For young people coming up through the range of FIRST programs, there are stereotypes about the kinds of people who participate in robotics, including assumptions about everything from race and gender to body type and intellect. It’s visible in how team members interact with each other, in the ways that mentors treat their students, and even in how students are treated by non-participants.
In the same way that blatant acts of homophobia can make LGBTQ+ students feel unwelcome, reinforcing stereotypes about skill and talent has the effect of making STEM feel inaccessible for certain demographics.
This organization was created by a group of students who felt that their needs weren’t being met within the FIRST community. In those first days, many of us rallied around the fact that we felt we were being pushed into certain roles specifically because we were LGBTQ+. We were taken less seriously than our straight/cis counterparts because of misconceptions our fellow students and mentors had about us. We were passed over for opportunities or treated differently by those around us.
These issues were specifically relevant for LGBTQ+ men and trans individuals. It’s important to note that these experiences are similar to the experiences of women in STEM, regardless of sexual orientation. It boils down to the perception of the role masculinity plays in the STEM community. Despite continuing efforts to make STEM more accessible, it is still a predominantly male field. Many stereotypes about LGBTQ+ men and trans individuals target their failure to achieve society’s expectations of masculinity. This failure is translated into internalized biases about their skills and talents.
In action, it’s the assumption that an LGBTQ+ person can’t perform certain tasks as well as a straight/cisgender person, so they should be delegated to different things. Often, they’re moved away from things like mechanical and fabrication, the traditionally “masculine” roles on a team, because of the belief that they won’t be interested or won’t do as well.
Limitations are placed on what students can accomplish by assuming what they’ll be interested in or skilled at based on sexuality or gender identity. By categorizing or treating students differently based on these factors, access to opportunities is cut off.
When I joined a FIRST team, I was almost immediately funneled into the business aspects of the team. My desire to learn how to design and fabricate was slowly stifled, because I was assigned busy work while my straight male teammates learned important skills. Alternatively, I was given every opportunity to take initiative within awards and documentation, a section of the team my mentors thought I’d do better in. Eventually, I gave up trying to be actively involved in the mechanical elements, because I felt like I was ramming my head against a wall. Instead, I poured my time and energy into the things that my teammates and mentors let me do without any opposition.
This type of environment deters LGBTQ+ students from being involved in FIRST and pursuing careers in STEM. When spaces feel constrictive or discriminatory, people don’t want to stay. When these students are treated differently or pushed into certain aspects of their teams, the message sent is that they don’t belong.
By reinforcing stereotypes, spaces become increasingly homogenized, stifling diversity and making those who are different feel unwelcome. Students who would have excelled are driven away, because those around them are saying it’s just not for them. In the process, this removes opportunities for great innovation, weakening teams, FIRST programs, and the future of the STEM industry as a whole.
As mentors, teachers, and coaches, the worst thing you can do is assume the strengths of your students based on arbitrary factors. When dealing with a lot of students, it can be difficult to get to know everyone individually and help them discover their strengths and talents, and this type of categorizing may even be completely unintentional. However, activities that gauge interest and allow students to try different things give opportunities for growth and development of new skills. Instead of thinking you know what’s best for them based on stereotypes about LGBTQ+ people, consider the internalized biases that influence those misconceptions and challenge them. This creates a better team environment and sets your students up for success.
About LGBTQ+ of FIRST
LGBTQ+ of FIRST is an organization dedicated to raising awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ participants in FIRST Robotics. LGBTQ+ of FIRST was started to spread visibility of the LGBTQ+ community within FIRST and help teams become safe spaces for their members.