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‘This deserves our attention.’ New data highlight LGBTQ scientists’ workplace challenges

LGBTQ professionals in STEM are 30% more likely to experience workplace harassment compared with their non-LGBTQ peers. They’re also more likely to experience other career-related challenges, including social exclusion and professional devaluation and to consider leaving their STEM profession entirely. That’s according to a new study that surveyed more than 25,000 U.S.-based STEM workers, roughly 1000 of whom identified as LGBTQ.

Until now, data at this scale and across disciplines didn’t exist, so it’s a big step forward, says William Agnew, a Ph.D. student who serves on the executive committee of oSTEM, a professional organization that supports LGBTQ people in STEM. “It definitely corroborates what we’ve seen, that queer people do experience a lot of discrimination and harassment and challenges in the workplace and that there are big disparities,” he says. “I just look at the survey and think, ‘Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these [variables] and start thinking about interventions.’”

Lead author Erin Cech, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, hopes the new study will put LGBTQ issues front and center, allowing those who are pushing for change to make a stronger case that “there’s an issue here and this deserves our attention.” At many organizations, she says, there are people who are “interested in and invested in the issue of LGBTQ inequality, but they don’t feel like this is something that’s taken seriously—in part because there hasn’t been data showing that there’s a systemic issue.”

The study, published today in Science Advances, reports on surveys conducted from 2017 to 2019 asking members of professional STEM societies about access to career resources, treatment by colleagues, physical and mental health, and intentions to leave STEM. Across all questions, LGBTQ respondents reported worse experiences compared with their non-LGBTQ peers. For example, they were 22% more likely to have felt nervous or stressed from work, 31% more likely to have felt socially excluded by colleagues, and 32% more likely to have thought about leaving their job. The results were similar across disciplines and employer types.

Cech went into her study expecting to see disparities, but she was startled to find so many of them, including some that were interconnected. For instance, LGBTQ respondents who reported feeling less supported and valued in their workplace suffered from more physical and mental health issues. “The extent to which these kinds of disadvantages really get under their skin was really sobering,” she says.

The study also found that transgender and nonbinary respondents were even more likely to report physical and mental health problems than their cisgender sexual minority peers—a finding that didn’t come as a surprise to Dylan Baker, a software engineer at Google who is transgender. There’s “a forced vulnerability if you’re openly gender nonconforming or transitioning in some way,” Baker says. “That’s a really personal thing that affects all of your interactions and is not something you can choose to keep to yourself”—as opposed to sexual orientation, which some people may choose to keep private for safety reasons or for their own personal comfort, Baker noted. Cech says her team plans to look at the impact of “outness” in a future paper.

It’s important for everyone to feel safe and welcome in their workplace, says Kathleen Vander Kaaden, a research scientist at the professional services firm Jacobs who does contract work for NASA and is LGBTQ. Vander Kaaden has great colleagues—“I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says—but she thinks more should be done to support LGBTQ scientists. She wrote a paper last year arguing that employers, universities, and professional societies should develop clear anti-harassment policies; initiate studies on diversity, equity, and inclusion; and make other changes to help members of the LGBTQ community. “If you don’t feel like you belong somewhere, you’re not going to perform as well, you’re not going to have as enjoyable of an experience, it’s going to lead to mental health issues, and on and on and on.”

“The sciences really still are an old straight white man’s club … and those of us who are at the table have fought to be here,” adds Ramon Barthelemy, an assistant professor at the University of Utah who studies LGBTQ inclusion in physics and is queer. “We need to think about LGBT scientists in the same way that we think about other groups that are underserved or underrepresented, so I’m hoping that this work can be a catalyst in order to support more change.”

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