Comment: Championing LGBTQ+ diversity in STEM can benefit us all

During British Science Week, Jaipal Sachdev, production planning lead and LGBTQ+ rights advocate, 3M discusses how diversifying STEM can broaden opportunities for innovation

As we celebrate our annual national British Science Week it is no secret that while the STEM industry has made significant strides tackling diversity issues in recent years, minority groups are still underrepresented. One highly underrepresented group is the LGBTQ+ community. Recent research reveals that gay men are 34 per cent less likely to choose a STEM degree than their heterosexual counterparts and that 28 per cent of UK LGBTQ+ scientists have considered leaving their job because of discrimination at work. Even more alarming are the statistics when it comes to trans identities in STEM. Research from QS has revealed that transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) students continue in STEM majors at a rate roughly ten per cent lower than their cisgender peers.

Not only is this deeply concerning, but it is hindering scientific process within our industry. With the STEM skills gap widening every year, improving diversity in science and technology is critical for boosting innovation and economic growth. In fact, 3M’s State of Science Index revealed that 92 per cent of people in the UK believe that STEM professionals can help us solve the problems of tomorrow and 80 per cent agree that underrepresented groups are a source of untapped potential in the STEM workforce.

It is therefore in the interest of science to encourage diversity in STEM. We need to ensure that scientific work is coming from a group of individuals who represent the society in which they operate, to cultivate the best results.

Positive role models inspire in the classroom

As a gay man in the tech industry, I have my own experience of being part of a marginalised group in an industry that lacks positive role models. The tech industry is saturated by white, heterosexual males, and despite recent pushes from the government and companies to incentivise marginalised groups like women to join the STEM economy, we still have a significant diversity issue.

I believe that this is impacted by the lack of positive role models that are presented to students in school when they are at a crucial stage in choosing their career paths. To drive more inclusivity for LGBTQ+ people and other minority groups, we must make sure that we are prioritising the representation of recognisable role models in schools and universities.

Outside of my work at 3M, I am a member of the Diversity Role Models Charity, and regularly visit schools to talk about my experiences of growing up gay, and the challenges I faced but overcame. I use my role as a gay man in the tech space to be a positive role model for children and young people who may be struggling with the idea of pursuing a career in STEM. Growing up, if you don’t see role models who look and identify like you, it’s much harder to visualise yourself doing something you aspire to do. I want children who lack those representative role models to see that they can and will be welcomed into an industry that has not historically represented them. I want to be the role model that I did not see growing up.

Subverting stereotypes

Throughout my career, I’ve been using my role as an LGBTQ+ leader to show that science has a space for everyone. I am honoured to have been recognised as one of the top 10 British Diversity Heroes by the British LGBT Awards 2023 and immensely proud of some of the work I’ve been able to contribute to, such as the British Science Association’s ‘Smashing Stereotypes’ campaign. The purpose of the scheme is to highlight the diversity of people and roles in STEM to students, parents, and teachers and to challenge stereotypes and barriers that young people may face. By challenging these stereotypes, we are able to show LGBTQ+ representation in STEM,  a group that has historically been underrepresented.

Empowering employees to bring their true self to work

Alongside the importance of showcasing positive role models, and challenging damaging and outdated stereotypes, to attract individuals to the industry, we must also ensure that we are able to retain diverse talent. We need to empower all employees to bring their true selves to work. To do this we need to create an inclusive culture where everyone feels supported in the workplace. Without this, we won’t be able to retain the talent we’ve fought so hard to attract.

It is only with these three elements; championing positive role models, challenging outdated stereotypes to attract talent, and nurturing an inclusive environment to retain this talent, that we can truly tackle the diversity issue in STEM. It is my hope that we can all play our role as an industry to drive diversity and inclusion, and continue to inspire people from all walks of life and from all underrepresented groups to consider a rewarding career in STEM. This will not only broaden the opportunities for innovation in the industry, but will also help narrow the STEM skills gap, creating significant economic advantages for the UK.

Jaipal Sachdev, production planning lead and LGBTQ+ rights advocate, 3M