STEM employers in North Carolina: Time to put your money where your mouths are

Morehead Planetarium on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill (Flickr: William Yeung)

Morehead Planetarium on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill (Flickr: William Yeung)

North Carolina’s got a shiny new law legalizing antigay discrimination and legislating where trans folk can pee. (More specifically, it forbids the state’s cities and municipalities from passing nondiscrimination laws that protect sexual orientation and gender identity, which some have done.) It’s probably in violation of current Federal regulations and the Constitution, but it could be years before that’s sorted out in court.

H2 was written, passed in a special legislative session, and signed into law in about 10 hours — so quickly that some Democrats walked out of the state Senate in protest of the procedural chicanery. There was effectively no time to mount any public campaign against the law before it became law. Which is a pity, because a similar law under consideration in Georgia is now literally up against Mary Poppins and Captain America: the Walt Disney Company and its subsidiary Marvel Entertainment are threatening to pull operations from the state if the bill passes.

I’m not aware that North Carolina has much of an economic stake in making superhero science fiction, but I do happen to know that the state is deeply invested in actual science. The Research Triangle is a development region created in a public-private partnership to foster science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) businesses with close ties to Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University. It was named one of the “Top 10 Biopharma Clusters” last year. So this seems like it might be a problem for the academic side of all that partnership:

As interpreted by the Department of Education, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbids discrimination against trans students in any school that receives federal funding. These schools are prohibited from excluding trans students from the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. The new North Carolina law, dubbed H2, rebukes this federal mandate by forbidding public schools from allowing trans students to use the correct bathroom. That jeopardizes the more than $4.5 billion in federal education funding that North Carolina expected to receive in 2016.

Plus, every last one of the research and technology institutions and companies in North Carolina has gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans employees — hi, yes, I’ve done that research — and they should want to recruit more. They certainly talk like they do. For example, Syngenta Biotechnology, a global corporation with a substantial presence in the Triangle, says on its website:

Embracing the unique perspectives and capabilities of our employees will help us continue to catalyze innovation, maximize performance and create business value. Our employees should reflect the diversity of our customers, the markets where we operate and the communities which we serve.

Novozymes, another international biotech firm, has a highly specific statement on the value of diversity in its workforce, which notes:

For Novozymes equal opportunities is about adopting a proactive stance to avoid discrimination. Novozymes’ commitment to ensuring equal opportunities in the workplace extends to all global operations, and to ensure local relevance it is addressed in a variety of ways at different sites to reflect local or national conditions.

And there’s RTI International, which has a deep history in the Triangle, working in “translational” science — turning basic research across multiple disciplines into patentable applications. RTI researchers have published studies on the value of diversity in translating research into practice, and their corporate Statement of Diversity and Inclusion says

At RTI, we value diversity. Diversity deals with the qualities, experiences, and work styles that make individuals unique, such as age, generational differences, race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, veteran status and disabilities, as well as how RTI can leverage those attributes in support of our mission, goals, and objectives.

And those are just the ones I pulled up in some quick clicking around the list of Research Triangle organizations. All of these companies should be extremely concerned about H2, because it directly impacts the quality of life for their current employees in North Carolina and the prospects that they’ll be able to attract top talent to the state. So far, I can find a brief statement against the law from Duke University, but radio silence on the official Twitter feeds of UNC and NCSU. On the non-academic side, there’s not a peep on Syngenta’s corporate or US-specific feeds, or on Novozymes’s. RTI International wants to be sure you know they’re on the Forbes list of America’s Best Midsize Employers, but they haven’t tweeted a thing about what their LGBTQ employees face under the new law. And the Research Triangle umbrella organization appears not to have issued a statement, either.

What the hell, folks? This is pathetic. One of the key results of the Queer in STEM survey is that LGBTQ-identified employees are more likely to feel safe and welcome in the workplace if their employers take specific action to support them. Pro-diversity policy statements are fine, but when your employees are directly threatened with the prospect of legal discrimination by landlords and business owners and restroom busybodies, it’s time to put your money where your mouths are. Issue statements, make noise, lobby your bigoted, out-of-touch state legislature and tell them that they’ve jeopardized your ability to retain and hire people you value. Do you stand with your queer students, faculty, staff, and employees, or not?

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