Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

Transitioning in Science

Diversity in science is more than just establishing male-female balance, or achieving some perfect subset of races and cultures. People across all spectra must feel welcomed. 


by Kerstin Nordstrom

via Wikimedia Commons

Our lives are full of transitions. If you were or are a scientist, your life is likely defined by transitions. You may have chosen to transition out of academic science and work for industry. You may have become a humble science writer. You may have decided to become a parent. You may have chosen to stay in academia which is further defined by transitions up the pyramid: graduate school, postdoc, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, dean…

But we have much work to do as a scientific community (and as a society) to acknowledge and accommodate the most personal of transitions. There are transgender scientists in the world, and they are increasingly coming out.

Perhaps it reflects the Two Cultures that are, frankly, still going strong today. Most major universities and prestigious colleges have queer studies programs. Yet many scientists couldn’t tell you what LGBTQIA means. Even though most scientists are politically left-leaning and, in principle, accepting (photons have no gender, it is sometimes said), they are often personally conservative, and are not often aware of these issues. These tendencies can easily make them come across as unwelcoming. The “default” identity for a scientist is still a married, straight, cis man, meaning that, in a position of relative privilege, many scientists may never have been forced to personally reflect on their own identity, let alone the identity of others.

Many discussions on increasing diversity and inclusiveness in science focus on increasing women in science. A disturbingly common trope, that is still heard today, is reflective of the scientific culture’s way of addressing problems. If we made it easier for women to have children and a career, then more women would stay. This makes sweeping generalizations about the priorities of women in order to make a “logical” statement. If problem = A, then solution = B. But women are not all governed by their fertility: many can’t have children, many don’t want them. But more basically and importantly, not all women are the same. (Also, it is untrue. In fact, as professional careers go, academic science is pretty great for having children while working.)

Similarly for trans scientists, there is “no one size fits all” solution. In addition to the general feelings of doubt springing from queer invisibility in science, there are practical details that can be stressful, that may change from person to person. Will it be okay to use their restroom of choice at a conference? How can they communicate this transition on their CV? Can past publications be credited to them? Will their work be viewed as more/less competent after transitioning genders?

If you are looking to become more educated and enlightened about these issues, check out this Best Practices guide. I’ve linked to one specifically focused on Physics departments, but much of it is relevant to the broader world.


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This entry was posted on October 29, 2013 by in Research, Science Journalism.
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