Homophobia in STEM subjects?

By Lisa French

‘We have a fantastic scientific tradition in this country, and technology leadership must drive economic activity in the future’ 

Students of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects suffer the highest amount of homophobia from staff and other students than any other subject areas.

Two quotes about the sciences – the first from Vince Cable, written in a letter that was recently leaked to the BBC. The second formed part of a motion passed at the LGBT NUS conference last year.

The importance of science and technology in the UK cannot be understated, and it is why I read Vince Cable’s letter with delight. The BBC clearly took a different angle on this letter, instead picking phrases to create what they deemed to be a newsworthy story. The overarching message of the letter was lost in the subsequent coverage, which I think was a great shame.  

Reading the text of the motion passed at the LGBT NUS conference shocked me. The motion was actually passed just under a year ago, but was only drawn to my attention very recently.

Do STEM students suffer high levels of homophobia? You would hope that a motion passed at an NUS conference would be based on fact. I was surprised to read the motion – I study Biology and have never witnessed anything that would lead me to believe that STEM subjects are homophobic – but my own experience doesn’t answer that question.

The motion presented to the NUS conference gave no evidence, only giving a series of statements condemning STEM subjects for their homophobia. This is a serious accusation, and something too important to be put to a conference without relevant evidence being provided. I did not attend this conference, so I cannot say for sure that no evidence was given, but I am surprised that once the motion had passed the evidence wasn’t made easily accessible to all.

Because of this institutional homophobia LGBT people do not feel safe or comfortable studying STEM subjects so are more likely to chose [sic] a more liberal subject.’ – LGBT NUS Conference Motion 604

No one should feel excluded from studying a subject, and if it is true that STEM subjects suffer from ‘institutional homophobia’ then this is a problem too big to ignore.

There is a risk here. The risk is that by making these claims the conference motion itself is putting students off studying the sciences. A self-fulfilling prophecy.  The risk of this should of course not stop a conference passing such a motion – assuming that there is evidence to back it up. However, I find it highly ironic that a motion condemning the sciences provides no references and no way of checking the claims made.  Remember that very specific claims are being made here, specific claims that should be backed up by research.

Frustrated by this lack of evidence a colleague of mine has recently set up a survey to ask the opinions of all those that work or study at a University (whether studying a STEM subject or not). This has been done independently of the NUS, and aims to see if the claims made in the motion are true – and if they are, what can be done about it.

Vince Cable is right; we do have a fantastic scientific tradition in the UK. I could argue all day about why the UK should be investing more money into the sciences. However, while our science policy is important to me, it is not why I am a Liberal Democrat. I am a Liberal Democrat because I believe in civil liberties and equality. We could have the best academic output in the world, but if our STEM subjects are institutionally homophobic then we have failed.  The motion passed by the LGBT NUS conference, if true, should not be swept under the carpet.

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