Stepping up to be a role model for LGBTQ inclusion in science

Neil Reavey describes how scientists can support or lead initiatives in their organizations.
Neil Reavey is a research assurance manager at AstraZeneca’s headquarters in Cambridge, UK.

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Neil Reavey holds a sign celebrating LGBT+ colleagues while marching with AZplus and PSA in Pride, London

Neil Reavey waves a sign while taking part in the London Pride march with AZplus and the Proud Science Alliance.Credit: Elina Kansikas

In 2011, my husband and I moved from the United Kingdom to the United States. I was supporting him on a three-year assignment working in research information technology at AstraZeneca’s site in Boston, Massachusetts, and I took a job managing a research-ethics programme at the same site. Same-sex marriage and civil unions were not federally legalized in the United States until 2015, so I was not permitted to travel on my husband’s work visa as his spouse. I had to apply for my own independent visa.

When we landed, both of us were anxious about whether to approach the immigration desk together or separately. In the United Kingdom, my husband was my family, but here, we were advised that we were not recognized to be travelling as a family. This raised my awareness of the everyday challenges that my new lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) colleagues might face in the workplace.

A few weeks into the job, a colleague described the issues she had faced working in science as a woman with a wife and children. As individuals who were open about our sexuality at work, we reflected on the difficulties of making the decision to come out. The reality of staying in the closet means never talking about life outside work — not wearing a wedding ring, not sharing a child’s achievements with colleagues or wearing work attire that does not represent one’s gender expression. Coming out is not a single event. From starting a new job to joining a new project team or networking at a conference, the casual questions about home life always crop up — and I constantly fear negative reactions if I talk openly about my husband and our life together.

My colleague and I also spoke about our anxiety over not knowing whether our identity is affecting day-to-day successes and failures. Is my work being peer reviewed without bias? Are assumptions being made about my ability to influence or lead laboratory groups or projects?

Spyros Diakakis (l) and Neil Reavey (r) hold signs and ready the AZplus to march in Pride in London

Neil Reavey and his colleague Spyros Diakakis get the AZplus team ready to take part in the London Pride march alongside the Proud Science Alliance.Credit: Elina Kansikas

Together, we formed a group to empower and support other LGBTQ employees on our campus. Over three years, we coordinated social events, workshops and charity fund-raisers, and we worked with our human resources (HR) department to advise the company on tax complications for same-sex couples.

In 2014, my husband and I returned to the United Kingdom, where I had accepted a job as a global-compliance manager at AstraZeneca in Cambridge.

That same year, The Guardian newspaper reported a Human Rights Campaign finding that 62% of openly LGBTQ graduates return to the closet when they enter the workplace. For my colleague at AstraZeneca, Spyros Diakakis, this type of statistic was a call to action. As a new master’s of science and engineering graduate working in the pharmaceutical sector, he knew that he needed to find others who shared his concerns for LGBTQ people in the workplace. He attended EUROUT, an LGBTQ career event in London, where he was inspired by the speakers and the people he met, but disappointed that there was little representation from pharmaceutical companies and research institutes. Back in the office, Spyros searched for groups that might support LGBTQ inclusion in AstraZeneca outside the United Kingdom, and he came across my US group on the company intranet. In autumn 2014, we started to plan AZplus, the first LGBTQ employee resource group for AstraZeneca in the United Kingdom.

AZplus officially launched in March 2017. Today, it has almost 500 members across sites in Cheshire, Liverpool, Luton and Cambridge (AstraZeneca’s global headquarters). AZplus has also attracted many members from around the world through the company’s in-house social-media platform, and formal AZplus chapters are now established in Australia and New Zealand and being planned in Sweden.

What can you do to effect change?

If you are an openly LGBTQ professional working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and are interested in creating something similar to AZplus, here’s my advice.

First steps

A group like AZplus does not need to be big, it just needs to be active. Initially, find at least one other person to create a pitch and a plan for developing your group. Look to other groups in STEM organizations for advice. Research current LGBTQ workplace issues to understand how they might affect members of your group. As a gay man, I understood the feelings of exclusion from my perspective only, so it was important for me to widen my viewpoint so that I could be an effective ally to other members who do not identify the same way as me. Once you have your plan together, seek out a person of influence to sponsor and promote your group. This person should be a senior leader in your organization, to attract wider support and funding, so you can grow your network and run events.

Create a coalition

Identify others who share your passion for driving inclusion and diversity in your organization. Our group’s initial approach was to find others in the LGBTQ community who wanted to form a team, but we also worked with colleagues who wanted to establish a ‘Network of Women’ resource group. This strengthened our case and created a template for others to use when they form different groups in the future. This collaborative approach was key to winning support from senior management.

Agree on a vision

What should the group do after it’s formed? We agreed on a simple vision statement: “Employees working together to support an inclusive culture where every individual is empowered to bring their whole self to work.” This felt right for us, but a vision will differ according to the type of organization you work for and its current environment.

Define a purpose

For us, this was about agreeing on the scope of our work. We felt that four core areas were important for empowering LGBTQ employees and the wider community around us:

1. Creating a peer-support network for our employees. We create a safe space for LGBTQ employees to meet each other and, in some cases, to explore being ‘out’ with colleagues for the first time.

2. Creating development opportunities. We run workshops on authenticity for employees in the workplace, and have LGBTQ academic or industry leaders share their journeys to inspire our members.

3. Collaborating with other LGBTQ organizations. We are members of the Proud Science Alliance. This is a partnership between employee groups from other organizations that are working to further LGBTQ inclusion across the health-care and life-science sectors globally.

4. Supporting our company to become recognized as a leader in LGBTQ inclusion. We run workshops for HR professionals to highlight LGBTQ issues and strategies for improving inclusion.

Generate a buzz

Our group is highly visible. This helps to attract new members, but more importantly it encourages non-LGBTQ people to become allies. For International Coming Out Day, on 11 October, we handed out branded lanyards with a “How to be an ally” informational card. This single event bolstered our membership by more than 100 people, most of whom were non-LGBTQ but wanted to learn and to show support.

Be consistent

Stay on message and make sure that you are including the full spectrum of LGBTQ people in your activities. Try to maintain a steady drumbeat of events and news, with a few periods of hightened activity in the year, the obvious times being Pride celebrations and LGBTQ History Month activities.

Although equality law is more progressive than ever in many parts of the world, we still need to be a community that raises each other up, and we must overcome the biggest challenge of all — coming out and being our true selves without fear.

If you are LGBTQ, not out at work or university and want to be, know that there are many LGBTQ people working in STEM who are here to support you when you’re ready — to be your sponsor, your mentor and your friend.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01146-1

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