The need for data on LGBTQ+ representation in science

Events of the past couple of years have forced the scientific community to recognize that we do not reflect the makeup of the broader community. Women continue to be underrepresented in many fields of science and the percentage of scientists who are Black, Indigenous, and LatinX is vastly lower than the proportion of the population represented by these groups. The LGBTQ+ community has also been historically marginalized, but it is more difficult to assess LGBTQ+ representation in science because very little data exist. What data do exist suggest that members of the LGBTQ+ community experience more harassment and bullying in the scientific workplace than their non-LGBTQ+ peers and are more likely to leave science. However, while we have reliable data on race and binary M/F gender in the scientific workforce from the National Science Foundation (NSF), we have no direct data on LGBTQ+ people in the scientific workforce.

In October 2020, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and several other signatories submitted a letter calling for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to work with NSF to include questions related to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the National Survey of College Graduates, as well as in other surveys related to the scientific workforce to obtain this much-needed data. NSF has expressed support for adding these questions, but these efforts have encountered delays, in part because the questions are difficult to frame. Questions about sexual orientation and gender identity may be sensitive, and the questions must be posed thoughtfully to avoid alienating the very populations we want to support. In addition, while it may be convenient to aggregate all members of the LGBTQ+ community into one statistical bucket, the experiences of a cisgender white gay man, a black lesbian, and a trans person are likely to be very different. In addition, younger people are more likely to be comfortable identifying as genderqueer or non-binary. Therefore, the data collection efforts must take these complex issues of identity and intersectionality into consideration, and allow for robust disaggregation of grouped data.

But the need for this data is pressing. How can we make policies and work toward equity and inclusion if we don’t know how many of us are out there? Evidence suggests that LGBTQ+ undergraduate students are as interested in STEM fields as their counterparts but are less likely to remain in STEM. Climate studies like the one done by the American Physical Society show that many scientific workplaces, which includes research laboratories and field sites, remain hostile environments for LGBTQ+ people. In addition, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals experience the highest rates of sexual assault on college campuses. These hostile environments can lead to feelings of exclusion and alienation. If an LGBTQ+ person has to hide part of their identity to fit in or be safe, then they cannot be their full selves. Science, despite its facts and figures, is a human endeavor, and hiding who you are limits your capacity to think, create, and be productive. Ultimately, this results in talented people leaving science. 

The NIH and NSF have identified populations that are underrepresented in STEM, including women, people from certain racial and ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities, and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. These federal agencies use these definitions to design policies, procedures, and programs to help mitigate the discrepancies in the scientific workforce. Although the limited data available suggest that LGBTQ+ people are also underrepresented in STEM, the lack of more comprehensive, robust data, which must come from official sources, hinders our ability to address this issue. Science thrives when the most talented people are able to tackle the most challenging problems. But when talented people leave the field because they don’t feel as if they belong, then the whole scientific enterprise suffers. 

About the Author:

Lee Ligon is an Associate Professor of Biology and Associate Dean of Science for Academic Affairs at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Follow Lee on Twitter at @DrLigon.
Derek Applewhite is an Associate Professor of Biology at Reed College in Portland, OR. The central goal of his research is to understand the regulation of the cytoskeleton.