LGBTQ scientists facing workplace harassment, social exclusion: study

A new study reveals the systemic inequalities facing LGBTQ professionals in STEM.

HomoCulture Simon Elstad

This article was published on April 7th, 2021

LGBTQ workers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines are more likely to face work harassment than their non-LGBTQ peers. This is according to a new study that highlights the career obstacles faced by LGBTQ scientists based in the U.S. 

The report further reveals that they are subject to other systemic inequalities such as professional devaluation and social exclusion. Some workers faced health difficulties and mulled leaving the STEM discipline entirely.

The report attempts to document inequalities facing LGBTQ professionals in STEM. It may well be an eye-opener from previous studies that have primarily featured inequalities based on race and gender. The findings, published in Science Advances, surveyed more than 25,000 STEM workers, with roughly 1,000 identifying as LGBTQ.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Inequality

Sociologists Erin Cech (University of Michigan) and Tom Waidzunas (Temple University) sought to identify patterns of LGBTQ disadvantage along five dimensions of inequality. They include career opportunities, social exclusion, professional devaluation, health and wellness difficulties, and intentions to leave STEM.

At least 33% of the respondents experienced exclusion from their colleagues. On the other hand, 30% of the professionals experienced workplace harassment in the past year. 

Another 20% of the LGBTQ scientists felt devalued by their non-LGBTQ peers about their STEM expertise. “The professional devaluation scale captures, for example, whether respondents reported being treated as less skilled professionals than their colleagues and whether they were held to higher standards of productivity,” the researchers noted. 

These disadvantages had far-reaching effects on their health and wellness, with 27% of the respondents more likely to have experienced minor health problems within the past year. 

Some of the outcomes included insomnia, stress and depression. Meanwhile, 22% of the LGBTQ professionals considered leaving their STEM careers at least once within the past month. This is in comparison to 15% of their non-LGBTQ peers.

International nature of science

12% of the LGBTQ respondents planned to look for a different career within the next five years. “This departure of skilled and experienced professionals from STEM…disrupts scientific inquiry and technological innovation,” the sociologists observed. Some professionals are also less likely to whistleblow due to fear of retaliation by their non-LGBTQ peers.  

The findings echo a 2019 survey which revealed that close to a third of more than 1,000 U.K-based physical scientists considered leaving their workplace due to discrimination or climate. It pointed to the international nature of science being a concern to such professionals as “it increases the likelihood of interacting with cultures that were not yet inclusive of LGBT+ people.”

Some scientists felt some level of discomfort in revealing their sexual identity when working in these cultures. Others allayed fears of losing their job or clients, which could potentially be detrimental to their careers. 

Indeed, as Cech and Waidzunas note in their report, the STEM industry is a professional culture that often promotes ‘depoliticization’ or shuns from social or political issues such as diversity and inclusion. 

Inclusive environments

The researchers state that “discussion of LGBTQ inequality issues—or even the mere presence of openly LGBTQ-identifying persons—may be perceived in STEM contexts as violating depoliticization and threatening the objectivity of STEM.” Such situations could lead to a lack of social connections that are often critical for success in science.

These findings underscore the need for STEM workplaces to do more in fostering inclusive environments

Measures such as science-specific training for non-LGBTQ staff could go a long way in educating them on how to co-relate with their LGBTQ counterparts and use inclusive language. LGBTQ scientists could also join support networks such as Pride In Stem, which aims to support queer professionals in STEM fields and give them a sense of belonging.

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