Increasing Visibility of LGBTQ+ People in STEM

Guelph, Canada. July 5, 2019

 

Being openly LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) in the workplace is widely considered more difficult in comparison to being out in your social circles. Friends are often supportive and accepting of who you are as a person, which creates a welcoming atmosphere for being ‘out of the closet’. In the workplace, however, the artificial family assemblage of people can feel quite the opposite, often resulting in LGBT+ identifiers leading two very different lives in and outside of their place of work. Despite the existence of staff LGBT+ networks at a majority of universities, many LGBT+ identifying staff are not openly out in the workplace or are only out to a minority of colleagues. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, find it difficult to be open about their sexuality when there is lack of representation and supportive student-oriented professional networks.

STEM Expectations of Gender and Sexuality

Within the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, there are more rigid expectations of gender and sexuality in comparison to arts and humanities1. For example, the stereotypical STEM ‘professor’ tends to be a white man and it is difficult to dissolve this public perception. The unfortunate masculine emphasis of STEM fields is a huge problem and further narrows the perception of what characterizes a “typical” STEM professional. Ultimately, this influences the percentages of women taking up STEM careers post-university/college, in particular with fewer women currently being employed in physics, computer science, and engineering compared to chemistry or biological sciences2. Interestingly, LGBT+ identifying people working in STEM fields with better representation of women reported a higher degree of openness and acceptance towards being out in the workplace (Figure 1)1. But despite this, a survey of 1,427 professionals working in STEM fields who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, or other minority sexual orientations or gender identities, highlighted that participants were more likely to report that none of their professional colleagues knew their LGBT+ identity than they were to report not being “out” in personal contexts.

Retention of LGBT+ STEM Researchers

For men, women, and gender non-conforming students identifying as LGBT+, remaining in a STEM field career trajectory can be influenced by a number of factors. For example, in science, LGBT+ identifying students are more likely to continue with a STEM career if they actively participated in research throughout their undergraduate degree, with LGBT+ students being nearly 10% more likely to participate in undergraduate research than their heterosexual peers3. For others, the workplace climate, existing support network and prior experiences of discrimination and harassment often determines the continuation of STEM careers1. A survey, led by the American Physical Society (APS), found that 2.5% of over 2,000 respondents identified as ‘out’ LGBT+ in the STEM field of physics. Out of this 2.5%, 36% considered leaving their workplace/studies through their experience of being out in the work place. In this study, 31% of LGBT men, 44% of LGBT women and 67% of gender non-conforming individuals experienced harassment in the workplace due to their gender/sexual identity4.

Role Models

Lack of visibility of LGBT+ STEM researchers in professional workplaces is evident from the surveys mentioned and from speaking with LGBT+ STEM people1. A major limiting factor for coming out as early career LGBT+ STEM researchers is the lack of role models1,3. Personally, for me, this was something I particularly struggled with at my previous university, which led to me not coming out in my work environment until the start of my PhD. Being a feminine woman, after coming out I encountered comments concerning my lack of ‘stereotypical lesbian appearance’ from fellow members of staff and was told that discussing sexuality in the workplace is inappropriate. I felt that I was thought less of by some research staff and was concerned that this would affect my career going forward. These types of comments, on top of already being women in Science, made the workplace feel uncomfortable. Many members of STEM staff have not received any form of pastoral training for supporting students/fellow staff with LGBT+ discrimination issues and with very few people ‘out’, it can make the workplace feel incredibly isolating. There is, however, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for LGBT+ STEM people.

Within recent years, the launch of 500 Queer Scientists has created a fantastic online network of LGBT+ identifying people working in STEM. This website is part of a new visibility campaign for LGBT+ people and their allies working in STEM and STEM-supporting jobs. The aims of this campaign are to 1) ensure the next STEM generation has LGBTQ+ role models; 2) help the current generation recognize they’re not alone; 3) create opportunities for community connections and greater visibility within STEM. ‘500 Queer Scientists’ has been a foundation on which I have established numerous collaborations and connected with individuals in a safe, inclusive environment.

Pride in STEM

Increasing the visibility of LGBT+ people in STEM goes a long way in helping raise awareness and support and is also an important component of the global push to increase diversity and inclusion in STEM. Pride in STEM was founded in 2016 by Dr. Alfredo Carpineti with his husband Chris and Matt Young, with the main goal of raising the profile of LGBT+ people in STEM and highlighting the struggles of LGBTSTEM people. As part of Pride in STEM, International LGBTSTEM Day first launched on 5th July 2018, supported by organizers including House of STEM and Queers in Science. We celebrate LGBTSTEM Day on the 5th of July as it can be written as ‘507’ which is (in nanometres) the wavelength of the colour green featured in the rainbow flag and is representative of nature. If you’re in the US, then it’s ‘705’ which is the wavelength of the colour red, representing life. This day is an international day of promoting LGBT+ people in STEM through videos, interviews, seminars, blogs, and numerous other events.

LGBTSTEM DAT  
LGBTSTEM Day is an important step towards equality and inclusivity in STEM. Many LGBT+ people in STEM struggle to be openly their authentic selves in the workplace and this day of recognition raises awareness of this struggle on an international scale. It is vitally important to give every single person studying or working in STEM the capacity to feel safe and welcomed and hopefully (in the not so distant future), more people will be bringing 100% of themselves to work.
 

Written by:

Dr. Chloe Robinson
Email: chloer@uoguelph.ca

LGBTQ openness and gender parity

Figure 1: LGBTQ openness and gender parity

Facts and statistics regarding LGBTQ+ in STEM

Chloe Robinson

Chloe Robinson, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics

 

References:

1. Yoder, J. B., & Mattheis, A. (2016). Queer in STEM: Workplace experiences reported in a National survey of LGBTQA individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Journal of Homosexuality, 63, 1-27. doi:10.1080/00918369.2015.1078632
2. National Science Board (2014). Revisiting the STEM workforce.
3. Hughes, B.E. (2018). Coming out in STEM: Factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students. Science Advances, 4, eaao6373. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aao6373.
4. American Physical Society. (2015). LGBT Climate in Physics.