Diversity is a huge strength: Cameron Hall

Diversity is a huge strength: Cameron Hall

“Science and Engineering both really benefit from diverse perspectives, and developing scientists and engineers really benefit from seeing more role models like themselves.”

To celebrate LGBTQ+ in STEM Day, we talked to Cameron Hall, a lecturer in Engineering Maths and also the Faculty’s LGBTQ+ representative. We asked him to tell us about himself, and about how the Faculty of Engineering and the people within it can support LGBTQ+ people to belong here and to excel within their roles or studies.

Who are you, both in and outside of work?

In work, I’m a mild-mannered mathematician with a great enthusiasm for practical, collaborative, applied mathematics. I like doing applied mathematics, I like teaching practical modelling skills, and I take a certain satisfaction in seeing things running smoothly. Outside of work, I’m still fairly mild-mannered, but I spread my enthusiasm over a much more diverse range of interests, including (but not limited to) rock climbing, blues dancing, choral singing, and all sorts of fun things that are difficult or impossible to do these days. Oh, and I’m considerably more sexually attracted to men than women – while it’s not always my favourite term, I normally round myself to “gay” for simplicity.

How did you get here (to UoB and this role)?

When I was a postdoctoral researcher in Oxford, I got to know various people from the Bristol Engineering Maths department through collaborative work at Applied Mathematics workshops/hackathons called Study Groups with Industry. I knew already that UoB was doing excellent research, but I got particularly excited when I heard from the Engineering Maths people that their undergraduate degree has a focus on developing the design and interpretation skills required for practical applied Maths rather than just the technical skills. Since I also had several friends living in Bristol and loving it, I was very keen to apply when an Engineering Maths lecturing job was advertised!

What is your role within the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee/action groups/work?

I’m the LGBTQ+ Network rep on the Faculty EDI committee, and I’ve recently joined the action group on Future and Current Students and become the Engineering Maths department point of contact for EDI. I feel that ensuring Engineering is inclusive and welcoming is extremely important, so I’m really happy to be able to contribute to the committees and more generally.

What barriers are common for people who share the same Protected Characteristic as you? Have you experienced these barriers (or others) yourself?

I always find this an interesting question to reflect on personally because sexuality can be a much less visible protected characteristic than (say) race or gender. For some LGBTQ+ people, our protected characteristic can be kept reasonably private until we choose to mention it; often, that means that we can avoid any possible barriers by just sailing under them. While doing this, we sometimes get to hear people using casually homophobic or transphobic language that they might not have used if they knew a queer person was listening. While rare, this is definitely something that I’ve encountered in academic circles, and it probably contributes to the fact that I’m naturally fairly quiet about sexuality at work. (That and the fact that coming out all the time is tiring and feels a bit unnecessary and awkward in a lot of contexts.)

For many LGBTQ+ people, it’s much harder to fly under the radar. And while I like to imagine that academia is now a very accepting community around gender and sexuality, this isn’t always true. I have trans* friends in academia who have had a very difficult time getting some other academics to take them seriously, and who have had people seem to pay more attention to their gender expression than to their academic work. Over the years, I have also occasionally overheard dismissive comments about specific gay academics that made me think that being visibly LGBTQ+ can still be a barrier in academia and especially in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM). I feel that this might be similar to the experience of some women in STEM; they might be the target of dismissive comments (even if not to their faces), or people might get caught up on the simple fact that someone is a woman in STEM without properly engaging with their work. I feel that things are probably a lot better than they have been in the past, but life is not all smooth sailing.

I would like to know more about the experience today of LGBTQ+ students, particularly in STEM subjects. I would especially like know what barriers students are experiencing and about what I can do as an LGBTQ+ academic to be a good support and role model. It’s difficult – on one hand it seems really weird to bring up any conversations about sexuality, but on the other hand I feel it’s important for people to see both the diversity in STEM and the diversity in the LGBTQ+ community. There are lots of different ways of being LGBTQ+, and I want students to be able to see that LGBTQ+ and STEM identities are not incompatible. When I was a student, it took me quite a while to come to any level of self-awareness around my sexuality, and I feel that part of that was that I knew very few people who were out, especially in the STEM environment I was in. As a result, I feel strongly about the value of role models, even if I’m not always sure of the best way to be one.

How do people within the ‘category’ differ? Would you consider it a heterogenous ‘category’? Does the ‘category’ help or hinder? What language or terminology works for you/others?

We LGBTQ+ people are a very heterogeneous category! And I feel that this diversity is a huge strength. One of the joys of spending time in LGBTQ+ company is that there are no strong assumptions on how you should present yourself, how you should perceive yourself, or how you should order your life and relationships.

For me, the breadth of the LGBTQ+ category is a great help, and I like the fact that there is a definite “plus” to indicate that this inclusivity stretches beyond the categories that people are currently using frequently. Personally, I really like the use of the word “queer” as an umbrella term (and even as a preferred term for self-identification) because it’s so open to different interpretations and presentations. That said, I know that not everybody likes “queer” because of its frequent use as a derogatory term, which is hopefully becoming more a thing of the past. I normally default to “LGBTQ+” if I’m endeavouring to be as inclusive as possible.

How can individuals help people who face the barriers you have described in a useful way?

In academic circles, I don’t feel that there are huge barriers at the moment, but I may just be being very naïve about this. I think the biggest thing that people can do to help is just be generous and open-minded. That’s not about worrying about “politically correct language” or anything like that, it’s more a matter of appreciating that anybody you know could be LGBTQ+ and that LGBTQ+ people can do anything. We are a diverse community and we can present ourselves in a whole range of different way – we are scientists, engineers, artists, and more; we are people of all ethnicities, faiths, genders, and classes; we are people who appear similar to familiar stereotypes and we are people who are very different from stereotypes.

I always find it a bit difficult to work out what I feel is important for allies to do, but essentially the key is to help create environments where people are comfortable to be themselves and don’t feel that they’ll be excluded for revealing anything about themselves. I’m sure there’s more that someone more eloquent could add, but I feel that if you’re building a genuinely inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and involved, you’ll be doing your bit to support LGBTQ+ people.

What can workplaces/institutions do to reduce these barriers in the short/medium/long term?

I suppose this goes down to the points about building a genuinely inclusive environment discussed above. On the very basic level, it’s a matter of making it very clear that people shouldn’t be rude to each other or be insulting to any generic “outside group”. Especially when it comes to jokes/insults against LGBTQ+ people (or equally people of faith or people with other characteristics that aren’t necessarily visible), someone might think they’re making a joke about an “outside group”, but we will often be there in the room without them realising… More positively, and longer term, I think workplaces can do more to encourage opportunities for people to be open about their sexuality and gender identity and what it means for them. It will be good to see UoB continuing to promote and support LGBT-STEM day, Bristol Pride, Transgender Day of Remembrance, and other events and commemorations.

What have you seen happen so far that has made a difference (either at individual or institutional level)?

One highlight for me was last year’s LGBT-STEM day, where UoB and Bristol Pride got together to put on Pride of Science, based on the well-established Pint of Science model. Once we’re past the pandemic, I would really like to see this develop as an annual and expanded event. Last year’s event was a lot of fun where I got to be part of a group of people speaking about our research, and about our own experiences of being LGBTQ+ in STEM.

On an individual level, I also feel very fortunate to be in a very friendly and welcoming department. I’m not always sure how “out at work” I am (given that sexuality is a weird thing to talk about at work), but I remember feeling very comfortable mentioning my sexuality in an informal “get to know you” chat with Tony Mulholland when he started as Head of Department. I’m also going to be taking part in a “Pride in STEM” event organised by the Bristol Engineering Maths Society (BEMS) for LGBT-STEM day today, which should be good fun!

Do you attend any staff networks? If so, why are they useful?

I do get involved with the LGBTQ+ Staff Network, although I haven’t been to all that much and I feel guilty as I write this because I owe them an email about something I should be organising… The staff network has been great for getting to know people and just spending some more time in LGBTQ+ company. I’ve been to some socials with the staff network, including ones which have been run jointly with other LGBTQ+ staff networks. The network has been very active over the pandemic with coffee mornings, drawing classes, Netflix parties, and so on, and I really should engage with them more. (!)

What are the main actions you’d like to see your team/faculty/university do next to make real progress on these issues?

I am only one person, and I feel like I’d need to know more about the experiences of other LGBTQ+ staff and students to have a better idea of what the next steps should be for the university. Personally, I feel like my big priority would be to make LGBT-STEM Day better known in Engineering. I think last year the Science faculty had a bake-off to celebrate LGBT-STEM day. I’d love to see something like that in Engineering, or just other informal events to promote LGBTQ+ people in STEM and give us more of an opportunity to be “out” in STEM in a comfortable and supportive way.

What advice would you give to someone who shares this identity – in its multiple forms – in considering similar careers?

Go for it. Science and Engineering both really benefit from diverse perspectives, and developing scientists and engineers really benefit from seeing more role models like themselves. You should go for it for yourself and go for it for future generations. The more we have strong and visible role models from every background, the more we can spread the word that Science and Engineering is for everybody and the more we can improve the quality of our Science and Engineering.