The support required to make LGBTQ+ members of the community safe is never universal, especially for those who want a career in STEM. This awareness is especially important when we look at intersecting identities, whether that’s race, class or gender. In today’s conversation, Dr Craig Poku (he/they; @C_Poku93) will be joined by Dr Nuzhat Tabassum (she/her; @ThenSheAppears) and Ashar Aslam (he/they; @Ashar_A_Aslam) to discuss what this support would involve when it comes to the South Asian community.
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00:00:00 Craig Welcome to the Pride in STEM Podcast, a series centered around bringing forward the voices of those who face barriers within the LGBTQ+ community. I’m your host, Dr. Craig Poku, a Black British queer scientist who goes by he/they pronouns. We want to mark the International Day of LGBTQIA+ people in STEM with important conversations from different members of our rainbow community. that will provide insights, highlight barriers, and discuss solutions in the context of STEM, both within the United Kingdom and Ireland.
In this episode, we’ll be focusing our discussion on queer representation in the Southeast Asian community. The support required to ensure that LGBTQ+ members of the community feel safe are never universal, and this is especially important when we look at our intersecting identities, whether that’s race, class, gender, or sexuality. Today’s discussion will be applying an intersectional lens to this important topic, and joining me today have the wonderful Nuzhat and Ashar who will be able to be bringing both their experiences and insight onto this topic. So to begin, can you both tell me a bit about yourselves?
00:01:03 Nuzhat Okay. Hi, I’m Nuzhat Tabassum. Just to start off with my journey, I was born in Bangladesh to a Bangladeshi mom and an Indian dad. I grew up in Elephant & Castle until I moved towards [chuckles] more Southeast side of London near Kent. So I studied Natural Science at Cambridge University where I initially wanted to study physics but I ended up falling in love with earth sciences, and I ended up doing a PhD in Geology at Bristol University where I was studying diamond inclusions and what that could tell us about the Earth’s interior. After that I—or during my academic experience, I noticed how much barriers there were towards—for people from minoritized background and I wanted to work in education policy to try and increase the access to STEM education and career. So I worked as an Education Policy Assistant at the Royal Academy of Engineering for a year where I managed a project looking at socioeconomic status and its impact on engineering opportunities. And currently I work as a Project Officer at the Natural History Museum where I’m trying to encourage more ethnic minorities to pursue a career in natural sciences.
00:02:19 Craig Awesome. And Ashar can you give a brief introduction about yourself?
00:02:23 Ashar So I’m Ashar Aslan 00:02:24, I graduated from Oxford around two, three months ago, and I did my degree in earth science. And I recently moved up to Leeds to begin my PhD next month where I’ll be studying severe weather over the Southeast Asia using satellite and radar data, as well as a combination of different climate and forecast models. I am British Pakistani and both of my parents are from Punjab near the Panshnar region where the—all the rivers kind of meet together. And during my time at the university I was involved a lot in EDI initiatives. For example, I was on the LGBTQ+ Society Committee as a racial and ethnic minorities representative. I was also the equalities representative for the University and Geological Society so did a lot of EDI based activities while I’ve been studying. So yeah.
00:03:22 Craig Awesome. Now this is something that I find quite hilarious in the sense that by background I’m an atmospheric scientist, and when it came to putting together this discussion, it only occurred to me about a week after I emailed everybody, “Oh, so this is what we’re going to be talking about and we all earth scientists.” [chuckles] So slight coincidence, I don’t know. But anyways, here we are now. What do you think are the key barriers for say, South Asian people who want to pursue STEM, and more specifically people who also identify within the LGBTQ+ community?
00:04:00 Nuzhat So I’m going to start off by clarifying one thing. So we know that the Asian community makes up the second largest ethnic group in the UK after the white community. So approximately 7.5% of the UK population identifies as Asian and of which at least 5.3% are South Asian. I think this data is probably on the 2011 census, so it would have changed but those are approximate figures. But in my opinion the experience of South Asians in this country are very polarized, and specifically within the South Asian community I think the experiences of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis is very different to the British Indian community. And I’m going to explain this with a few stats. So let’s look at child poverty rate. We know that 29% of Bangladeshis live under income and material deprivation, and 24% of Pakistanis. 00:04:57 They are the ones that suffer from the highest income and material deprivation compared to all the other ethnic groups in this country. Now 29% and 24% is high. Compared to that, Indians in this country only 5% suffer from income and material deprivation; they suffer the least income and material deprivation. This figure is reflected in free school meal uptake, so approximately out of the South Asian group, 23.2% of Bangladeshi students and 18.7% of Pakistani students they rely on free school meals. Compared to that, only 6% of Indian students take up free school meals. And then this is also reflected in adulthood as well. So for example, when it comes to ethnicity pay gap I think Bangladeshi and Pakistani adults again have like a really high rate of pay gap. 00:06:00 So I think approximately—if I look at the figures, I think the pay gap for Pakistanis are—is 16% and then for Bangladeshis is 15%. But if you compare it to Indians, it’s a -16%. So those figures kind of show a reflection of how different the experiences are for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis compared to Indians. So when it comes to the South Asian experience it’s going to be very different for different South Asian communities. And I think that’s something that when we look at EDI initiatives it is something that we really need to consider. Because sometimes when we look at EDI figures they like to group them into Asian, Black, White. 00:06:48 And the thing is within the different ethnicities within these big racial groupings it’s really different and when we group them as such big categories we kind of wipe out the individual experiences and perhaps are not helping some of the other really marginalized communities in this country. So particularly when we’re looking at barriers for South Asians, they’re going to be—there’s going to be a barrier for everyone that’s South Asian because, you know, we are people of colour so they’re—you know, they’re all going to face some form of racism. But the experiences are going to be very—like quite different for different groups, especially when you consider the intersection between like class and race. And particularly I think that South Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are going to face higher forms of barriers compared to the Indian community in this country. So that’s just a clarification on the—when we’re talking about South Asians.
00:07:54 Craig Yeah. And Ashar, do you have anything to add to that?
00:07:58 Ashar I mean, I don’t really have the more statistical figures approach, but I think one key barrier is in South Asian cultures, grouping us all back together—because while it’s important to say it separates us into the different nationalities and ethnicities, there is this idea of like, “Okay, group us all back together,” there is this kind of shared belief that family is very important. And following what your family want from you and then—or your free future for when you say, stand on your own two feet, it’s important to follow what they would like you to do. And that brings about the notion of what’s a good career. For example, many people associate the South Asian community with saying, “Oh, in terms of the scientific career paths, they focus on medicine and engineering.” But coincidentally we’re a group of geoscientists and in the geoscience community there’s not as much South Asian representation. 00:08:58 Although in other countries such as Pakistan, areas in the West and near to the Himalayas in Kashmir where… geology is quite a big industry and it counts for a large amount of the income in the region. My friends tell me about, “Oh, it’s a glorious place where people go and they can collect ores and all that.” But in reality, in my—for example, the family just don’t know about this. And when it comes to going back to the UK you just forget all these things. What happens over in different countries. So there’s a cultural barrier of saying, “What career should I do to make my family happy? Will they understand?” Because—so to say I don’t think, like, for example, my parents truly understand what geology was because my sister did geology as well for her undergrad. 00:09:55 And they would both ask us, “So why do you have to pick up rocks? Why do you have to pick up stones? What’s the importance?” And there’s a wealth of knowledge there that they haven’t been immersed in and that’s one barrier. And then if I can carry on—
00:10:09 Craig Yeah, sure carry on.
00:10:10 Ashar —one is, is the demographics. So it goes back to separating. So we grouped South Asians together to discuss those cultural barriers, but then if you tear apart again and you get the different demographics in different parts of the UK. So where I’m from, which is Birmingham—not too distinct in my accent but there it is.
00:10:30 Craig You’re different!
00:10:31 Ashar We have a different accent at Birmingham. So for example, you have Sparkhill, which is a large Pakistani community. You have Sparkbrook, which I believe is more North African and East African. You have Handsworth, which is Hindu and Sikh. And the separation of communities is in some way a barrier in its own way, because what you find is a lot of the South Asian communities are more concentrated in the Inner City and between the Inner City and periphery of the city. And one thing I have to say to that is the access the countryside. So, because we’re geoscientists, once again, a key component was fieldwork and exposure to the outdoors. In my course I was one of two South Asian origin people, and there was thirty of us. And I never really did any fieldwork like that or had much exposure to the outdoors because one, I never really left Birmingham. 00:11:30 We didn’t really do holidays so I never really got to experience the outdoors. So when it came to doing my second year fieldwork projects, when I went to a different country I was like, “What am I doing here? What do I say to these people?” I’ve never experienced before how to mix in my own STEM journey with an experience that I’d never had before in terms of having a holiday. There’s a lot to it, and there were just so many layers there.
00:11:56 Nuzhat Can I add to that?
00:11:57 Craig Yeah, sure. Go through.
00:11:59 Nuzhat So I agree with a lot of what Ashar is saying. So—so going back to like the intersection between race and class, for example, like if we—if you look at the barriers of South Asians it pretty much does like as young as possible. So for example, like when we’re looking at education, as much as—as I’ve said already, for example, like if you’re a Pakistani or Bangladeshi you’re more likely to live and go to school in a deprived area, you’re more likely to be relying on free school meals. And we know that schools with higher rates of free school meals to students are schools that are in a more deprived area; you’re less likely to have access to good quality teachers and education. And when we just talk about good quality of teachers, we mean, like for example, teachers that have a background in what they’re teaching. 00:12:52 It makes a big difference in terms of how they teach and what kind of career guidance they can give in the material that you’re taught. So if you go to school in a more deprived area you’re more likely to have you’re—sorry, you’re less likely to have career guidance or work experience opportunities. And then like Ashar was saying, if you’re from a more working class background you’re less likely to have social and science capital that would expose you to different forms of STEM careers. So for example, like I live in London which is full of museums and we have the—some of the best museums in the world: the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the V&A. But as a kid I never really went to them because travelling within London is quite expensive, especially if you had like quite a big family. Or just like if you didn’t really have parents that were exposed to giving these kinds of social and STEM experiences. 00:13:52 I’m not sure if my parents grew up in a culture that went to museums quite a lot, or knew like, you know, to get good careers they should be doing work experience during the summer holidays and that kind of stuff. So like that kind of knowledge isn’t passed on. But if you’re from like a working class environment you are less likely to be exposed to different STEM careers, and like Ashar was saying that, we’re less likely to get support in STEM careers that are not engineering or medicine related. Because like we know that in engineering and medicine had like really stable career paths, but we also—like they’re quite prestigious within the community that we’re from, but ironically there’s not as much support within other STEM careers. So I remember like when I was a kid I wanted to study maths and my mom’s, like, reaction was like, “What are you going to do with that? Be a math teacher?” Not that there’s anything wrong with being a math teacher, like there’s a negative stigma within being—like you are into teaching in our community. 00:14:57 But just like not being—they’re not as supportive because they’re not sure what kind of job security is within like certain STEM degrees and so you have less support. So yeah. You had the lack of social and STEM capital. There was actually a study on why Bangladeshi girls in this country—like, you know, the perception of STEM careers. And one thing—I’d share, that, for example, a Bangladeshi girl is like—they were less likely to aim for a certain STEM career such as being a scientist because—one of the reasons was because like they’ll aim for careers that they knew people within their family did. 00:15:46 So, you know, they’re more interested in being a midwife, for example, because they know like aunts and sisters that are midwives, but they never would consider being a scientist because they just don’t know anyone, you know? You could only like—you could only aim to become what you can visualize yourself in, and one of the ways you like can visualize is if you can see people within your community doing those roles. So if no one within that—your community is doing that role, then you’re not going to consider it. And then I want to quickly touch on the fact that if you’re more likely to be like working class, then you’re going to have disadvantage related to financial strain. So, you know, like if you—if like your parents are struggling with money, if you’re, you know—if you’re struggling with hunger, for example, your grades are going to suffer. If you’re—if you have financial strain you’re more likely to have anxiety, and if you’re more likely to have anxiety you are more likely to have maths anxiety, for example, and that would have an impact on how comfortable you feel in STEM. 00:16:55 And that’s education barriers. And then when it comes to universities, what’s like interesting, as Ashar mentioned, like—especially like certain South Asian communities they’ve grown up among their community because ethnic minorities are more likely to be concentrated in cities. But when you go to university it might be the first time that actually you’re in an environment where you’re in a white dominated field, for example, or you’re among a more middle-class—white middle-class environment. You’re more likely to suffer from micro-aggressions or racism, you’re more—you’re not going to maybe get as much support for—if you’re suffering from mental health, from dealing with these micro-aggressions and overt racism. 00:17:44 You might have to, like—you might have to transition what kind of learning style you grew up in, for example. Or like I think particularly for like Muslim, South Asian communities, a university is heavily like entrenched in like drinking culture so, you know, you’re more likely to be in an environment that you’re not as comfortable in. Or, you know, you’re trying to thrive in an environment, you’re trying to learn to fit into a whole new environment that may not be accepting of you and that is really difficult and that will have an impact on your academic career prospects; like how well you do in your grades, but also your networking. And some of these issues in universities also like occur in the workplace. You know, micro-aggressions of quite common in the workplace, not fitting into your workplace culture. And particularly, you know, we know that senior teams in a lot of workplaces are white male dominated, and they’re likely to only promote people that fit in like this [chuckles] like white male dominated culture. 00:18:50 So those are that, those are like the barriers that are faced… from the external community, and then there’s the whole like cultural barriers within the communities as well.
00:19:04 Craig Yeah.
00:19:04 Nuzhat Particularly like—and I think Ashar has already mentioned a lot; like in terms of the expectations of careers, like family pressures. But I think I want to quickly touch on the fact that, when you’re a South Asian woman you’re particularly raised to be this quiet, obedient woman who’s maybe expected to settle down quite early on. Like I—I’m quite lucky that I’ve been raised to like put like my career first, my education and career first. But I remember at university that some like girls their priority was trying to find a husband and settle down as soon as possible. I mean, everybody’s priority is very different, but I think it’s different when it’s forced upon you, for example. 00:19:52 So, you know, if there’s the external pressure of like what your priorities should be, or like being told that you should grow up as this kind of, you know, timid, obedient woman. And the thing is being a scientist is kind of the opposite. You’re supposed to be curious, you’re supposed to be like, challenging everything. And if you’re raised to be everything that like would stop you from being a good scientist, that, you know, you have a clash of like what’s your expectation and what you want to be. So that’s another challenge and particularly when you’re a South Asian woman.
00:20:37 Craig Firstly, this has been a really interesting discussion and it’s really weird because it feels as though like a lot of the points that both of you have made kind of hit home. So for kind of context, I am Black, British, I’m half Jamaican and half Ghanaian. And there’s a couple of things I just really wants to draw on. So this idea that… the Black experience is the same for everybody, we’re aware it’s not the case. And as you’ve both described it, the South Asian experience in the UK, and in particular with STEM, is not going to be the same for everybody. And so actually having this very homogeneous way of thinking when it comes to identity and the barriers and trying to address these barriers with these groups, it’s ensuring that you don’t have that viewpoint. 00:21:28 Also, another thing as well that you both kind of touched upon is this idea of family expectation and representation, where you’re more likely to go into a career when you actually see people that kind of look like you. Because I know that for me doing a maths degree was a bit of a ‘Ah topic’ 00:21:52 because nobody—I knew nobody who kind of had done it before. And it was once I actually saw somebody who was also Black and who was also doing maths that then made me go, “Actually, this is an option I can look into.” So I guess one of the things that I wanted to ask you is—and sort of like, as a kind of like, what do you think—and… this is kind of like an open question to both of you. How do you think the lack of representation has affected your journey in STEM? And if you could provide a solution to improve that representation or improve that awareness, what would it be? So Ashar would you like to go first?
00:22:40 Ashar Yeah, so it’s kind of coming from the previous question where we were talking about barriers. So obviously I’m starting my PhD. I’ve only been on my STEM journey for about four years, you could say, so far. And I was going to—I was actually going to touch on how, although the cultural barriers and lack of representation have been there, what you realize that although there is this lack of representation, there was this instilled drive from family. While, for example, they may not fully understand what you’re doing, there is this drive, “Okay, you are going to succeed.” So while I was growing up academia and academic achievement and attainment was always—came first.
00:23:25 Craig Yeah, definitely. [chuckles]
00:23:27 Ashar And with, my parents, for example, they moved to the UK in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and they never got a chance to experience university in Pakistan. But I know they’re really clever, I saw their grades and they did really well. But what they couldn’t achieve in the UK because of the language barrier, they kind of passed on down to us to say, “Okay, for these years of your life you’re going to put your head down and you’re going to do the work and then you’ll do us proud.” Because in some way they don’t want to—they have this anxiety and they don’t want to admit that they in “failed” when in reality they did not because they brought us up and raised us to succeed. And that kind of goes against—well, it curves and in some way it supplements that kind of class barrier. 00:24:17 Because while there was, say, this issue of class and demographics, this mental like drive to say, “Okay, I have not been raised to have much experience with, say, doing things beyond—in different fields and having much exposure, but I am—I have this drive that I can like refer back to or go back to, to say, okay, yes, I’m going to go for it.” But as I was saying, I haven’t really done much STEM so far, but so I haven’t really had much of an effect on the lack of representation. But one thing I do know is that I didn’t know about earth science or geology until my sister did her degree, now doing a PhD. And that was the only reason to why I knew about the course, because when I was applying to university I was like, “Oh, do I do physics and math?” I’m like, “What do I do?” And then she was like, “Okay, have a look at what I did, do you like any of that?” I said, “Yeah, it sounds really fun.” But what I did notice from the get-go is that there are not many South Asian people in the geosciences community. 00:25:25 I know that for other STEM subjects there is a lot more representation. And what the impact and the lack of representation did was, it didn’t really affect my mental wellbeing. Because there was this idea of, “Okay micro-aggressions, these things are chucked about because people don’t understand that this has an impact, for example, certain words,” or whatever. But I never really experienced that. I sound quite lucky because I think where I went to university and the people I was with everyone was really respectful and I was really grateful for that. The one thing I did worry was, “Will I fit in academia because I don’t see many people in my field who for example are excelling?” And so I go on that because I was one of the only South Asian people in my department. There was almost this kind of—not even just South Asian, but POC, BAME, whatever the abbreviation or acronym you want to use. 00:26:24 There was sometimes onus on me to partake in all the EDI initiatives and it was really taxing and really draining. Because my experiences don’t account for everyone’s as Nuzhat and you explained earlier because we all come from a different background, and each individual background you have these lived experiences that are different from one another. For example, the Pakistani community, versus the Bengali community and the Indian community. And within those countries themselves you have the different regions. So experience of Punjab will be different to Baltistan or Sindh or Kashmir wherever you live. And I just felt sometimes like a poster boy in some way? I just—I never wanted to be that kind of person because there was a lot more to—well while my identity and ethnicity are so important, there is a lot more to me and I never want it to be exploited. And I think that’s something that I only picked up later on when I realised, “Oh, I’m doing a lot of work and why am I feeling really sad all the time?” 00:27:24 It’s because I’m doing—putting all this work for a large group of people when in reality, I’m trying to group together everyone’s experiences and trying to summarize it in one small paragraph. When, in reality as summarized while we’re talking today, you need a lot more time, a lot more pages and a lot more power to kind of… I don’t know, give representation for everyone. And that was something touch on something 00:27:52 before we go onto the solutions maybe?
00:27:54 Craig I guess for me like one of the key things that I can see as a solution from that, and I think this is really—it’s kind of critical for anybody who’s listening to this, is if you are wanting to improve representation in whatever field it is, one, you need to look at quite far back where the gap may potentially be. So both Ashar and Nuzhat have essentially kind of highlighted the fact that it’s family members who potentially may not be doing that particular degree of why, for example, they may not then decide to then go down that pathway. But also it’s just showing that if you are in a position of power or position of status or position of privilege, that you use that privilege in a way to basically enhance people who don’t have that privilege and bring them to the table. So it shouldn’t be on the minority to be focusing on bringing minorities into that space, but more importantly it should be down to the institution, and in this case the academy, to really focus on actually going, “What can we do with the power and with the finances and with the dollar that we have to actually then go, we’re not going to put that burden on.” Nuzhat, do you have any comments on that?
00:29:08 Nuzhat When it comes to solutions, I think, it’s hard to have like one solution. Because like I mentioned, the barriers come in, in several steps, and the one overarching thing I wish we could have is more honest conversations about inequalities. And it—ultimately, this lack of barriers starts really early, it starts with education, it starts with class barriers. And the biggest way we could really improve is if we start talking politics. [chuckles] If we start talking about like voting and MPs that have progressive education policies who are willing to tackle a class barriers. That’s on a political, like, overarching kind of solution. When it comes to within academia, I think different groups of people can do different things. 00:30:07 When we’re talking about academics who are PhD students and post-docs or lecturers and professors, the one thing I think that they could really do that will create a positive change is to mentor and, you know, use their privilege or use their experience or use their knowledge to support other academics from minoritized backgrounds. So like I think the biggest change or the biggest help I’ve had is when I’ve been mentored by my peers, whatever their backgrounds. I have mentors who are white men, middle class, I have mentors who are other Brown women. 00:30:52 And, you know, just doing simple things as looking over my applications for post-docs or, you know, giving me advice on like how to find a good team that would be very inclusive of people from diverse backgrounds. Like I think mentoring makes the biggest change and there’s loads of studies. For example, there’s a study on women in engineering that showed that mentoring makes a big impact on retainment of women. Particularly like being mentored by other women really increased the number of women that stayed in engineering because they have a role model. They saw someone that they identified in, in such a senior position that was normalized to stay within engineering. Being mentored by men, different studies have different outputs. But my overall view is that having as many mentors from different backgrounds is very helpful. Like maybe having a mentor who you identify with directly is good for normalizing, but—so for example, one of the reasons it’s good to have like a role model that’s from a typical academic background is because they know how to navigate. 00:32:04 They know the language that’s expected in grants, they know which—like events to go to, they know how to introduce you to their peers that might be your future research group. So I think having—you know, providing that form of mentorship to others would be the biggest—like the biggest key that someone could do on a personal level.
00:32:33 Craig Yeah. I think that you make some really excellent points and I think this comes from both of you. One of the two—one of the things that I think did definitely come out of this is, the power of mentorship, the power of being able to use your privilege to be able to increase the social mobility of marginalized groups. And more specifically if you are looking at trying to improve representation, what can you do on the personal level as well ensuring that we also have discussions like this. One thing to note is that, this has been a very short discussion and we’ve only been able to scratch the surface, but I do hope that this is the beginning to much more in depth discussions. So with that in mind, I—this is the end of the episode. So I’d really like to say, thank you very much to both Nuzhat and Ashar for an excellent discussion. This has not only be really insightful for me, but I think this will be insightful for our listeners. 00:33:28 And I hope that as a listener you are not only able to take away some of these key messages, but you can also pass them on to your friends, families, and also people that you all know could be directly in power and not only that as well, and also have the power to make change. So with that in mind, I’ve been your host Craig Poku and this has been the Pride in STEM podcast. And with that, good-bye