A nonbinary grad student’s guide to navigating STEM

Writing a how-to guide for navigating STEM as a nonbinary grad student who uses they/them pronouns should come easily to me as a nonbinary grad student, right? I’ve hosted multiple “Trans and Nonbinary in Academia” panel workshops, I’m president of the Queer Grad Club, and I have years of lived experience… so it should be no problem, right? Well, not really; it turns out that, like many things in academia, figuring out what I want to share in this piece has been a (fun) challenge. What makes writing about navigating STEM as a nonbinary person tricky is that there are a lot of factors outside of our control as grad students.

I only started to understand how to best interact with my environment and navigate interpersonal dynamics to find safety and support in my department after hearing Ezra J. Kottler speak at one of the Tea4T ‘Trans in Academia’ panels I hosted at McGill. We can more easily influence our relationships with people we work with than change the policies of our universities. So, my guide is divided into three parts: my personal story, interpersonal dynamics, and institutional policies and practices.

My story: coming out in grad school “accidentally”

Starting grad school, I didn’t know if I should come out as non-binary to my lab mates, advisor, and others in my department. At the time, both they/them and gendered pronouns in my personal life and decided to keep my nonbinary gender under wraps in the lab. However, as I continued to explore and better understand my gender, I became increasingly uncomfortable being perceived as my gender assigned at birth. I exclusively used they/them in my personal life and online circles but didn’t know how to talk to people at work about my pronouns. I constantly debated whether it was better to continually be misgendered because people didn’t know the truth or to risk still being misgendered after I told people. It weighed heavily on my mind and caused a lot of stress—one of the cognitive burdens trans folks deal with daily. However, there was a third option I hadn’t dared to dream of—being accepted by my colleagues and misgendered rarely.

One day, walking to the metro after work, my advisor asked if I preferred they/them pronouns. He saw I had updated my Twitter handle and wondered if I wanted to make this change offline. I was caught off guard but relieved. For months I had stressed about bringing the topic up, and now it was out in the open. When I added they/them to my Twitter profile, I forgot I had connected with people from the lab who would see it. Subconsciously I must have known it could happen, and maybe I even secretly wished for it. In any case, it allowed the conversation to start without me having to make the first move. Now, I am completely out at the lab and the people I work closely with know and respect my gender. I’m still misgendered by others who don’t know me as well, but unfortunately, I think that is part of existing outside the gender binary in our society.

Everyone’s journey through STEM and experiences coming out will differ. But one thing that is always true is that everyone deserves to be respected and have their gender accepted and recognized. The experience with my advisor helped me realize that I could let people know about my pronouns without telling them directly. When I came out at work, I shared my pronouns everywhere I could think of—in my Zoom name, email signature, Slack profile, and more. I showed up to the lab wearing my favorite “they/them” hoodie and put my pronouns on the title slide of my presentations. I wanted to give people the opportunity to learn my pronouns without a direct conversation. Some people noticed my efforts, and others didn’t. Some people even started sharing their pronouns in those same spaces as an act of solidarity and inclusion. On National Coming Out Day a few months later, I used the occasion as an excuse to send an email explicitly asking my lab mates to only use gender-neutral language for me. This provided an opportunity for people to ask questions in a respectful way—some of my lab mates even asked if I would want them to correct people for me.

Maddy Shred wearing their favorite hoodie.

Interpersonal dynamics: finding support, coming out, and navigating relationships

It’s important to look for supportive people, aka “allies,” in your department who can help advocate for you—whether that is a supervisor, another mentor, a lab mate, or a friend. This way, you won’t shoulder the burden of coming out alone and you will have people to lean on and even spread the word for you: Let your support person know if you want them to share the news, if you would want them to correct others, and how to refer to you in front of other people. Coming out can be a process, and it can be incredibly helpful to start with one support person and then open up to others as you feel comfortable. My advisor helped me inform my supervisory committee and seeing my they/them pronouns used in my committee meeting feedback report was incredibly affirming.

The key thing, in my opinion, is to have conversations with people you work with regularly. These conversations can be in person, via email, Slack, or something else. Your lab mates, collaborators, supervisory committee, and others with whom you form professional working relationships all need to know how to refer to you more than someone you only interact with in passing. Sometimes, they won’t understand your pronouns right away or they may slip up. But the good thing about working in STEM is you are surrounded by people whose job is to take in new information and integrate it into their understanding of the world. They can learn to do better. If you’re not comfortable approaching them directly, you can ask your support person to reach out on your behalf. For example, I corrected the students I worked with on a student council when they misgendered me but chose to ignore it when a speaker we invited did the same.

As for other people whom you encounter in your day-to-day life as a scientist, you can choose whether to come out to them directly or not. It can be draining to constantly come out or correct people. It’s okay to choose the path of least resistance when you want to, even though you deserve respect and to be referred to correctly. There’s an internal question that we constantly ask: Is the emotional and mental effort of correcting people worth the possibility of being misgendered less? Unfortunately, when you live outside the gender binary it’s rare to be respected and seen for who you are without coming out. I sometimes feel like if someone knows nothing about me but my name, why does it matter if they know my gender? They might make incorrect assumptions about me, but it doesn’t change who I am. I choose to focus on talking with the people who I interact with regularly and who are important for my success as a grad student instead.

Another important thing, though, is to have a plan to decompress and take care of yourself if you are misgendered—have a quiet place to go, a friend to talk with, or a support network. Many schools have queer and/or trans student groups where you can connect with others who may have had similar experiences. I recommend attending events by these groups and joining online trans groups, like the International Society for Non-Binary Scientists, Trans PhD Network, and following other #TransInSTEM folks on Twitter. Connecting with other trans scientists and grad students has helped me be more confident and outspoken about my own experiences in STEM. I hope that by being visible as a nonbinary grad student I can help others see themselves pursuing advanced degrees and know they can be accepted and respected in academia.

Institutional policies and practices: Existing outside the gender binary

Unfortunately, many other factors go into our experiences as trans and nonbinary people in STEM besides interpersonal dynamics. As grad students, we belong to multiple institutions that have their own histories, priorities, and policies—our universities, professional societies, and more. Some environments are more trans-friendly than others. Many organizations will have EDI (equity, diversity, inclusion) statements, but actions speak much louder than words. There are some things you can look for when deciding whether a space or institution might be safe for you. These include trans-inclusive design of forms and webpages, easy access to gender-neutral washrooms, inclusive name change policies, and anti-discrimination policies that explicitly name transphobia. Visible actions like these indicate that care has been taken to address the needs of trans and nonbinary staff and students.

Many of these things can be achieved through student activism and institutional reform if they don’t exist already, but it can take a lot of time, effort, organizing, and morale you might not have. I would love to advocate for an easily accessible gender-neutral washroom in my research building but I know it will be a difficult, time-consuming, discouraging road. More academics in executive, administrative, and tenured roles need to become allies who proactively work to improve their organizations to prevent the burden of change-making from weighing solely on trans and nonbinary individuals.

One of the best ways to support trans and nonbinary grad students is to pay grad students living wages. Many grad student stipends are at or below the poverty line, forcing them to draw on family support; However, many trans people face family rejection and cannot draw on such resources. Trans people also tend to experience increased poverty rates due to other socio-economic factors. In addition, gender-affirming care, legal name changes, and other transition related costs, such as binders, voice training, laser hair removal, and gender-affirming clothing create additional financial burdens for trans people. Often, university health insurance plans inadequately address the healthcare needs of trans students. Providing resources, medical leave, and insurance coverage for gender-affirming healthcare, including hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgeries, can help trans students thrive. Additionally, better mental health care access at universities is important to address the higher rates of mental illness in trans people due to all these psychosocial burdens.

Normalizing the sharing of pronouns at events can help nonbinary people feel welcome and remind others to not assume what pronouns other attendees use. Introducing speakers with their pronouns and talking to people about why sharing pronouns is important at the start of an event can make attendees more aware and likely to participate in pronoun sharing. However, it’s important to never require pronouns to be shared: Trans people who are not out yet could be forced to out or misgender themselves. As someone who uses they/them pronouns, I would love to see more cis people sharing their pronouns on conference name badges and email signatures, Zoom names, and title slides. Furthermore, it’s important to not limit how people can express their gender in professional environments through clothing and makeup. Being able to dress comfortably, express oneself, be out, and take actions to limit gender dysphoria provides trans and nonbinary individuals with the mental freedom to focus on their research.

In academic environments, I have never been asked about my pronouns or addressed with gender-neutral language by someone I just met. I wish people in STEM were more aware of how important it is not to assume a person’s gender, and of the challenges their trans and nonbinary colleagues face. Evidently, there are many institutional and systemic barriers to success and inclusion for nonbinary people in STEM, and it will require concentrated efforts to increase awareness, acceptance, and inclusion. But change can start at any level. If many people are creating safe bubbles in their labs and departments, eventually universities and other academic institutions can become safe bubbles too. As more people start talking about the challenges of trans and nonbinary people in STEM, simple acts such as using people’s pronouns properly can go a long way. I know that together we can create an environment in our universities and professional societies where inclusivity and respect for nonbinary people is the norm.

About the Author:

Maddy Shred is a nonbinary PhD candidate at McGill University studying the microtubule cytoskeleton. They are an organizer for the McGill Queer Grad Club and Tea4T, a student group for trans and nonbinary staff and students at McGill. Website and contact: https://maddyshred.carrd.co