The culture of STEM may sideline aspiring queer scientists
The fields of science, technology, engineering, and math have been infamously hostile to women and people of color. Now, new research shows that the culture of STEM may also sideline aspiring lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer scientists.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, analyzed college survey data and found that “sexual minority” students were 7 percent less likely to stick with the pursuit of a STEM degree compared to their heterosexual peers.
That trend emerged despite the fact that LGBQ students were more likely to participate in undergrad research programs, which previous research suggests helps increase a student’s chances of completing their STEM studies.
Bryce E. Hughes, who authored the new study, wasn’t surprised by its findings. A 2016 report on the climate for LGBQ people in physics documented what Hughes describes in his study as a “heterosexist climate that reinforces gender role stereotypes in STEM work environments,” as well as a culture that often requires or encourages people to remain closeted.
“Maybe there are larger social dynamics or … a culture of dominance that needs to be dismantled,” Hughes said in an interview, reflecting on the biases that might marginalize or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer students and scientists.
To better understand the lack of retention in undergrad programs, Hughes used looked at the results of a national college survey that tracks students’ responses to questions over a four-year period. That survey began asking students about their sexual orientation in 2015. It also asked about gender identity, but Hughes felt those students’ experiences should be distinguished from sexual orientation and addressed in a separate analysis.
Hughes analyzed the responses of 4,162 students — 318 of whom identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer and indicated they planned to pursue a major in life sciences, engineering, physical sciences and math, health and medicine, and agriculture.
To figure out why LGBQ students might switch majors, Hughes accounted for factors like precollege academic preparation and participation in undergrad research. If the students hadn’t been as well prepared for studying STEM in college, for example, it would increase their chances of dropping out of rigorous programs. Yet those variables couldn’t explain the retention problem.
“There’s something else going on. The question shifts to, maybe is it a climate concern?”
“There’s something else going on,” he said. “The question shifts to, maybe is it a climate concern?”
While the debate over diversity and inclusion in STEM has focused on women and people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, less attention has been paid to the experiences of LGBTQ people in tech and science.
Hughes calls this aspect of diversity “still kind of a frontier.” He believes the lack of discussion around the subject reflects the relatively new embrace of LGBTQ rights and representation.
“We’ve talked a great deal about historic underrepresentation of women and people of color, but we haven’t talked about silencing of queer identities, and what is lost,” he said. Hughes also noted that people’s identities aren’t just isolated to only their race, gender, or sexual orientation, so it’s important to think about the complexity of the different types of biases they may encounter.
Rochelle Diamond, chair of board of directors of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), said in an email that she hopes STEM professional societies view Hughes’ study as “another piece of evidence that they need to change the conversations within institutions.”
Diamond hopes that campuses bring in groups like NOGLSTP, oSTEM, and Campus Pride to produce programming for students as well offer guidance to professors. She also said that Safe Zone trainings, which educate participants about LGBTQ awareness and allyship, could help improve campus climate.
“It’s hard enough to be a STEM major, to be a sexual minority in a STEM major is harder,” she wrote. “Many feel they must do their utmost best just to be eligible for opportunities afforded heterosexual men and must not let down under any circumstance. This leads to burnout and switching to a non-STEM field.”
For his part, Hughes expects some resistance to and skepticism of his study. There may be scientists who insist that a person’s identity doesn’t matter when they’re in pursuit of an objective fact or truth. That perspective, of course, forgets to account for how people’s experiences shape the questions they ask and the problems they study.
And, Hughes said, there may be others who take his findings personally, as if they’re being accused of bigotry. He worries those critics might respond defensively without taking stock of the ways in which implicit bias works to exclude people from academic and professional networks and opportunities.
Instead, Hughes hopes that his findings spark an overdue conversation.
“We need to find ways to create spaces within the sciences, engineering, and technology field that would be welcoming to folks that are sexual minorities and trans folks,” he said, “and make that more visible and welcome their contributions.”