Gay men ‘significantly under-represented’ in science

Sexual orientation may have greater impact on academic choices than race, US data suggest

November 18, 2020
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Gay male students appear to face disadvantages obtaining scientific degrees at least as great as those confronting racial minorities, especially in fields with relatively few women, a study of US graduates has found.

Male college graduates who are in same-sex relationships are 12 percentage points less likely than heterosexual men to have earned their degree in a scientific field, according to a study using federal data by economists at Vanderbilt University and the University of Exeter.

By comparison, black male graduates are only 4 percentage points less likely than white men to be leaving with a science degree, while women are 21 percentage points less likely to do so than men, the authors wrote in Plos One.

But the study – comparing federal data on more than 10 million students, including 145,000 in same-sex relationships – found no sexual orientation-based variation in science degree completion rates among women.

And in looking across several dozen scientific fields, the study found a correlation of 71 per cent – a strong positive association – in the numbers of coupled gay men and of women who earned degrees in the same fields.

That ranged from fields such as military technology, with low shares of both women and gay men, to nutrition, with high shares of both groups.

The data, the authors conclude, suggest that gay men may be facing some of the same traditional male gendered biases that women are well understood to encounter, and that solutions for one may benefit the other.

“For example,” they write, “perceptions that gay men are relatively feminine and that lesbian women are relatively masculine may contribute in part to the underrepresentation of gay men compared to heterosexual men in STEM, and the lack of differential representation of lesbians compared to heterosexual women in STEM.”

The findings could help experts promote gender equity and identify solutions to worker shortages in particular fields, said one co-author of the study, Dario Sansone, an assistant professor of economics at Exeter.

The study data do not help to explain if any biases against gay male students are coming from classmates or from lecturers, Dr Sansone said. Neither do they address transgender and non-binary scientists, though future surveys will aim to explore that.

His co-author is Christopher Carpenter, a professor of economics at Vanderbilt.

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