Isolation and Loneliness: The LGBTQ Experience in STEM

By Sasha Novozhilova

STEM professions have always been regarded as some of the most challenging and demanding, yet very desirable career paths. As the median STEM income has risen to hundreds of thousands of dollars, majors in such fields have quickly climbed the lists of top most popular college degrees despite their extreme difficulty and selectivity. In fact, for many, particularly those in the LGBTQ community, inclusivity may be a factor in the initial choice of a STEM career. At first glance, science and research seem quite objective, allowing for inclusivity towards groups that have been traditionally marginalized in fields such as business, consulting, entertainment, etc. However, that is far from reality. Upon further inspection, the image of objectivity and strict professionalism based on merit rather than personal characteristics is quickly shattered, giving way to subtle discrimination towards the community based on the specifics of research culture.

When it comes to gender and sexuality discrimination in STEM, one of the biggest barriers preventing progress in eradicating it is the lack of information on the discriminatory practices. While there has been great progress made in terms of helping other marginalized groups, such as women and ethnic minorities, thrive in STEM, that hasn’t been the case for the LGBTQ community. Until recently, there simply hasn’t been enough research coverage on what kind of challenges the LGBTQ community faces in the field. Hence, despite the rise of the movement against gender discrimination, STEM has been primarily left out of any real progress.

Why might that be? There are two main factors possibly contributing to the lack of studies, as described by the 2020 article by Jonathan Freeman titled “Measuring and Resolving LGBTQ Disparities in STEM.” First, in general, STEM education literature sees sexual and gender identity as “an irrelevant demographic detail” rather than an important part of one’s social identity, excluding it from studies on discriminatory practices. Second, even with the desire to collect research regarding discrimination in STEM, “major NSF funding mechanisms for STEM education research are geared toward studying traditionally studied underrepresented groups (example: race), with investigators only able to study other groups if they can provide evidence for those groups’ underrepresentation.” However, as previously stated, there isn’t a lot of research regarding discrimination based on sexual orientation in the first place, making it difficult to prove that such practices take place. As such, finding the resources to survey the LGBTQ community in STEM about their experience becomes increasingly difficult.

Thankfully, in recent years, advocates have managed to collect some surveys regarding the LGBTQ experience in STEM, and it proves that gender discrimination isn’t limited to business fields. According to an article by Holly Else for Nature.com, a 2021 survey of 25,000 researchers has found that LGBTQ scientists are more likely to experience harassment and career obstacles than their non-LGBTQ colleagues. For some more concrete statistics, we can turn to another survey referenced by Else, conducted by sociologists Erin Cech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Tom Waidzunas at Temple University, collected from members of 21 scientific societies. The survey found that LGBTQ scientists were in general “less likely to report opportunities to develop their skills and access to the resources required to do their jobs well [and] 20% more likely than non-LGBTQ colleagues to have experienced some kind of professional devaluation” (Cech, Waidzunas). Moreover, those practices extend beyond the professionals’ work life, affecting their physical and mental health, with “LGBTQ researchers 41% more likely to have had trouble sleeping and 30% more likely to have experienced symptoms of depression than their peers over the past 12 months.” Ultimately, this leads to a “leaky pipeline,” with about 22% of current STEM LGBTQ minority employees expressing wishes to exit the industry (Freeman).

So, what is the reason for these practices? Why does a fairly objective field that focuses on one’s merit rather than connections tend to discriminate based on one’s identity? Well, the issue could lie in that objectivity and the culture within STEM. In general, according to Freeman’s article, scientists tend to value being “impersonal, objective, data-driven, emotionless, apolitical, and non-ideological” in their co-workers, which aligns perfectly well with the practical elements of academia and research. This type of attitude prioritizes professional life over personal life, discouraging researchers from sharing any personal characteristics, such as gender identity or sexual orientation. As such, it may be difficult for incoming students, researchers, professors, and other positions in STEM to find mentors or to feel connected to anyone in the field, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Hence, the culture itself promotes a certain level of conformity in terms of values and personal characteristics, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity. As such, sharing these attributes may be regarded as unprofessional, degrading members of the LGBTQ community in STEM.

Now that we have established the problem, what can be done to help solve it and ensure the comfort of LGBTQ scientists and researchers? The answer may be quite simple and it lies in one concept: visibility. Finding mentors and role models in one’s field would help LGBTQ researchers and students feel more welcome and comfortable, while also promoting a culture of openness, thus increasing retention. The best and possibly easiest way to achieve this level of visibility is through education. According to Mary Hoelscher for GLSEN, “LGBT high school seniors whose STEM curriculum included positive LGBT content are twice as likely to choose a college major in those fields” as reported by one of GLSEN’s recent research reports. There are multiple historical role models for LGBTQ students to look up to in STEM that could easily be included in the science curriculum, notable examples being Alan Turing and Sally Ride. Disclosing these figures’ sexuality alongside their great achievements would teach students to feel proud of their identity and encourage them to disclose it in professional settings. Beyond education, establishing networks for LGBTQ scientists to connect would alleviate marginalization and loneliness. For example, the SETAC North America 40th Annual Meeting introduced pronoun stickers new to the conference to help establish an inclusive environment and avoid confusion about one’s identity.

While there’s still lots to do to achieve equality in STEM, even such small steps will help create an atmosphere of openness and inclusion, increasing employee retention and the comfort of LGBTQ minority workers. An overall shift in STEM professional culture is more likely to help alleviate discriminatory practices in the long run, and that could be achieved with more funding for research surveys and reports on the LGBTQ experience and further mentoring opportunities for students entering the field. The progress made in business fields in eradicating workplace discrimination makes me confident that the STEM field will one day feel very inclusive.

Resources:

Else, Holly. “Largest-ever survey exposes career obstacles for LGBTQ scientists.” Nature News. January 27, 2021. Accessed June 20, 2021. 

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00221-w

Freeman, Jonathan B. “Measuring and Resolving LGBTQ Disparities in STEM.” Behavioural and Brain Sciences Vol. 20. 

Hoelscher, Mary. “Why (and How) STEM Curriculum Needs to Be LGBT Inclusive.” GLSEN. June 20, 2021

https://www.glsen.org/blog/why-and-how-stem-curriculum-needs-be-lgbt-inclusive

Cech, E. A. Waidzunas, T. J. “Systemic inequalities for LGBTQ professionals in STEM.” Science Advances. January 15, 2021. Accessed: June 20, 2021.

https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/7/3/eabe0933

Miller, Ezra. “LGBTQ+ Experiences in STEM.” SETAC, Vol. 21, Issue 7. July 30, 2020. Accessed: June 20, 2021.

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