Queer in STEM: Workplace Experiences of LGBTQA Individuals in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematical Careers

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, fields are some of the fastest growing industries in the world today. However, little is known about the experience of sexual and gender minorities working in these traditionally male-dominated fields. While research has recently focused on the experience of women as a minority group, the question remains: How do LGBTQA individuals studying and working in STEM fields experience their professional environments?

Pursuing a career in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, fields offers individuals the opportunity to be at the forefront of one of the fastest growing industries. While STEM fields have been dominated by males, recent research and policy developments have focused on understanding and improving the experience of women. But what about other minority groups? How do lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and asexual (LGBTQA) individuals experience work in an industry where their sexual identity is often seen as abnormal, or non-existent?

Recognising an absence of research on LGBTQA identities in STEM workplaces, Dr Jeremy Yoder (University of Minnesota) and Associate Professor Allison Mattheis (California State University) conducted an analysis of the first national survey of the LGTBQA individuals working in STEM fields in the United States. The study aimed to provide a broad portrait of the population, and to identify trends related to workplace practices than can inform strategies for LGBTQA inclusivity in STEM workplaces.

In the academic space, in particular in the field of engineering, the research found that students whose identities did not align with the perceived stereotype of an ‘engineer’ (typically, dominated by a white heterosexual man) faced certain challenges that others did not. In the non-academic space, concealing a disguised sexual identity adds a significant amount of stress and is associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other negative health outcomes.

Significantly, the research found an important link between the presence of women in the workplace, and the positive experience of LGBTQA professionals. Analysis of the survey suggests that a lack of women in the profession can affect the work climate for LBGTQA professionals and their perceptions of safety in the workplace.

The most important impact of the research is the documentation of the experience of more than 1,400 LGBTQA individuals working in STEM fields. While this is an important step forward to increasing the visibility of this population, Yoder and Mattheis stress the need for organisations to encourage mentoring within the community, and to reinforce existing support networks.

 

Method

Based on over 1,427 responses to an online survey, the first phase of the data collection and analysis included 150 open response questionnaires completed by email and 60 one-on-one interviews conducted by phone or online video conference, addressing the over- arching question: “How do LGBTQA individuals studying and working in STEM fields experience their professional environments?”

The final survey included 58 items, in 6 sections covering participants’:

  1. Fields of STEM expertise
  2. Current positions of employment and educational and career progress,
  3. Current and past locations of residence
  4. Gender identities and sexual orientations
  5. Experiences in person and social contexts relative to their LGBTQA identities
  6. Experiences in professional and academic contexts relative to their LGBTQA identities.

The hypotheses that were being tested were:

  1. Study participants would report being less open about their LGBTQA identities with colleagues and students than with friends or family
  2. Cultural differences between academic and non-academic workplaces would lead to differing experiences for LGBTQA professionals and that participants in academic and non-academic workplaces would report different degrees of openness
  3. The experiences of LGBTQA professionals, whose identities violate masculine gender norms, would have workplace experiences that resonate with those of straight women
  4. Openness in the workplace would reflect participants’ degree of comfort – participants who described their workplaces as safe and welcoming and who said their employers provided specific support for LGBTQA employees would be more open about their identities in workplace and classroom settings.

Findings

The key findings from this study were:

  • LGBTQA employees are more open about their LGBTQA identity in personal contexts compared to coming out to their colleagues and students. There was not a significant difference noted in academic vs non-academic openness.
  • Employees working in earth sciences, engineering, mathematics and psychology reported being less open about their LGBTQA identity to colleagues, compared to those who work in life sciences, physical sciences, and social science who reported being more out.
  • Employee descriptions of their workplaces were closely related to how open they were about their LGBTQA identity to colleagues and students. A surprisingly high number of employees rated their workplace as being ‘welcoming’ (40%), ’safe’ (92%) and said that they were treated the same as their straight colleagues (45%).
  • Openness in all contexts differed strongly with age and that older participants were consistently less open. Early career academics reported lower openness to colleagues than academics at a later stage in their careers.
  • Participants working in STEM fields with better representation of women were more likely to disclose their LGBTQA identity to their colleagues.

Implications

Yoder and Mattheis stress that the issue of addressing the need for organisations to become LGBTQA inclusive is a ‘social and economic’ imperative and an ‘ethical obligation’.

In order to provide a safe working environment in the STEM industry, it is vital that organizations implement a gender-neutral and inclusive environment. This can be done through strategies such as: inviting LGBTQA speakers to the organization to talk about their journey through the workplace, establishing mentoring programs for LGBTQA individuals entering STEM fields, and reinforcing support networks.

Given LGBTQA is an invisible minority, it is important to be open and understand each individual’s identity, as a perceived or actual need to conceal one’s identity can contribute to stress and negative mental health issues causing low workforce productivity.

Although academic research on the impacts on the business of excluding LGBTQA employees is in its infancy, this study offers preliminary ideas about how to be more inclusive of LGBTQA employees in the STEM industry.

A critical finding from this study related to the presence of women and safety, namely when there was a relatively large proportion of women, LGBTQA employees felt safer and were more open to their identity. This concludes that if the STEM industry has initiatives in place to make an inclusive workplace for women, they are half way there for making it inclusive and ‘safe’ for LGBTQA employees.

 

For more information, contact Kartikee Gupta (kartgupta@deloitte.com.au)

To read the full article, see Jeremy Yoder and Alison Mattheis (2016) Queer in STEM: Workplaces Experiences Reported in a National Survey of LGBTQA Individuals in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Careers, Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 63, No. 1, pp. 1 – 27

 


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