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Queer in STEM, an astronomy rumpus and the heat from a fan

(iStock/Rawpixel Ltd)

(iStock/Rawpixel Ltd)

By Matin Durrani

Our eyes were drawn this week to the results of the first national US survey of the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or asexual (LGBTQA) people working in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) subjects. Entitled Queer in STEM, the study was carried out by Jeremy Yoder, a plant-biology postdoc at the University of Minnesota, and Alison Mattheis who’s on the faculty at the College of Education at California State University Los Angeles.

Based on the responses of more than 1400 LGBTQA people across the US to an online survey, the study looked in particular at how welcoming or hostile their workplaces feel to participants. Full details of the study have been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Homosexuality (access charges apply) but there’s good analysis of the findings in Nature News. It reports that Mattheis and Yoder found that “respondents were most comfortable when they had some type of formal support from their employers, such as diversity statements that establish a policy of tolerance in the workplace”.

What’s also interesting, according to the Queer in STEM blog, is that “survey participants who worked in STEM fields with better representation of women were more likely to be out to their colleagues”. In other words, according to the blog, it seems that in workplaces with fewer women, “the climate may be less comfortable for anyone who fails to conform to a straight male gender presentation”.

Talking of diversity in science, there was also a bit of a rumpus this week following a speech made by the incoming general secretary of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) at the closing ceremony of its general assembly in Hawaii. All seemed to be going well when Piero Benvenuti, a high-energy astrophysicist from the University of Padua in Italy, welcomed the fact that three of the four incoming IAU officers were women, including Silvia Torres-Peimbert from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who will serve as IAU president.

He said that he looked forward to working with his female colleagues – and this is the dodgy bit – “since women have a special gift for caring and education”. Over at the Girlandkat blog, there’s an interesting account of the incident and why it sparked a furore. As the blog puts it, having that gift is “a gender-determined talent that is apparently far more important to Benvenuti than the lifetime of work and perseverance that made these scientists leaders in their field”. He is said to have then turned and bowed to his female colleagues.

Benvenuti went on to clarify his thoughts on his own blog, stating that he wished to “apologise that my remarks offended some, and to admit that I can also see their points of view”. And if you still don’t know why his remarks should cause offence, Girlandkat sums things up nicely with this comment: “Suggesting that gender dictates your skill set – positively or negatively – is never complimentary and degrades the effort that goes into a long academic career.”

On a lighter note, let’s end this week’s Red Folder with a simple experiment reported in Wired by Rhett Allain. We all know a fan can cool you off on a hot day, as my Physics World colleagues will know when I whack my desk fan on (although given the current dreadful weather here in Bristol, it’s mostly been sitting unused under my desk). What Allain has done is to put an electric fan in a box to find out by how much it warms the air up by virtue of the current running through its electric motor. If you’re really keen, you might want to do a back-of-the-envelope guesstimate of the number, but if you can’t be bothered or are too impatient, I’ll let you click the link to find out the answer.

Oh, and one final thing…One Direction (minus Zayn Malik) has released a NASA-themed video filmed at the space agency’s Houston headquarters. I’ll let you make up your own minds about this particular piece of artistic endeavour.

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