Creating Safe Spaces for LGBTQ2S+ Youth in STEM

November 18, 2021

Improving equity in STEM requires creating safe and welcoming STEM environments for all. But, in Canada and around the world, much work needs to be done to achieve this.

STEM environments have long been criticized for not being inclusive of diverse identities – especially diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Some argue that conversations around sexual identity are irrelevant and don’t belong in STEM. This only perpetuates the heteronormative (the notion that heterosexuality is the preferred or normal mode of sexual orientation) environment that exists today, leaving many LGBTQ2S+ individuals questioning whether they belong. There is also an underlying misperception that there is little room for spiritedness or difference in STEM because it is rooted in facts, formulas and figures. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

STEM needs creativity, diversity and boundary-pushers. It requires individuals who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo and disrupt traditional ways of thinking. And it requires allies to help foster safe and inclusive spaces and amplify voices often not heard in STEM. But, while there are a growing number of conversations focused on increasing diversity in STEM, LGBTQ2S+ diversity is too often left out.

The LGBTQ2+ community, which in 2018 accounted for 4% of Canada’s total population aged 15 and older (Statistics Canada, 2018), faces many barriers to STEM education and careers, including;

Lack of representation

For starters, there is a visible lack of representation in STEM-related education and careers. These fields have historically been represented and dominated by white (presumably heterosexual) men. As a result, many individuals feel they must assimilate to a heteronormative environment in order to succeed. Campaigns like 500 Queer Scientists, mathematics communicators like Online Kyne and scientists like Anna Lytical are helping to dismantle long-standing stereotypes and make STEM environments safer and more welcoming for queer folks.

Discrimination at school and the workplace

Many who identify as LGBTQ2S+ also continue to face discrimination, harassment and assault at school and the workplace. And, according to a report published in the journal Science Advances, LGBTQ respondents are more likely to have experienced devaluation of their professional expertise than their non-LGBTQ peers. It’s also been demonstrated that those who hide their identity at school or within the workplace experience negative impacts on their mental health and physical well-being.

Poor social infrastructure

Lastly, there is a general lack of knowledge, services and infrastructure to support the LGBTQ2S+ community and several system-level inequalities across systems like education and healthcare that continue to exist and affect the health and well-being of queer folks. More non-LGBTQ2S+ STEM professionals need to ensure the STEM community is safe and inclusive for LGBTQ2S+ folks by learning how to become an ally (i.e., understanding your privilege, learning about the challenges these communities face, participating in inclusive training, helping to amplify these voices in this space, and more).

With this in mind, Actua has doubled down on efforts to engage youth from the LGBTQ2S+ community in safe and welcoming STEM learning environments. Here are just a few of the many ways the Actua network is working to achieve this:

SCI-FI Science Camps, University of Saskatchewan

SCI-FI Science Camps, recently partnered with OUTSaskatoon, who operates Camp fYrefly for LGBTQ2S+ youth aged 14 to 24 each year on campus, to offer Amazing AniGAYtion – an online animation STEM learning workshop. Animation is a unique way for youth to tell their personal stories. The workshop explores the technical aspects of animation and storytelling while empowering local LGBTQ2S+ youth to build their own creations and claim their space.

Western Engineering Outreach, Western University

Western Engineering Outreach has partnered with EngiQueers Canada and is busy planning a conference focused on building safe and inclusive spaces in Engineering. The conference, which is scheduled for early February, will celebrate, promote and advocate for diversity and inclusivity in engineering by connecting members of the shared community, and create a safe space for high school students, university students and educators to discuss how to advance equity in engineering.

YukonU Youth Moving Mountains, Yukon College

YukonU Youth Moving Mountains is currently identifying opportunities to collaborate with local organizations, like Queer Yukon, about a future STEM program explicitly designed to engage LGBTQ2S+ youth. They also recently hosted an LGBTQ2S+ youth panel to showcase some of their existing programs and brainstorm ideas about how to better collaborate with and include LGBTQ2S+ youth in their programming (i.e. a mentorship program for LGBTQ2S+ youth or a specific club for LGBTQ2S+ youth).

Actua’s Instructor Training

Actua requires that all instructors participate in “gender equity” and “safer spaces” training when delivering STEM learning programs. These training courses intend to serve as an introduction to some of the ideas, practices and concepts of gender equity. In addition to this training, we encourage all network members to connect with other subject matter experts and the policies and guidelines put forward by their institutions.

Learn more

Stay tuned for more information on the initiatives above! In the meantime, educators are encouraged to check out our resources for how to create safe spaces for LGBTQ2S+ students in STEM.