Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Systemic Inequalities and Insufficient Samples: A Dissection of Queerness in STEM

Coloured pieces chalks on a dark background. The colours represent those of the LGBTQ flag: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple
Philippa Flanagan-Smith

In the US and Europe, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions have always been dominated by white, cisgender men, usually from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Despite pushes to broaden access to these fields, with schemes often targeting women, people from working-class backgrounds, and people from marginalised races or ethnicities, these inequalities persist.

The gender gap in STEM education and employment is a global phenomenon and is often compounded for people of colour, who receive a smaller proportion of STEM degrees and are underrepresented in STEM occupations. While these issues are becoming more broadly studied and better understood, pushed into the public eye by whistle-blowers and academics alike, similar investigations into equivalent discrimination faced by the LGBTQ+ community have lagged behind. Some efforts have been made in recent years but usually focus on individual disciplines or other smaller subsections. Fortunately, a new study is paving the way to change that.

Largest Ever Survey

Published in Science Advances in January 2021, “Systemic inequalities for LGBTQ professionals in STEM” is a collaboration between sociologists Erin Cech of the University of Michigan and Tom Waidzunas of Temple University, Pennsylvania. The study collected responses from 25,324 members of 21 STEM professional societies in the US and, with 1006 (4%) identifying themselves as being part of the LGBTQ+ community, is the largest study ever of queer inequalities in STEM. This sample size may seem small relative to the ~10 million US workers employed in STEM fields but, as the paper explains, this is a problem that permeates this entire area of research.

Even a survey of this scale can grant invaluable insight

The study of issues faced by queer people in STEM has always suffered in terms of size and scope, and thus findings have been limited in their relevance and practical applications. The reasons for this are difficult to unpack—influenced by a systemic underreporting of LGBTQ+ identities and the relative small size of the LGBTQ+ population in general—but even a survey of this scale can grant invaluable insights.

The study split the broad aspects of queer inequality in STEM into a handful of testable predictions (hypotheses), which covered career progression, workplace environment, and personal health. Demographic (e.g., race, gender, etc.), discipline, and other workplace factors were all controlled for.

Two alternative explanations were also tested: that queer workers are less educated, experienced, or hardworking than their non-queer colleagues; and that queer workers are more likely to think negatively of their workplace, unrelated to anti-queer actions. These were rejected after statistical analysis.

The Results

The paper, unfortunately, does not paint a pretty picture. Queer professionals in STEM were found to have less adequate access to career resources and have fewer opportunities for advancement than their non-queer colleagues. They were also found to be more likely to experience devaluation of their expertise (e.g., having their judgement questioned, their authority challenged, etc) by those same colleagues.

22% of queer professionals have considered leaving their current job or STEM entirely

Around 33% have experienced social exclusion in the workplace (vs 23% of non-queer individuals), around 20% have experienced workplace harassment, and queer professionals are more likely to experience poor health (including insomnia, stress, and depression). The impact of these experiences is likely reflected in the study’s final discovery; 22% of queer professionals (vs 15% non-queer) have considered leaving their current job or STEM entirely, with 12% (vs 8%) planning to leave their profession in the next 5 years.

While the negative effects of harassment and poor health are evident and somewhat universal, the ramifications of the social aspects of these findings are more subtle and more particular to both STEM at large and to queer experiences in specific.

Insights and Implications

The state of modern STEM is the legacy of hundreds of years of exclusionary practices, which have created complex and unique social structures that require skill, luck, and patience to navigate. Intelligence, diligence, and creativity are supposedly the name of the game—the way to ensure that the best and brightest float to the top and are allowed to take the positions of which they are most deserving. This should, in theory, create an objective, optimal system for science to be pursued under.

However, in reality, the ability to network, perceived ‘worthiness’, and access to resources are often more valuable commodities. These connections and resources are generally tied up in overarching social structures which are almost impossible to penetrate from the outside. Ethnic minorities are less likely to have generational wealth to fall back on, women are alienated by the spectre of the “old boys’ club”. Even today, when LGBTQ+ people are more visible and better understood than ever, the outward expression of queerness is still read as deviant, overtly sexual, and unprofessional.

The devaluation and exclusion revealed by this study show that these structures continue to be inaccessible to queer professionals. STEM, despite attempts to shift dynamics through affirmative action and early intervention initiatives in schools, remains fundamentally structured for the comfort of those with pre-existing power, money, and social influence.

Access by assimilation is not the same as liberation

Cech and Waidzunas note that, in order to improve the experiences of queer people in STEM in its current iteration, workplaces need to ensure that queer staff have full access to both the formal and informal benefits enjoyed by their non-queer peers, such as networking opportunities and informal mentoring.

However, it is important to remember that access by assimilation is not the same as liberation. Even if formal barriers are removed, these benefits cannot be fully enjoyed by queer people if they come with any presupposition of a cishet-normative framework.

A framework is simply the system or concept underlying something, the structure from which the rest of the components hang. ‘Cishet-normative’ means that, within the field, being cisgender and heterosexual are not only expected but assumed. If queer people flourish it is despite the system that is in place, not as an inherent part of it.

Politics and People

This may seem like an overly abstract idea. What about a job in engineering or a PhD in biochemistry is ‘cishet-normative’? Why does the objective practice of science have to be made political? Cech and Waidzunas suggest that this kind of reactionary thinking may be, in fact, exacerbating these very issues.

The culture of STEM treats queer people as a political entity first

“Discussion of LGBTQ inequality issues,” they say, “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.”

The word ‘queer’ has been used throughout this article to reflect this idea. Although many find personal comfort in the labels represented by ‘LGBTQ+’ and other equivalent acronyms, the culture of STEM treats queer people as a political entity first—a break from the norm that disrupts or threatens the established order.

When we consider such things in an academic context, we talk of ‘queer theory’. When we consider them in the context of access to unbiased healthcare, mutual aid, job security, we talk of ‘queer liberation’. When we consider the difficulties facing those in the LGBTQ+ community because of the structure of STEM, they are queer issues.

So, what next?

Clearly, the issues facing queer people in STEM are still not fully understood. For a group as diverse as the LGBTQ+ community, which can vary wildly from town to town, let alone country to country, small sample sizes are never going to give a good idea of the full picture. While this study from Cech and Waidzunas is a step in the right direction, there is more work ahead.

In the meantime, it is important that we remember the goals of this kind of research. Are we trying to give queer people the tools to navigate the treacherous landscape of cishet normativity cultivated by previous generations in STEM, or are we trying to create a better, more equitable future where queerness is not an obstacle to overcome but is built into the very meaning of the scientific endeavour? What steps do we need to take to reach that better future and what difficult questions might we need to ask of ourselves along the way?

Philippa Flanagan-Smith

Featured Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In article post by science_exercises.eu on Instagram. No changes were made to the post.

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Equality, Diversity & InclusionLGBTQ+ History MonthLifestyleScience

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