LGBT+ STEM Day – An Interview with Tom Welton, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London
In honour of LGBT+ STEM day we talked to Professor Tom Welton, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London and the President-Elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He shares his thoughts on diversity and inclusion in the workplace and how attitudes have changed towards LGBT+ people.
FLG: What Issues Do LGBT+ Scientists face in their Careers?
TW: That’s very difficult to answer, as there is such a range of people and experience. Looking at people who have a UK-based experience will be very different to the experience that someone might be having in a country where it is still illegal to be LGBT+, so it really does vary. A recent report studied LGBT+ experiences in the physical sciences. One of the things that I think is really interesting in the report is that regardless of which particular identity a person was saying they have, universally the people that were out about their identity were happier in the workplace and felt they had fewer difficulties and a better experience. Judging from my experience the act of coming out is itself a liberation and changes the environment inside your own head.
And that’s an important thing for us to understand, that it’s a combination of things. If you are working in an environment where it’s easier to be out, then you are more likely to be out. I’ve been out forever, since 1983, and I’ve seen that when people are dealing with a human being they know in comparison to a concept, people start to consider the human being in front of them.
FLG: How Have You Noticed Attitudes Changing Towards LGBT+ Scientists Throughout Your Career?
TW: I came out when I was a student as we were suffering the most hostile government towards LGBT+ people. New legalisation (Section 28) was being bought in to restrict our ability to talk about our existence. I personally experienced being beaten up on the street once for the crime of having left a gay venue. I had friends who lost jobs because they were lesbian or gay.
One of the things for me that came out of the legalisation of civil partnerships and gay marriage is that heterosexuals started to come to our weddings and realised ‘your weddings are just like our weddings.’ The vast majority of people now are much more understanding that there are a range of different relationships that people have that are not like theirs.
In the 1980s someone could literally walk into my office and say ‘we don’t employ gay men here, you’re sacked’ and I know people that that happened to. That could not happen today, so things have improved at lot. But what exploring the workplace tells us is that there’s still a way to go so people feel like they are not disadvantaged for being LGBT+.
FLG: What Can be Done in the Workplace to Make Things Easier for LGBT+ Scientists?
One of the things I think is important is workplace support networks. A support network can make such a big difference in supporting someone in the coming out process and making them feel more comfortable at work.
It is important for managers to recognise that all their staff are individuals. All of their staff have individual experiences and it is important to recognise and account for that in their managerial processes.
For example, this could include being ready both institutionally and personally to support a colleague who is going through transition. This means realising there may be things that they need to do which you can make space for and accommodate.
FLG: What Were Some of the Issues Identified in the “Breaking the Barriers” Report, and How Could These Help Inclusion in the Sciences?
TW: I think overwhelmingly, and this also applies to LGBT+ people, experiences of explicitly bad behaviours and the prevalence of bullying and harassment are all too common. Bullies are bullies; it’s not because of who you are as the victim that’s making it happen. But if you are a woman, or LGBT+, or black or from an ethnic minority, you’re more likely to be the subject of those kinds of bad behaviours.
And there must be no place for those kind of behaviours in the professional environment, and that’s what I meant about needing to think about professional standards of behaviour. We work in professional places: professional behaviour is required. And it needs to be addressed.
FLG: How Can People Tackle Bullying in the Workplace?
TW: There has to be not only the tools and mechanisms, but also the culture that provides people with the confidence when they experience or witness that kind of behaviour to do something about it: ‘if I report it, that something will be done.’ There also needs to be the ability to anonymously report it – there’s a system at Imperial that does get used and I see reports from it. The RSC is also setting up a system by which people can report their experiences, of both witnessing and experiencing bullying.
I think also it’s important for us as senior managers and leaders to really lead by example and demonstrate the behaviours that we expect to see. To be a role model. When I think about the boss I had at 1993, Eddie Able, who at that time was president of the RSC, I did learn technical things from him when I was a postdoc in his lab, but I also learnt how you should behave, what it means to be a decent human being who is a senior manager of an organisation. And how you should treat people.
FLG: Could You Talk About Your Time at the Chemistry Department at Imperial – How Did You Achieve Your Efforts in Diversity that Won the Athena SWAN Gold Award?
TW: First what I absolutely must say is the word is ‘we’, not ‘I’ – I really want to make that clear. I spent most of my time as head of department saying: ‘that’s a really good idea, shall we try it?’ It was a very collective effort – you have to mention Patricia Hunt and the huge contribution she personally made. There was a group of us leading the effort but the department embraced it enthusiastically.
It’s the collective effort to take the opportunity when the choice is before you, even when the choice it very tiny, to pick the more inclusive option. And that for me is very much what the department did collectively.
And not everything was perfect, that’s not what a gold award means: we couldn’t just forget about it after the award, but we were striving to make improvements.
FLG: Is There Anything Else You’d Like to Add?
TW: Only other thing I’d want to say: I don’t think I have all the answers. Every day I learn something new, every day someone else makes a new suggestion – I’m not a guru; that’s not the situation. It’s about just trying to make tomorrow a little bit more inclusive than yesterday. For me that’s all you can do.