‘Invisible’: that is how many scientists from sexual and gender minorities (LGBT+) describe their status at their institution, laboratory, classroom or office.
Sexual orientation and sexual and gender identity are not common topics of conversation in many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workplaces, and these scientists argue that they should be. They say that cloaking an important part of their identity at work can have dangerous consequences for mental health and career advancement, both for individual scientists and for the disciplines that could drive them away.
Surveys back up this sense of invisibility. Beliefs that being cisgender and hetero-sexual are the default or ‘normal’ modes — known as cis-heteronormative assumptions — often silence conversations about the wide spectrum of sexual and gender identities1. In a 2019 survey of more than 1,000 UK-based physical scientists, nearly 30% of LGBT+ scientists and half of transgender scientists said that they had considered leaving their workplace because of an unfriendly or hostile climate or because of discrimination2. And nearly 20% of LGBT+ chemists and 32% of transgender and non-binary scientists across all disciplines had experienced exclusionary, offensive or harassing behaviour at work in the previous year. About half of the respondents agree that there is an overall lack of awareness of LGBT+ issues in the workplace. And a 2016 study found that LGBT+ undergraduate students are 7% less likely to be retained in STEM fields than are their non-LGBT+ counterparts3.
Many institutions and funding agencies do not collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity. For example, the US National Science Foundation is still considering whether it should include such questions in its Survey of Earned Doctorates, years after announcing it intended to test the feasibility of doing so.
Nature spoke to six LGBT+ academics about the effects on their careers of fighting prejudice, assumptions and bias; how colleagues can be effective allies and advocates; and what policies institutions could have to make STEM workplaces more inclusive.
Hontas Farmer: Break with Convention
Hontas Farmer (she) is a Black, transgender theoretical physicist and a lecturer at Elmhurst University in Illinois.
I haven’t followed a conventional academic career path. Between the ages of 18 and 33, I took out staggering amounts of government and private student loans to get my undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics and, like many trans women my age, supported myself with sex work. We do that to survive.
Scientists should be aware that colleagues can have vastly different backgrounds and experiences. I’m 40 now, and still in debt. For now, I can make it as an adjunct — a part-time, contract faculty member — in physics, while I research theories to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics on the side. I’m also a part of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a volunteer-powered collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency researching gravitational waves. I don’t get paid for this work.
If I weren’t so driven, I might have quit physics and returned to being a sex worker. Or I might be dead: many trans women of colour wind up dead before the age of 35. Given that working as an adjunct was financially precarious even before the pandemic, I might still go back to my earlier job. The ability to pay your bills can determine whether or not you have a career in science.
Professors also help to shape your career path. Allies should offer interested students similar academic and professional opportunities, irrespective of their gender identities or backgrounds. I could not get the recommendation letter that I needed to apply for a PhD programme. The professor said that they did not think I could get a job. “You’re too eccentric to be you, and be a physicist — you have to be overwhelmingly great, and you’re not,” they told me.
That made me angry at the time, but now I think in some ways they were right. Not everyone gets to be a full-time tenure-track professor, especially in today’s job market. But I still wish that I’d had the option to get the degree.
I’ve given up on pursuing a PhD, but I still get to do work similar to that of PhD physicists. When I applied to join LISA, they accepted me because of my research in general relativity. And they treat me just like anybody else. That is the most inclusive thing allies can do.
Teaching has been less ideal. I wish I could have had realistic and frank discussions with some of my former school administrators and colleagues about what I faced as a trans faculty member. For example, when I asked questions to engage my classes, some students complained to the dean’s office that I did not know the material. They thought I was asking them questions because I needed their help solving the equations. I wish the school had expressed more confidence in my qualifications — why they hired me in the first place — when they addressed the students’ concerns. Supportive employers show respect for your work and credentials.
In academia, people often assume that all students are open-minded and accepting. Not everyone under the age of 25 is liberal. Some students expect to see an LGBT+ person teaching gender studies or social work, but not Newton’s laws. These days, students have a lot of power over faculty members, whose part-time numbers are increasing, through their evaluations. If too few students sign up for your classes, the course gets cancelled and you don’t have a job. This is why it is so important for institutions to make space for conversations about how students’ biases can affect LGBT+ teachers.
This August, I started teaching at Elmhurst University in Illinois, in a small community that I’ve found supportive despite its politically conservative reputation. It’s sort of counterintuitive, but I’m confident that a conservative school will stand behind me, because they hired me for my credentials. Be open to finding acceptance anywhere.