Why are there so few trans, gender non-conforming and non-binary people in STEM? Inaccessibility, harassment are hurdles

Trans, gender non-conforming and gender non-binary people live largely in oblivion, and the lack of supportive systems, affirmative action, mentors and role models keeps younger individuals from coming to STEM.

The Life of Science November 05, 2020 10:34:31 IST
Why are there so few trans, gender non-conforming and non-binary people in STEM? Inaccessibility, harassment are hurdles

This story contains mentions of harassment, abuse and transphobia. Reader discretion is advised.

By Sayantan Datta

Anasuith P Pridhvish is met with a dilemma every time she has to go to her department on the eighth floor of a private university in Bengaluru: The elevators she has to use are marked either exclusively for “gents”' or “ladies”. As a transgender womxn, she does not feel comfortable using the elevator for gents, but doesn't have the option to use the female one either. She, therefore, has to often take the stairs eight floors up. “I am not always in the best of my health to do that every day,” she remarks, as she tells me of how this restricts her access to gender-segregated spaces on her campus.

Anasuith’s experiences resonate with what a small but growing community of transgender (trans), gender non-conforming (GNC) and gender non-binary (GNB) people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines face. Science institutions, universities and bodies are only warming up to the idea of inclusivity in science now, and the discourses on discrimination, equal representation, diversity and inclusion in STEM disciplines are still limited to cisgender women. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no study in India that has attempted to gauge the number of trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM, or to see what keeps them from pursuing a career in these disciplines, and how the situation could be made better.

They live largely in oblivion, and the lack of supportive systems, affirmative action, mentors and role models keeps younger individuals from coming to STEM.

I conducted a small survey-based research to probe into the issue further, with the following key goals in mind:

a. What are the problems faced by trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM?

b. What keeps them from pursuing a career in science?

c. How can one make the situation better?

I received 15 responses from self-identified trans, GNC and GNB people in science. Most of my respondents were young students and early-career researchers from both public and private institutions; I also received responses from a few veteran voices as well. Along with the data from this survey, I also conducted two detailed interviews with trans-identifying STEM students.

This report combines the data from the above-mentioned sources, and along with my own experiences of being a queer-trans person in Science, shall delve deep into understanding the issues faced by these individuals.

What lies underneath the pretenses of objectivity and productivity?

“People say that Science only cares about the work you do; nothing else really matters,” says Abigail Silversmith Irfan, a non-binary transwomxn and an undergraduate student of Physics, “but, that is not correct. We do Science with and around people, who have their own biases and privileges." Abigail’s words are a constant reminder of how under the pretenses of objectivity and productivity, STEM disciplines choose to disengage (and often perpetrate) systems of discrimination and oppression. For trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM, the situation is worse.

From the responses that I received, I have been able to identify three major categories of issues faced by the respondents:

— Issues concerning mobility in and accessibility of institutional spaces

— Issues concerning harassment and abuse (of both sexual and non-sexual nature)

— Issues concerning mental health

Being trans, GNC or GNB leads to lesser mobility on and lesser access to various spaces on campus. One of the reasons for this is that campuses in India are heavily gender-segregated; hostels and washrooms, two places which are essential to students on campus, are segregated based on a binary understanding of gender. Krish N, a Science student, mentions, “As a non-binary and genderfluid person, I find it really difficult to 'choose' between binary options, whether it is lavatories and hostels, or when filling up a form. I don't feel comfortable in spaces exclusive for my assigned gender at birth. Obviously I wouldn't be allowed to use spaces reserved for the other genders. Any situation where we will be asked to segregate on the basis of binary gender is an uneasy state.”

A lot of trans, GNB and GNC people feel a varying degree of gender dysphoria; this gets worsened in gender-segregated spaces, since we often have to stay in and use hostels and washrooms that do not align with the gender that we identify with. As Abigail recounts, “I went to the administration with an application requesting them to allow me to use the washrooms that aligned with my preferred gender identity. They almost immediately rejected my plea.” For Anasuith, this segregation has extended to even the university fest: “I do not attend it.”

Even for self-identifying individuals who do not report dysphoria, having to use spaces that do not align with our preferred gender identity causes severe distress and discomfort. Having lived in a men’s hostel of the University of Hyderabad, I, as a visibly transfeminine individual, was constantly under the fear of being abused, bullied or harassed by the prevalent hypermasculine environment in the hostel.

My respondents also record instances of increased scrutiny and lesser privacy on campuses. Vidya, a faculty member, recounts how they were under a lot of distress during their student days due to increased scrutiny: “Every single time I had a haircut, one of the staff members insisted on making it a huge deal and commenting on how I looked identical to a male batchmate.” Issues of scrutiny and privacy are also intricately linked to issues of access. Akasamitra, a researcher, says, “Male washrooms had (have) low privacy since most doors were broken and couldn’t be closed.” Trans, GNC and GNB people who do not conform to social expectations of how they should look are often victims of increased scrutiny and devious curiosity in campuses.

In STEM campuses, where the engagement with sex, gender and sexuality is lesser, this scrutiny is manifold more.

Harassment and abuse

Most of my respondents recount being harassed and abused multiple times in their places of study/work. The range of harassment and abuse varies from being ridiculed, dead-named and ostracised, to sexual harassment and abuse.

Perse, a Science graduate student, shares their experience of being ridiculed by their supervisor: “My guide made fun of me when I was wearing a dress robe, and it has stuck out like a bad memory. I don't feel comfortable wearing dresses; I feel like myself in them. I quite literally lie about myself to get through the day.” Perse’s experience is similar to what many of us go through in STEM spaces, where we are often met with zero respect for our identities, choices and preferences.

Other respondents also mention instances of snide remarks, bullying, ostracisation and mockery (both public and private). For example, Anasuith tells me, “LGBTQIA+ subjects feature in our discussions only for the purpose of mockery. This, in a way, feels like indirect bullying/aggression and might also be the reason why no one comes out as queer at my university. This has also negatively affected my mental health, leading to inconsistent work.”

The other issue that contributes to the harassment and abuse of trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM spaces is the fact that their cis-heterosexual colleagues rarely respect their preferred names and pronouns. Quite unsurprisingly, this issue exists at all levels, from students to faculty. For example, Tashi, a Psychology student, mentions, “It generally makes me anxious in a new group of people to continuously keep asserting my gender identity, even though everyone is kind and nice.”

However, this issue about names is slightly more complex than it seems. Since a lot of us go by names that are different from our names assigned at birth, we run into various problems. Trans, GNC and GNB can choose to go by a different name from their name assigned at birth at any stage in their lives, but this has severe implications on their professional careers. For example, the currency of transacting in academia in general and STEM disciplines, in particular, are degrees and publications. Both degrees and publications are recognised by the names of the people who have been conferred the degree or have been the author(s) of the publication. Someone who may have decided to change their name post-publication often runs the risk of losing academic credibility. In this regard, Bittu Rajaraman, an associate professor of Biology and Psychology at Ashoka University, tells me, “We need regulations enabling people to transition without losing legitimate connection to degrees/publications attached with their past names.”

While I will not go into the extremely triggering details of the kind of sexual harassment and abuse that trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM institutions face, it is worth pondering over what happens when a trans, GNC and/or GNB person is sexually harassed or abused. Although about 80 percent of my respondents mentioned that their institutes have a dedicated institutional body to deal with complaints of sexual harassment and abuse, only two of them reported that these bodies in their respective institutions are capable of dealing with sexual harassment against trans, GNC and GNB persons. These bodies against sexual harassment and abuse often only have cisgender members who fail to identify the subtle nuances of sexual harassment that trans, GNC and GNB people face on campuses. Moreover, the people in these bodies/committees do not have adequate training to sensitively handle cases of sexual harassment against queer people. My respondents also mentioned that they often do not approach these committees because of the above-mentioned reasons.

So, what can be done to make STEM institutions safer for trans, GNC and GNB people? According to me and my respondents, there are three key starting points. Firstly, it is important to have trans-, GNC- and GNB-identifying people as representatives on these bodies and committees. Secondly, all members of the staff, along with members of these bodies/committees, need to undergo compulsory anti-sexual harassment training that also includes sessions on how to deal with cases of sexual harassment and abuse against trans, GNC and GNB individuals. Thirdly, an affirmative gender policy needs to be in place institutionally that directs these bodies’/committees’ actions and holds them accountable. How and when will our universities and institutions warm up to these ideas remains to be seen.

Mental health 

“I have bunked many classes because I couldn't drag myself mentally to enter these (STEM classroom) spaces that see your gender as a mental illness. Some days I say to myself that I am privileged enough to have (access to) these places. But other days, it's simply impossible,” says Anasuith. It is no wonder that trans, GNC and GNB people in Science, who face so much oppression and marginalisation and have to often live double lives, also have mental health issues to deal with. Alongside mental health concerns, they also have to deal with the extreme pressure and competition within STEM disciplines. What is, however, interesting, is that for fields which are concerned so much with productivity, STEM disciplines seem to not be working towards the mental health issues of trans, GNC and GNB people at all.

Although all my respondents mentioned that their institutes and universities have mental health practitioners, they also highlighted a variety of problems with these practitioners. For example, most of the respondents feel that the mental health practitioners are not sensitive to issues of queer-trans people. Moreover, they also highlighted how the services of these practitioners are sometimes not free. Also, some respondents highlighted how anonymity is breached when one goes to these practitioners for help, and often parents/guardians or higher authorities in the institutions get involved in their counselling/therapy. All these reasons combined together lead to trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM institutions not approaching the practitioners. On top of this, accessing mental healthcare outside these institutions is often expensive/unaffordable.

How can we make mental health services more accessible and beneficial for this group of individuals? The first step seems to be to appoint queer-empathetic and -sensitive mental health practitioners whose services can be accessed for free. Along with this, it is also important to ensure that anonymity of the people accessing these services is not breached, since a lot of trans, GNC and GNB people might not be publicly out. Moreover, institutions should have insurance policies that will enable trans, GNC and GNB people, who do not feel comfortable going to the in-house practitioners, to access mental healthcare from other sources. Ideally, it would be great if the in-house practitioners can also help trans, GNC and GNB people in the institution with their gender identity certificates and prerequisites to transition, but that definitely looks like a very long shot in the current Indian STEM climate.

Policy concerns

When the Supreme Court of India gave its verdict on the NALSA vs. Union of India case in 2013 (popularly called the NALSA judgement), people identifying as transgender, GNC and GNB saw a ray of hope. The judgement not only let trans, GNC and GNB people self-identify, but also instructed the central and state governments to take steps towards the emancipation of these individuals. However, even after the passage of seven years since the judgment, not much has changed.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 remains largely silent and vague on issues of education. To quote from the Act, it mandates that “Every educational institution funded or recognised by the appropriate Government shall provide inclusive education and opportunities for sports, recreation and leisure activities to transgender persons without discrimination on an equal basis with others.” The act does not go ahead and explain what “inclusive education” might mean, and how can governments and institutions achieve it.

I looked into the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) for answers. It acknowledges that transgender individuals fall in the category of socio-economically disadvantaged groups (SEDGs). Subsection 6.8 of the NEP 2020 states, “In addition, the Government of India will constitute a ‘Gender-Inclusion Fund’ to build the nation’s capacity to provide equitable quality education for all girls as well as transgender students. The fund will be available to States to implement priorities determined by the Central government critical for assisting female and transgender children in gaining access to education (such as the provisions of sanitation and toilets, bicycles, conditional cash transfers, etc.); funds will also enable States to support and scale effective community-based interventions that address local context-specific barriers to female and transgender children’s access to and participation in education.”

There are a few problems with this: I am not sure when the central government will prioritise education for transgender persons. Moreover, putting cisgender girls and transgender people in the same category leaves us with the possibility of fewer funds being used for the emancipation of transgender students. Also, trans, GNC and GNB people face issues that are often quite different from those faced by cis-girls and women. It remains to be seen how the NEP 2020 will empower trans, GNC and GNB people to continue education, and specifically, pursue a career in STEM.

At the institutional level, it is no wonder that most STEM institutions do not have gender policies in place that mandate the institutions to take affirmative action to include more trans, GNC and GNB people.

What is of immediate urgency is that STEM bodies, institutes and universities take cognisance of their poor inclusivity and work towards alleviating these issues. However, while the first step in bringing about a change is always acknowledging that there is a problem, I asked my respondents about what policy-level changes would enable them to pursue a career in STEM. The suggestions were all around the ideas of affirmative action, that is, active steps on the part of institutions and bodies to attract, include and retain trans, GNC and GNB people in STEM.

Here are some of their suggestions:

Fees concessions, reservations, and remedial classes: Since trans, GNC and GNB people often do not have access to money or other privileges that their cis colleagues have, it is imperative that they are systemically and systematically excluded very early on in the “STEM-race”. Fees concessions, reservations and remedial classes will allow for the bridging of the gap between those who have privileges of money, family support, high-quality childhood education etc, and those who do not.

Compulsory gender sensitisation workshops for all members of the institute/university: Gender sensitisation can be done either by workshops or compulsory courses in the curriculum. This will lead to a holistic trans-friendly atmosphere in STEM institutes and also start conversations surrounding sex, gender and sexuality.

Promoting and creating gender-neutral washrooms, hostels and other spaces on campus: These shall ensure that trans, GNC and GNB people do not have to conform to a gender performance that they do not feel comfortable with. It will also create a safe space for them.

Trans-affirmative gender policies and anti-sexual harassment policies: These will act as the guiding frameworks that ensure no trans, GNC or GNB person in these institutions and bodies are excluded or harassed. Having such policies in place contributes to making an institution inclusive, as well as acting as formal systems of support for queer-trans people who have grievances.

How and when STEM institutions warm up to these suggestions will only be known in the future. In the meanwhile, one can only hope that more voices of resistance from within and outside STEM will emerge and push the boundaries of what is acceptable in the name of inclusivity.

Sayantan is a science writer and communicator.

THELIFEOFSCIENCE.COM is a feminist science media project on a mission to make Indian women scientists more visible and investigate the gender gap in Indian academia.

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