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Concordia postdocs draw attention to the impact of COVID-19 on transgender scientists

A letter published in Science advocates for respecting pronouns and chosen names, supporting trans scientists’ career development and challenging harmful perspectives in the field
September 4, 2020
By Kelsey Rolfe

Left: Smiling person with long brown hair, wearing a black cardigan. Right: Smiling person with short blond hair, wearing a suit and tie. From left: Lilian Sales and Shaun Turney.

Two Concordia postdocs are highlighting the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on transgender scientists in a recently published letter in the academic journal Science.

Shaun Turney, Lilian Sales and eight co-authors from Brazilian universities and the Kunhã Asé Network of Women in Science say the crisis has magnified existing challenges within the discipline and broader society and sparked conversations among scientists about creating a more equitable and inclusive community.

The group conducts science outreach action targeted at young women and girls and monitors and supports women already in the profession.

“Transgender scientists should be a part of these conversations to ensure that their needs are recognized as we strive to make science more diverse and inclusive,” the letter says.

Turney is an insect ecologist studying ant ecology and Sales is a Horizon 2020 postdoctoral fellow. They met when Sales joined the labs of Pedro Peres-Neto, Concordia professor of biology, and Jean-Philippe Lessard, Concordia associate professor of biology, at the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science. Sales is working in one Brazilian lab and remotely in two Concordia labs due to the pandemic.

She holds a PhD in ecological evolution and works on global ecology and conservation biogeography. She is studying the impacts of climate change on biodiversity, deforestation of the Amazon, alien species invasion and ecosystem services.

Sales was already affiliated with the Kunhã Asé Network, which recently published a letter in Nature Ecology and Evolution about the effects of the pandemic on minority groups including women scientists, early-career scientists, researchers from the Global South and disabled people. The group wanted to build on that work by looking at the pandemic’s impact on transgender scientists, and Sales invited Turney to co-author the piece.

“The pandemic has highlighted and increased different systems of oppression that are intersectional. After our first letter addressing how the pandemic could affect minority groups, we realized that trans people were not being included in the discussion,” Sales says. “When I met Shaun, he was very interested in this discussion and had a personal perspective to share.”

She notes the letter was co-authored by four trans and six cisgender scientists.

‘An outsized share of the poverty, disease and exclusion from science’

The letter explains that transgender people face several barriers to success in the sciences, including a cisnormative science curriculum, bullying and a lack of family support during youth, which contribute to higher dropout rates for trans students. They also experience harassment and mental-health challenges in university and the workplace.

Trans people are often denied health care, an issue likely exacerbated as countries’ medical systems deal with the pandemic. They’re often disadvantaged by biases in hiring decisions, and those with less-established careers may be more vulnerable to pandemic-related funding cuts and firings.

“The disruptions caused by COVID-19 have likely burdened transgender scientists with an outsized share of the poverty, disease and exclusion from science,” Turney, Sales and their co-authors write.

However, they argue, this moment presents an opportunity to create a profession that’s welcoming of all gender identities. The authors advocate for respecting chosen names and pronouns, speaking out against anti-trans policies and laws and actively challenging harmful perspectives within the profession.

Institutions should also play a role by developing inclusive name-change policies, allocating funding to support trans scientists’ career development and broadening access to inclusive health care.

“We’re trying to build a healthier environment in academia that’s more accepting of people’s individualities. We finish the letter saying that the post-pandemic world gives us a window of opportunity to rethink what we want the science community to be and the kind of collaboration we want to build,” Sales says.

“As we resume our activities in the lab and our universities, we have this opportunity to rethink stereotypes, rethink our institutional spaces to embrace different gender identities and other individual needs — for example people with disabilities, or to include children in our working spaces to support working parents. It is possible. We don’t need to exclude what is different to create a working environment.”

‘Scientists are people too and all people have biases’

Turney earned his master’s degree on Lyme disease ecology at McGill University, particularly examining the role of ticks in transmission. That work drove his interest in arthropods and insects. He completed his PhD at McGill studying spider ecology under the supervision of Chris Buddle, a professor of natural resource sciences.

He has since worked in the Yukon and authored papers on ecological questions including the effects of road proximity on arthropod communities and how species interactions are associated with methane and carbon dioxide gas fluxes.

Today, Turney is using data sets on ants collected from 50 locations in North and Central America to learn why so many, or so few, species of ants are found in particular locations.

Turney says he’s been very blessed to face little overt transphobia throughout his career and to work with open, accepting colleagues. But he worries about his future career in a highly competitive industry, made even more so by a pandemic that has forced layoffs and hiring freezes at universities across the world.

“My colleagues have always been very open-minded and accepting, I think that’s a common trait in scientists — the culture is typically very open-minded. That being said, scientists are people too and all people have biases,” he says.

“Everyone applying to faculty positions is qualified; they have a PhD, published papers and teaching experience. A hiring committee would be very justified in choosing many different people, and that’s the kind of situation where unconscious bias can play a huge role,” he adds.

“I worry that that is playing a role in my difficulty finding work — it’s really hard to say when it comes to bias like that. What is just ‘it’s hard to find work’ and what is people looking at me and saying, ‘you don’t look like what I think a professor should look like’?”

Reflecting on the letter in Science, Turney points to a comment from United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, who described the pandemic as an X-ray, “revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the society we have built.”

He says that concept is exactly why he and his co-authors decided to write the letter.

“Transgender scientists, like other marginalized groups, have certain challenges in normal times and the pandemic is really revealing those issues and making them worse. This is an interesting moment to be talking about those problems that were there before and continue to be here,” he says.

“We’re all away from our workplaces, so it just seems like a good moment to take a step back and look at our scientific culture. Things are going to be different when we go back to our universities. It would be great if we could make it different in an intentional way.”

The letter, "Support transgender scientists post–COVID-19" appears in the September 4, 2020, edition of the journal


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