The Forgotten Scientists: LGBQT in STEM

, research scientist, Center for Science and Democracy | June 22, 2018, 11:28 am EDT
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Last year, I wrote my very first blog post during pride month. In this piece, I discussed the lack of data on representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender (LGBQT) individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Without such data, it is impossible to know whether LGBQT individuals are as equally represented in STEM as their heterosexual colleagues. It’s been one year—do we know any more about LGBQT representation in STEM?

LGBQ individuals are less represented in STEM

This year, a study was published in Science Advances to report that LGBQ individuals are less represented in STEM than their heterosexual counterparts (the study did not report on transgender students). The study found that, by the fourth year of college, 71.1% of heterosexual students were retained in STEM whereas 63.8% of the sexual minority students were retained – an approximate 7% difference between the groups. The likelihood for sexual minority students to not be retained in STEM increases to 10% when the author controlled for other factors that support retention in STEM. One factor that has been shown in this study, as well as others, to retain students in STEM is participation in undergraduate research; yet, even though LGBQ students in this study had higher rates of participation in undergraduate research relative to their heterosexual peers, they were still less likely to remain in STEM.

Diversity in STEM may result in better science

The world is now facing some of its most challenging issues: climate change, cybersecurity, and antibiotic resistance to name a few. It is important that we have a thriving STEM workforce that pushes creativity and innovation to new levels to help address these issues. Research shows that bringing diversity to the table can help. For example, in a study of 4,277 companies in Spain, companies with more women were more likely to introduce radical new innovations into the market. In another study looking at profitability across 20,000 firms in 91 countries, companies with more female executives were shown to be more profitable. While these studies were correlational, there also have been laboratory studies to show that diverse teams have increased performance.

We know that women, racial minorities, and people with disabilities are underrepresented in STEM. We also know that if you are a person of color, you are less likely to receive a competitively funded grant. We now have some evidence from the Science Advances study that LGBQ individuals are not as represented in STEM as their heterosexual colleagues, although more research should be conducted. Taken together, this means that the STEM workforce overall is not as diverse as it could be. And if the logic follows from studies showing that bringing diversity to the table increases innovation and efficacy of teams, then the STEM workforce is missing out on an opportunity to more effectively address current issues in these fields.

Places of work in STEM should be more inclusive

There are likely reasons why LGBQT individuals are not as represented in STEM as their heterosexual counterparts, many of which are related to campus and working environments that are hostile to the LGBQT community. We know that many LGBQT scientists still fear coming out to their colleagues. This is likely because publishing, receiving tenure, and getting grant funding all heavily depend on the judgment of colleagues, who might be influenced by their own explicit or implicit biases. The American Physical Society produced a report showing that 1 in 3 LGBQT physicists considered leaving their department or workplace in the last year, which correlated strongly with both personally experiencing harassment or witnessing it.

There are also studies that show LGBQT students experience hostile environments in STEM that may lead to lower retention of these students in the STEM workforce. In a study conducted at a major university in the western United States, researchers found that engineering students identifying as LGB did not have as many opportunities to succeed as their heterosexual peers due to the additional emotional and academic effort these students exhausted to internalize their sexuality. Another study of computer majors identifying as LGBQT at a university found that these students did not feel like they belonged in the field and were, therefore, less likely to continue in the major. And it’s possible that such issues, in addition to dealing with the hardships of identifying as LGBQT, keep LGBQT students from being retained in the STEM workforce.

More research on LGBQT in STEM is needed

We need more data on the extent to which LGBQT individuals are underrepresented in STEM. While the National Science Foundation (NSF) compiles detailed statistics about women, underrepresented minorities, and the prevalence of various disabilities among US researchers and STEM students, it does not ask about LGBQT identification. The agency might consider doing this in exit surveys of PhD students, for example. And as more data rolls in, we will need social scientists to research why LGBQT students are not being retained in STEM. As we understand these reasons why, then we can begin to implement actions or policies to address this inequity. We should ensure the STEM workforce is diverse. A diverse team brings different perspectives to a team which can drive creativity and innovation in solutions to issues with a basis in STEM.

A study published in 2015 in the Journal of Homosexuality suggests that LGBQT scientists feel more accepted in their fields as compared to their peers in other professions. That is great news since we know that when individuals can express their identities openly they are happier, healthier, and more productive workers, and can serve as role models to the next generation of young scientists. But if I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that there’s still more work to do. Let’s continue to make STEM an inclusive workplace for all because we all win when we do.

Posted in: Science and Democracy

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