By Rebecca Dzombak, GSA Science Communication Fellow
Geology, as a field, is rooted deeply in white heteronormative masculine culture, and we’ve been struggling to tackle “the boys’ club” for centuries. The early geologists whose names and work form the bedrock of introductory geology classes – Lyell, Hutton, Sedgwick – made their names largely by wandering around European countrysides as a merry band of men looking at rocks, drinking, and arguing about the rocks they’d seen. Mary Anning is probably the only female geologist or paleontologist from the 1800s who most geology students today are likely to have heard of. One of the earliest recorded female mineralogists, Martine de Bertereau du Châtelet, was imprisoned in 1642 for witchcraft, and it wasn’t until 1919 that the Geological Society of London – arguably the 20th-century seat of geology – changed its bylaws to allow women to join, electing eight women as society fellows. (I couldn’t find info on trans or gender-noncomforming geologists in the 19th century, which is certainly not to say they didn’t exist.)
In the 20th and 21st centuries, hyper-masculine norms in geology continued, with cultural figures like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park’s Alan Grant setting the stage for what a geologist looks like: a white manly-man wearing hiking pants (shirt optional). While geology in the U.S. has seen increasing numbers of (white) women over the past ~50 years, masculine stereotypes persist: flannel and hiking boots are ubiquitous, feminine appearances stand out, and fieldwork – the masculine underpinning of geology – is still typically required for undergraduate degrees.
Those norms may make for a quick joke about zip-off pants and easy conversation about rough-and-tumble adventures in the field, but for those who don’t fit easily into gender norms, they can still be exclusionary and harmful. While that may sound like common sense, the LGBTQ+ community in geoscience is looking to back up those experiences with data in order to raise the visibility of this community, and prompt geoscience to be more actively engaged in LGBTQ+ inclusivity, particularly when it comes to fieldwork.
“There’s a lot of gatekeeping around fieldwork,” says Matt Downen, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas. “Like, ‘Oh, you’re not taking this seriously because you’re glittery,’ or ‘You’ve got pink field boots, so you’re not really dedicated.’”
Some of the first data on LGBTQ+ experiences in geoscience came from an informal poll on Twitter that Downen was prompted to do after noticing a gradual demographic shift at the LGBTQ+ social event at GSA’s annual meeting. “Over the last five years, this social grew kind of out of control,” he said. “So many people who started coming in were younger and had so many different identities. [The community] is way more diverse, with respect to sexuality and gender, than I would have thought… so I wanted to quantify the experience of people who are in this community in geology, so we can know who is here.”
The community’s response to the Twitter poll was so positive and eye-opening that Downen and his co-author, Dr. Alison Olcott, sought IRB approval for an official demographic survey. Their results, shared initially in AGU’s Eos and discussed in their talk on Monday (available for viewing throughout the GSA 2020 Connects Online meeting), revealed the depth of diversity within the geoscience LGBTQ+ community. The awareness and visibility those data bring are critical for moving forward, Olcott says. Sexual orientation and gender identity can be hidden more easily than race, contributing to the community’s relative invisibility and dampening awareness of problems LGBTQ+ geoscientists face. This heightens the need for demographic and experiential data.
“Once we have a good understanding of the community through collecting that kind of data, people are then going to start to work on the solutions,” Olcott says. “This is just the first step.”
In addition to giving geoscience a better idea of how many of our peers identify as belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, the data collected by Downen and Olcott reveal troubling trends around the safety of queer-presenting geoscientists during fieldwork, which is often carried out in remote or foreign areas where acceptance of queer people is uncertain or where their presence is outright criminalized. Over half of the survey respondents reported carrying out fieldwork in areas they did not feel safe in, and roughly a third said they had refused to do fieldwork somewhere, with graduate students less likely to refuse, ostensibly due to power dynamics.
Sam Ocon, a queer Latina paleontology student at West Virginia University, has worried about fieldwork even within the U.S. “I definitely think that it is one of [the barriers to inclusion],” she says. “I’m lucky in that I can be straight passing. But a lot of my fieldwork has been in very rural parts of the Southern United States. Even that can be pretty scary, and I’m from the south.”
Rob Ulrich, a queer and biracial graduate student at UCLA who founded @QueersInSTEM, echoes Ocon’s sentiment, but expanded the concern beyond fieldwork. They even considered queer acceptance and safety when applying to graduate programs in the first place. “I was prioritizing… the queer and trans community wherever I was going to go,” they said. “So I chose to apply to a lot of schools that were in larger cities, or cities where I just heard that they would be good.”
“Fieldwork is really the part [of geology] that isolates everybody who isn’t a white, abled man,” they continue, “because they’re the only people who are safe everywhere. We saw that with what happened in Central Park, like, birders can’t be Black.” The same worries extend to the field.
One of the reasons that the norms and expectations around fieldwork can be frustrating is because today, fieldwork is not always necessary to be a successful geoscientist. Not all subfields require going into the field and collecting rocks. The field has, in fact, evolved since the 1800s. “Many of us now don’t even do field work at all,” Ulrich says. “Somebody does fieldwork, but then we get data and are doing modeling work, or we’re doing experiments in the lab. I feel like the way forward is like just taking the emphasis off fieldwork.”
Olcott thinks that discussing field safety in an open and equitable way is key, especially because of power hierarchies in academia that could make it harder for a graduate student to speak up for themselves. “There are solutions for whatever people’s level of comfort is,” she says. “Advisors, ideally, are educating themselves and presenting limitations matter of factly to everybody so it becomes a normal part of the process.” For advisors to address these concerns well, educational resources need to be available, sensitivity training should be required. (“A good, basic place to start,” Ocon says, “is education about how to just not be actively racist.”) To provide that sort of open, in-depth mentoring, the ‘strictly professional’ mode of advising may need to be adjusted.
“Different students are going to have different needs,” Ulrich says. “As a mentor, you’re going to need to be able to either address needs yourself or be able to refer your mentee to someone they can talk to you about their needs.” But, as Olcott says, if discussing safety and support for all students becomes part of an advisor’s “checklist,” and if good resources are available, that process should get easier with time. Just as students of one identity, like “women in STEM,” can seek out mentors and community, LGBTQ+ geoscientists should be afforded that same access.
“In order for someone to be able to just focus on their academics or their research, they need to be at a comfortable level with themselves and like have their needs met,” Ulrich says. Without the visibility and awareness that data can bring, LGBTQ+ geoscientists may remain most comfortable within a select “chosen family,” as Ulrich discusses in their talk on Wednesday at GSA, or within safe spaces like the LGBTQ+ social, as Downen describes. Ideally, mentoring and community support will evolve so that LGBTQ+ geoscientists can be comfortable everywhere within work, not only at a one-a-year social event.
At the heart of these conversations around supporting LGBTQ+ geoscientists is the basic idea that different students have different needs based on the intersection of their identities. There is no “one size fits all” solution to different inclusivity issues within geoscience, and it’s time the LGBTQ+ community has the support they need.
“Everyone’s experiences as queer are different, because it’s such a personal thing,” Ocon says. “Within every identity is its own specific set of microaggressions and experiences. Considering the intersection of identities, there’s no such thing as a cover-all. We need to have discussions for all the different underrepresented groups before we can fully say that we’ve lifted everyone up.”
“We all exist at this intersection of all of our identities that are how we navigate the world,” Ulrich says. “And no single identity-based [support] effort is going to be able to address all of those [identities] for us. So just treat your students and your colleagues like they’re human beings. That’s it.”
TALKS by authors in this post, and contact info:
169-1 – CULTIVATING BELONGING BY CENTERING PEOPLE
Session 169: Wednesday, 5:35-5:50 p.m. ET
Rob Ulrich: firstname.lastname@example.org
169-3 – PROGRESS MADE AND OUTSTANDING ISSUES REGARDING LGBTQ+ DIVERSITY IN THE GEOSCIENCES
Session 169: Wednesday, 6:05-6:20 p.m. ET
Session conveners Nicholas S. Smith (email@example.com) and Julie Colombe (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sam Ocon: email@example.com
41-3 – FIELDWORK EXPERIENCES OF THE LGBTQ+ GEOSCIENCE COMMUNITY
Monday, can watch prerecorded talk
Alison Olcott: firstname.lastname@example.org
Matt Downen: email@example.com