LGBTQ scientists harassed and marginalised, says study

LGBTQ science professionals complain of not being supported in their roles

January 15, 2021
Legs walking on rainbow crossing, LGBT+ inclusion
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Scientists who identify as LGBTQ are 30 per cent more likely to experience harassment in the workplace than their non-LGBTQ colleagues, according to new research.

The study, published in Science Advances, analysed survey responses from 25,000 members of 21 STEM-related professional societies in the US, including 1,006 who identified as LGBTQ. Four in 10 worked in higher education.

Respondents were asked whether they had been harassed verbally or in writing at least once during the past 12 months and the analysis showed that LGBTQ STEM professionals were 30 per cent more likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to say that they had.

The study, which controlled for demographic, discipline and job factors, also found that LGBTQ professionals were 20.2 per cent more likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to say that they had experienced their expertise being devalued or discounted.

LGBTQ staff were also significantly more likely to experience exclusion by their colleagues, such as not feeling that they fitted in or being excluded from social gatherings; 32.9 per cent of LGBTQ members experienced one or more types of social exclusion compared to 22.7 per cent of their non-LGBTQ peers.

The survey also asked respondents for their level of agreement with statements such as “I have been given opportunities to take on a leadership role” or “I have limited opportunities to develop my skills”. The analysis found that LGBTQ staff were significantly less likely to report that they had opportunities to develop their skills than their non-LGBTQ peers and were less likely to report that they had access to the resources they needed to do their jobs well.

The authors noted in the paper that LGBTQ-identifying women and racial and ethnic minorities were more likely than white and male LGBTQ STEM professionals to experience professional devaluation and harassment at work, and the trends remained the same irrespective of discipline or employment sector, whether they worked in universities, private or non-profit organisations or for the government.

LGBTQ staff were also more likely to consider leaving their job in STEM, with 22 per cent of LGBTQ staff, versus 15 per cent of their non-LGBTQ peers, saying they had thought about leaving their job at least once in the past month.

They also reported more health and wellness difficulties: they were 22 per cent more likely to have felt nervous or stressed from work and 30 per cent more likely to have experienced one or more depressive symptoms in the past year, according to the research.

The report’s authors, Erin Cech, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, and Tom Waidzuna, an associate professor at Temple University, write that the results “underscore the immediate need for STEM-related workplaces, societies, and funding agencies to address anti-LGBTQ sentiments and behaviours”.

They call for STEM workplaces to include LGBTQ status in their diversity efforts and for funding for more research on workplace experiences of LGBTQ staff. “Factors that prevent talented and motivated LGBTQ individuals from succeeding in STEM, or even staying in STEM at all, are of scholarly, economic, and national concern. It is vital for future research to investigate the mechanisms driving these patterns and the interventions that may help to ameliorate them,” they write.

Dr Cech told Times Higher Education that it would “take effort on multiple fronts” to address the issue of inequality in STEM.

“Most importantly, [institutions and organisations] need to start the conversation. So often, the topic of LGBTQ inequality is seen as inappropriate in STEM contexts because it is seen as politicising what is culturally seen as a depoliticised space. Making cultural space for dialogue about anti-LGBTQ bias in STEM is a vital first step,” she said.

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