Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) are key areas for the innovation and societal development; these ecosystems are often cis-male dominated spaces with little participation and historical mistreatments towards marginalised minority populations, such as LGTBIQ+ people. Despite the outgrowing number of studies showing how important diversity has become in stimulating innovation and creativity among industries, as well as a driving force boosting economies; gender diverse people are still systemically excluded at various levels of society as a result of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression or their sexual characteristics which further promotes poverty circles, inequalities, and all forms of violence and discrimination against them.
In the 2030 transformative agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to measure 169 targets with the purpose of tackling global issues and “leaving no one behind”. Yet, “trans and gender diverse individuals are constantly and structurally disregarded”. Although Latin-American countries, as some European countries, have agreed and signed on most of the International Treaties and Human Rights Agreements, when it comes to asserting the rights of the people, Government’s will is limited on following such commitments. Among the greatest challenges Latin American trans and gender diverse people face are: stigmatisation, rejection, access to education, access to health, access to housing, access to employment and the legal gender recognition.
One of the most pressing issues to tackle for trans and gender diverse people is the indicator 1.4. “By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services [...]”, as well as the indicator 1.4.2 referring to the proportion of the adult population with legally recognised documentation. Starting by the recognition of the gender differences and their particular needs towards a more human-kind future is the key battle to end an oppressive cisgender system. Despite the fact that some countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and Mexico have approved laws to recognise the different gender identities, it is not enough to defend trans rights and, in some countries, the picture is still critical.
To be able to portray the real situation LGTBIQ+ people live in, it is necessary to know the data, for instance, about the particularities and failures of the cis system in detail, and thus be able to make informed decisions on how to transform these realities, understanding the value of community, and the value of grassroots organisations as change agents.
A glimpse of gender theories and human rights
“But you are too pretty to be gay!” or “when are you going to stop experimenting and start dating men again?” are some of the frequent microaggressions that Kaela Singleton suffers constantly at her workplace. Kaela is a Black, queer postdoctoral researcher in developmental neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta, U.S. Narratives such as the latter, are frequently told to LGTBIQ+ folks involved in research, study, or practice in STEAM careers, among others. In fact, I can continue to mention some of them, like, “you are too eccentric to be you and be a physicist- you have to be overwhelmingly great, and you are not,” or “when I asked questions to engage my classes, some students complained to the dean’s office that I did not know the material,” this is the story of Hontas Farmer, a black transgender theoretical physicist and lecturer at Elmhurst University in Illinois. The discrimination and exclusion displayed is an example of how the issue permeates the education system, and extents to the work field. These are examples of microaggressions, which inform macro politics. As the SDGs point out, “all persons are entitled to the enjoyment of all human rights without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity," as it is described in the Yogyakarta principles.
In Latin America, the situation is critical, as once Brigitte Baptiste shared publicly, “The "hybrid" condition that I represent for being a trans person makes people have trouble referring to me in terms of 'she' or 'he' and causes them a deep discomfort. Some out of respect, because they would like to know how to read and interpret my will and respect it, others because, on the contrary, they find it difficult and are not even willing to accept my existence.” Baptiste is an internationally recognised biologist and the Director of the Alexander Von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute. She has actively worked on bridging science and art, at the intersection with gender. In the Global North and Global South, it is evident that not being able to recognise someone’s gender identity is where the issue starts, a situation that reinforces hurtful social narratives, and it is a multidimensional problem (economic, political, educational) impacting regions across the world.
Although the LGTBIQ+ movement is fighting hard to claim their rights and a lot has changed, yet most countries do not have legislation protecting trans people from discrimination (either in general, or access to education, employment, or other basic rights), as indicated in the 2014 reports of REDLACTRANS on the economic, social and cultural rights of the transgender people in Latin America and the Caribbean. The inequalities generate structural poverty which makes it more difficult to solve any issue without active and strategic government plans. Furthermore, a Report on Poverty done by GATE in 2020, shows that in this region young people struggle to find jobs, some have to drop out of schools as a result of bullying culture, and some do not have access to legal documentation at all. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), in 2018, youth unemployment rates in Latin America were three times worse than for adults, and the informality in the region was on average 56%.
Still today in 2022 in Colombia, out of every 100 trans people in the country, only four have an employment contract. This data shows how the lack of support and human rights perspective to employment is a political issue that needs to be tackled urgently.
Considering workplace inclusivity programs and strategies, Mckinsey Company made a report to prove that companies who promote diversity are 35% more likely to outperform other companies in terms of productivity. For this report McKinsey examined 366 public companies across industries in Canada, Latin America, UK, and the US. The main features relevant to this text: “racial and ethnic diversity has a strong impact on financial performance in the US, and the unequal performance of companies in the same industry and the same country implies that diversity is a competitive differentiator shifting market share toward more diverse companies”. Considering this data, companies and organisations need gender diverse and trans talent to outperform and provide better services to society, however, in reality, unemployed trans and gender diverse folks are having a hard time in finding job opportunities. The disconnection between the two variables is dependable on the basis of gender identity, expression and racial bias across all sectors and industries.
According to experts on legal issues pertaining to transgender persons, as discussed in REDLACTRANS report, “the lack of personal documents according to self-perceived gender identity, discrimination, violence and strong barriers in access to health care, education, in general- sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy in particular- that the majority of trans people in LATAM face, has led to the status quo that cannot be improved without a clear implementation of decisive public policies to promote the rights of this population.” It is for this reason that society and institutions play a crucial role on switching the views from a cisgender-essencialist system, and transform it through the perspective of intersectionality and gender.
Power dynamics and DEI principles
Regardless of the little progress towards a greater inclusion, many individuals who identify as trans and gender diverse continue to experience workplace invisibility, erasure, and silence. Then, how is it possible for transgender folks to be leaders when they are hardly acknowledged at their workplace? And when some cannot even participate in the labour market? In this case being recognised, respected and accepted is the main challenge that trans individuals encounter in their jobs and in personal life. According to the World Bank, there is a data deficit and official statistics about work and life conditions of trans people in Latin America, which increases the chances of being vulnerable to the exclusion from education, the formal labour market and, more susceptible to different forms of violence.
The negative impact of lack of inclusion of trans folk in leadership is extensive to those that are part of STEAM workforces as they report more work-related issues than their non- LGTBIQ+ counterparts. Moreover, a research by the Royal Society, as mentioned in the LGTBIQ+ in STEM Blog, says it is estimated that gender diverse folks represent less than 20% in STEAM fields, however, there is no curated data from LATAM available to understand this issue deeper, which is hard to believe when such careers are now more important than ever.
Author Lily Zheng explains in their book, “Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination” published in 2009 that, “truly understanding trans identity requires a thorough comprehension of related but different concepts like biological sex, assigned sex at birth, gender essentialism and the western model’s gender binary.” One of the roots of this issue underlies the colonialism process that brought oppression through the power executed from Global North to Global South countries. Nowadays, Latin American and Caribbean countries are working hard on revealing all forms of subjugation and recovering the truthful essence of its regions in terms of “cultural, psychological, and economic freedom.” Nevertheless, there is still some lags such as racism, xenophobia, homophobia and more related phobias that are connected to the dysfunctional global north-south relationships. As a result, trans representation and leadership in STEAM is not simple to explain, based on the grounds of historical and systematic oppression executed by cisgender people, in connection with other forms of power dynamics.
For instance, studies about how transgender people are fired or denied employment and access to restrooms, how they are physically threatened and emotionally abused, experience micro aggressions, lack of support from friends, romantic partners and family as a prominent form of discrimination, lack of organisational policies prohibiting discrimination or the absence of transgender-inclusive healthcare coverage, all of these studies – qualitative and quantitative analysis – document adverse outcomes linked with the workplace discrimination. By any measure, transgender folks experience constant rejection and social exclusion that affects their self-esteem and mental health, and in consequence impacts society as a whole.
Considering the previous theories, in the words of Denise Jodelet published in 1986, “a social representation responds to the way human beings appreciate life, how they learn from each event, the characteristics of the environment, the information that circulates in the environment and the people who are in that close or distant environment.” In addition to this, social and practical knowledge are also relevant. Social knowledge is built from shared experiences and models of thinking by individuals, and sometimes transmitted through tradition, culture, education, and communication, alongside the practical appropriation of such knowledge. This is how individuals create their own criteria, which informs our society’s narrow views on the gender binary.
In reference to leadership and representation with a gender perspective in the STEAM field, it is important to mention that STEAM culture is meritocratic, and LGTBIQ+ practitioners find themselves navigating harmful cultural norms and perceptions of competence, approaching work-life without healthy limits and at the great cost of burnout. Additionally, victim blaming, bullying, wrongdoing in the attitudes, irrational thinking and microaggressions are confirmations of hidden binary structures that withhold power through their own system, institutions, and mechanisms of exclusion. These power structures take cisgender men and women as canon by which transgender people are often measured, compared and judge to. In the STEAM field, this affects not only trans and gender diverse individuals, but is also biased against cisgender women, who decide to ‘‘perform’’ their identities in neutral ways to avoid or ignore the challenges they have to overcome in leadership positions.
For this reason, in the U.S., discrimination was made illegal through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and since then the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) movement started with the purpose of integrating race in civil rights, and has expanded to welcoming discussions around gender, sexual orientation and nationality. DEI is a movement that makes companies and institutions accountable for their actions towards these marginalised groups. Additionally, as a movement that protects trans and gender diverse folks, it also reflects on cisgender women equity: both social movements connect and intersect with the purpose of defending human rights in accessing education, job opportunities, health and reproductive rights, equal pay, and more.
Companies and institutions sometimes address DEI from the public relations perspective rather than a problem rooted in their cultural and corporate values. The PR value of inclusion works for these companies because if they discriminate, employees will report them to authorities who will take actions which can come at a high economic and image cost for companies. As a result, there is a growing number of companies now implementing DEI strategies and training with a DEI position inside their organisational structure. Despite all types of organisational changes that are now encouraged across industries, Zheng explains that “there is much to do for gender diverse and trans folks as this issue has become more a compliance box to check,” rather than corporate values transformation that take the DEI strategies to another level.
Giving back the power and becoming a trans- gender diverse ally
As the system is not made for trans folks to win in the labour market, this becomes an opportunity for some of them to pave their way as entrepreneurs, that was the case for Angelica Ross, who created TransTech Social, a social network for trans people to find the right place to work. Her main motivation to succeed with this project was born out of her struggle as a black trans woman. Nevertheless, Angelica’s impact goes farther than that, as she is creating a bridge to give back the power to trans and gender diverse folks to choose what they want and can do, overcoming unemployment and poverty. This initiative exemplifies how technology can be used to uplift communities and change the course of circumstances.
Michel Foucault explained in his lecture, The Subject and Power, ‘‘In effect, what defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action that does not act directly and immediately on others. Instead, it acts upon their actions: an action upon an action, on possible or actual future or present actions.” For Foucault, power is a force that is not to coerce or prohibit, it is sometimes not as tangible, instead, is subterranean, operates in the field of possibilities in which the behaviour of active subjects is able to inscribe itself. In other words, it is in the organisation, coordination, behaviour and practices. Therefore, power is within all humans, nevertheless, it can be constrained by external factors such as other people’s or institutional rejection, discrimination, and constant invalidation of the individual.
The question is, what does it take to give back trans and gender diverse folks the power, and how can allies facilitate a path for inclusion?. To become an ally for the Trans and gender diverse movement, can involve many strategies and actions in which the main idea is to open the uncomfortable conversations, and bring light to others with knowledge, good practices and most importantly, allowing every individual in your team to express their true selves.
- Become an advocate with solutions for companies and institutions on how to balance the power scheme within their organisations,
- Take part in policymaking, draw best practices and be open with information for more organisations to implement them,
- It is suggested to engage organisations and individuals open to discuss and learn, not to blame and guilt,
- Contribute from your social position (activist, researcher, academic, corporate) to distribute hegemonic cisgender power in the system, by teaching others on the subject and making the necessary adjustments.
The STEAM fields have characteristics that are different from other types of sciences, for instance: the way the interactions and networking is made, and how rigid specific opportunities are. The industry is now changing, however it is built over non-essentialist and social paradigms that reinforce the power and oppression over trans and gender diverse individuals, from data bias to trans participation in the sector. For those reasons, sexual orientation, gender identities and gender expressions are silent topics still at some workplaces. Nevertheless, the world is starting to change towards a more inclusive system.
The social and human rights movements are now pushing towards a more equal agenda, one in which the power lies in opportunities and open doors for trans and gender diverse folks to innovate and create alongside companies. From there, companies and markets will benefit from a gender diverse workforce that has not yet been seen before, bringing prosperity to society and vindication for trans folks.