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LGBTQ+ Empowerment

One Organization Helping LGBTQ+ People Find Their Way in STEM

Janine van Niekerk

Chemical Engineer, Naval Sea Systems Command & Vice President of Marketing and Communication, Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM)

Through scholarships, mentorships, and support resources, Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM) is helping people in the LGBTQ+ community find career success in STEM.

Founded in 2009, oSTEM aims to make STEM a more welcoming place for LGBTQ+ individuals and give them the resources and funding needed to find academic and career success. What started with five individual chapters on college campuses has now grown to include more than 100 college chapters and, as of 2017, offers support for LGBTQ+ STEM professionals as well. 

Over the past decade, many STEM fields have become more diverse, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more inclusive.

“There’s a difference between diversity and inclusion,” said oSTEM executive director and CEO Lilian Martinez. “With diversity, you can check all of your boxes, but if your diverse individuals are not well supported and are the lowest paid of your staff, then you didn’t really check all your boxes, and you have not done your job of inclusion.”

Accessing opportunities

oSTEM awards scholarships to promising STEM students in the LGBTQ+ community who may be overlooked by other scholarship programs. “Many scholarships focus so much on your perfect GPA and your rate of completion,” Martinez said. “That can take away opportunities from people who come from either marginalized or non-traditional backgrounds.”

The mentorship program oSTEM began in 2019 will also return this year. In its mentor program’s pilot year, oSTEM partnered about 200 students and older STEM professionals together based on career interests, geography, and identity.

“We have a lot of industry partners who are older professionals and are in the LGBT community,” Martinez said. “You come into your field and wonder if anyone else has had these issues. And so, to have that support from a professional that’s been there is invaluable.”

Simple changes 

Systemic change begins with small steps. One way organizations can show they are committed to fostering inclusive environments for LGBTQ+ individuals is by normalizing discussions about preferred pronouns, and putting preferred pronouns on email signatures, business cards, and more.

“Simple things, like including pronouns in your email signature, can go a long way to providing support and making it quietly, but certainly visible, that you support LGBTQ+ people,” said Janine van Niekerk, a chemical engineer for Naval Sea Systems Command, and oSTEM’s vice president of marketing and communication.

Conversations around topics like announcing and asking for preferred pronouns can be difficult to start depending on the social climate of an organization. Van Niekerk offers a workaround for opening the door organically:“Just go for being respectful of people with gender-neutral names,” she said. “That is my entry point to sort of sidestep a potentially nuclear issue in a more conservative workplace. I’ll just say that I want to be clear and be respectful — people have a hard time arguing with that.”

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