditions to Antarctica investigating benthic biodiversity and biogeography.

Abhijit Majumder

Abhijit Majumder is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, IITB. His team is actively involved in bioengineering research on stem cells and various cancers, tissue engineering, organ on chip, and biomechanics. Beyond research and teaching, his two other areas of interest are the popularization of science, and equal citizen rights, particularly for LGBTQIA+ people and other minorities. Abhijit is an avid writer on these issues in social media and has published two books in Bengali to raise awareness about gender and sexuality. In 2018, along with Dr. Monika Kedara from Poland, Abhijit started the GYA Rainbow group in Global Young Academy to discuss the issues faced by LGBTQIA+ academicians. He is now co-leading the group with Dr. Eschar Mizrachi from South Africa.


Find out more about the Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science and the ISC’s work to safeguard the right to engage in scientific enquiry, pursue and communicate knowledge, and to associate freely in such activities.

The GYA ‘Rainbow’ Incubator project that is mentioned in this podcast is led by Abhijit Majumder and Eshchar Mizrachi.

The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), which is mentioned in this episode, aims to establish through scientific research and international cooperation a broad understanding of the nature of Antarctica, the role of Antarctica in the Earth System, and the effects of global change on Antarctica.


The ISC initiated this podcast series to further deepen discussions on broadening inclusion and access in scientific workplaces and science organizations, as part of our commitment to making science equitable and inclusive. The series highlights work being undertaken through different ISC programmes, projects and networks, and particularly ongoing initiatives on Combating systemic racism and other forms of discrimination, and on Gender equality in science. Catch up on all the episodes here.

The ISC’s podcast series highlighting all aspects of diversity in science may contain material that some might find difficult to discuss, such as equality issues around gender, ethnicity, racial discrimination, LGBTQI rights, and inclusion and disability access issues. The ISC recognizes that some of the podcasts may trigger painful memories or traumatic experiences for some of our listeners.

If a specific topic covered in these podcasts raises a concern for you, please contact secretariat@council.science or your equality officer at your workplace. It is important that all members of our community contribute to a safe and positive workplace atmosphere as we explore the issues around diversity in science. It is the ISC’s hope that the topics covered in these podcasts contribute to making the positive changes we need in our science systems that reflect, celebrate, and empower all scientists in order to reach their full potential, and ultimately, contribute to the vision of the Council as science as a global public good.

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