Ontario Science Centre celebrates first ever International Pride in STEM day

The Ontario Science Centre hosted its first International Pride in STEM day on Thursday to help LGBT people feel included in STEM fields and workplaces

Event is aimed at helping LGBT people feel included in STEM fields and workplaces

Rob Windisman as his alter ego, Drag Queen Conchita from Toronto’s drag comedy trio B-Girlz. Windisman has his master’s degree in engineering and is a graduate of the Ontario Science Centre Science School.

Rob Windisman says when he was finishing his undergraduate degree in engineering science at the University of Toronto, his first job didn't feel like the right fit.

"I went for a job interview for a large computer company and they showed me where I'd be sitting, who I'd be working with — and they just seemed so straight and suburban," he said.

That happened in the 80s. Now, aged 53 and known as Drag Queen Conchita from Toronto's drag comedy trio B-Girlz, Windisman says times have definitely changed as workplaces have become more diverse.

However, for people in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields — it's still an issue.

That's why the Ontario Science Centre hosted an event Thursday called the International Pride in STEM day.

 It included speakers and government representatives who talked about ethical issues, such as gendering robots and representation in STEM fields.

The initiative was started by a number of LGBT scientists in the U.K. who'd experienced homophobia in their field, according to Jefferson Darrell, media relations officer at the Ontario Science Centre.

Darrell was instrumental in bringing the concept to the science centre. He's been active in creating its diversity inclusion action team and anti-racism action team.

"When you're looking through the world in very different lenses, you actually bring a unique perspective when you're trying to find solutions and solve problems," he said.

Discrimination in STEM workplaces still exists

Alexander Dow, 23, vice president of EngiQueers Canada, a non-for-profit organization that promotes and advocates for the inclusion of LGBT students in engineering schools, spoke at the event about his own experiences.

"I was a site inspector," he said. "I had an altercation with a contractor who refused to listen to what I was saying because I was someone who was gay."

Dow says the majority of those employed in engineering and STEM fields are typically heterosexual white males. He says that discourages not only women but minorities from entering the field.

According to a survey conducted by the American Physical Society, a third of LGBT physicists in the U.S. have been advised to remain in the closet. The same study found that 50 per cent of trans/gender non-conforming people were harassed in their department.

"There are people out there within the profession that don't necessarily support who we are and what we try and do," said Dow.

Windisman says it's why he left the STEM field and pursued a career in television. At the time, he says he didn't really have support systems to help guide him through school.

"I had no peers at that time to talk about this," he said. "A friend of mine in engineering, we were both gay but we never talked about it. I only found out way after the fact."

However, Windisman says he's optimistic. Seeing all of the students speak at the event and how things have changed gives him hope for the future.

"It feels really awesome," he said.

"To have an LGBTQ+ presence in engineering schools across the country through EngiQueers is really interesting and really important."