Bisexuals in STEM Need Support and Representation

I still can’t see myself in role models or dream jobs.

by Emily Cobbs on September 6th, 2016

In Michigan, if you get a degree in mechanical engineering, people will A) assume you’ll get a job and B) ask which car company you’ll be working for. If you don’t work for the Big Three (Ford, GM, Chrysler), you’ll work for a supplier, making plastic cup-holders or testing truck doors, or fixing the machines that make plastic cup-holders and test truck doors. In some places parents might tell children to be a doctor or a lawyer, but in Michigan, to be an engineer in the auto industry is the definition of a “good job.”

The people who work on cars are not soft. The people who work on cars have been doing it their entire lives. They rebuilt cars with their dads when they were thirteen. They bought a lemon from a used car dealership and fixed it up so it drove like lemonade. They applied to internships that said “We prefer you to be mechanically inclined”, whatever the hell that means.

The people who work on cars are men. And the people who work on cars aren’t gay, or bi, or trans, or queer. So I tell myself, You cannot be bisexual. You’re getting this mechanical engineering degree, and you’ll end up in a Detroit suburb working for the industry.

Rows of hundreds of cars lined up in Detroit for transport on a railway.

Public domain image by Joe Clark.

I go to college. I’m surrounded by men and puffed-up masculinity everyday, annoying at best, suffocating at worst. My classmates are men, my professors are men, my mentors are men.

I’m one of maybe two women in my program.

I don’t join the women’s group on my engineering campus. The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) promotes heavily. I should join, if only for networking purposes. But I’m scared and resistant. I’m still struggling with my sexuality, and though I’m not saying it consciously, I’m wondering: Are all these women straight?

When my classmates get girlfriends, I congratulate them. But relationships never seem like an option to me, like I’m waiting for something. I date one woman in five years. She’s short and cute with a beautiful smile, and interesting. We meet online and she doesn’t go to my college. The first date is coffee and the second is walking through a nature preserve, her tiny dog for company.

She invites me to visit her working PrideFest that weekend. I never show. I’m convinced someone will see me before I’m ready – whatever that means. I’m convinced people will assume I’m gay and I’ll have to spend the whole time correcting people, trying not to sound like I’m justifying my attraction to women by saying I’m attracted to men, too.

I come out to a few people. I have queer friends at school, but they’re all involved in marching band, music, or education. There’s no queer group at the engineering campus. I’m living in two different worlds, one devoted to the arts and one to sciences. I can’t come out in one and stay hidden in the other. I’m not good at keeping things separate and I’d mess up too easily. I tell myself it’s only half a lie, though bisexuality can’t be split down the middle.  

Closets within closets is nothing new. I never consider Michigan a safe space, even when the Supreme Court ruling goes through. We’re a purple state: some of it has excellent jobs, but no laws protecting sexual orientation in the hiring process or workplace. As graduation comes closer, I think about getting a great job only to lose it when I talk about a girlfriend. I worry about this essay and what future employers will think. I think about awkward conversations with male mentors who may not accept queer people as valid. Will I lose referrals? Will I lose any hope of a letter of recommendation, torpedo any networking prospects?

I graduate with nothing at all settled. It takes me another three years to come out to family and all my friends.

I don’t have a set plan for after here, but I know I want to stop lying (by omission, or otherwise) about my bisexuality. I imagine a life in California, where despite a cost of living that makes me cry, I’ll be better off if I have a girlfriend. I imagine New York, where though I’ll deal with hot garbage-smell summers and miniscule 28th floor living spaces, I can find solace in queer spaces. But bisexuals get treated badly there, too, and the marginalized don’t have such a good time in the tech world either.

I wonder what an inclusive STEM education would look like. I was surprised to find an organization called Out in STEM  (oSTEM) which seems to fill the need for support on campus. oSTEM works on networking, outreach, and mentorship for LGBT+ students. It’s fairly new, and started in 2009, after I began my degree. Though I never heard about the group during college, I want a chapter at every engineering school in the country. Right now, there’s only fifty.

Large sculptures of dandelions beneath a bridge, surreal in a fading light.

Photo CC-BY goodsophism.

When I think about my experiences, I know the importance of having queer people on engineering faculty and staff, so that real mentors are less like four-leaf clovers and more like dandelions. I shouldn’t fear that talking to professors will burn me down the line because they’re unprepared or outright hostile to my existence. Queer students deserve support and representation too.

I think about what it’s like after school, and how I’m tired of clicking around a website trying to find a tiny tab labeled “diversity,” trying to read between the lines if that’s part of company values. I want to know the policies and practical applications of acceptance. I know that explicit acceptance is more than a phrase.

Then I think about how little we know about the queer experience in tech. I want statistics on how many queer people start and stay in STEM fields, so we can know if outreach is working and adapt accordingly. This has been done with other diversity initiatives, and it’s time we did it for queer people, too.  

Despite the success of #ILookLikeAnEngineer, I still can’t see myself in role models or dream jobs. It’s hard to look at undergraduate programs, job descriptions or website stock photos and parse out whether they’ll be welcoming spaces. If there are prominent bisexual women in tech, they’re working quietly, without much fanfare. Without clear, specific people to look up to, many bi women will probably never go into STEM. It’s hard to carve out a place where there doesn’t seem to be room. I want to see myself represented in my field, but STEM programs have to put in a concentrated effort to attract and keep queer people. Otherwise we’ll go somewhere else.