SWE Assists in LGBTQIA+ Research

Recent studies show that undergraduate students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, intersex, asexual+ (LGBTQIA+) experience a similar “chilly” climate in engineering as women do. While there is limited research on LGBTQIA+ students’ engineering undergraduate experiences, SWE is collaborating with Dr. Chrystal A. S. Smith, a University of Connecticut researcher, to better understand these experiences.
SWE Leadership Summit Update

What does the research say about LGBTQA+ workplace experiences?

By Ursula Nguyen

A study conducted by Yoder and Mattheis (2016), which surveyed 1,427 participants that identified as LGBTQA and worked in a STEM occupation, found a significant difference among STEM fields in participants’ openness about their LGBTQA identities to their colleagues. Specifically, survey respondents that worked in Earth sciences, engineering, mathematics, and psychology reported being less out to colleagues while those who worked in life science, physical science, and social science reported being more open about their LGBTQA identities to their colleagues. This research study also found a positive correlation between participants’ median rating of openness about their LGBTQA identities to colleagues and percentage of women scientists or engineers in that field (Figure 1). This positive relationship was statistically significant when the researchers excluded the field of Psychology, which did not follow the linear trend (possibly due to nondisclosure professional standards). This work highlights the importance of creating STEM work environments that are more inclusive and diverse.

SWE Assists in LGBTQIA+ Research
Figure 1. Source: Yoder & Mattheis (2016). Note: A regression across all points is nonsignificant with p = .31 (solid line). However, a regression excluding data from psychology, in which professional standards may prevent openness independent of workplace climate, is significant with p = 0.02 (dashed line).

What about STEM undergraduate experiences?

At the undergraduate level, Hughes (2018) conducted a longitudinal study on LGBQ students’ persistence in a STEM major after four years among students that intended to major in STEM in 2011. Participants included 4,162 students across 78 U.S. institutions. Of these participants, about 8% identified as LGBQ. Overall, sexual minority students were about 7% less likely to stay in STEM majors, switching out to a non-STEM major at higher rates than their heterosexual peers (Figure 2). Further, after accounting for factors that are associated with retention, sexual minority men were less likely to persist in a STEM major than heterosexual men. The opposite was observed among women, such that sexual minority women were more likely to stay in a STEM major than heterosexual women.

SWE Assists in LGBTQIA+ Research
Figure 2. Source: Hughes (2018).

Cech, Waidzunas, and Farrell’s (2017) preliminary findings shed light on the experiences of LGBTQ students from eight U.S. engineering programs. Of the 1,729 study participants, about 8.7% identified as LGBTQ. Overall, LGBTQ students were more likely to report negative experiences in engineering than their non-LGBTQ peers, including experiences of marginalization from their classmates, devaluation of their engineering work, and personal day-to-day experiences. For example, LGBTQ engineering students were more likely to feel the need to hide their personal lives from peers and were also more likely to have trouble sleeping to the point that it affected their school performance. The researchers also analyzed the extent to which the engineering climate differed across these eight programs. They found very little difference in the overall climate, further indicating that heterosexism and heteronormativity are the general culture of engineering.

Call to Participate in LGBTQIA+ Research

As noted, there is limited literature on the lived experiences of LGBTQIA+ students who study STEM and more specifically engineering. Recent research has focused on workplace environments or undergraduate experiences that are limited to a few institutions. Nevertheless, these studies allow us to see how masculinity, heteronormativity, and heterosexism are pervasive in the culture of engineering. Although we know the engineering workplace is a chilly environment not only for women but also for those who identify as LGBTQIA+, more research is needed to learn the extent to which this culture is mirrored in undergraduate engineering programs across the U.S. Moreover, studies are needed to understand the experiences of LGBTQIA+ students and what factors influence LGBTQIA+ students to leave or persist in STEM. Therefore, SWE is collaborating with Dr. Chrystal A. S. Smith to better understand these experiences. Dr. Smith is currently seeking STEM undergraduates who identify as LGBTQIA+ for her study. Your participation in the interviews will aid in the development of a survey that will also be distributed through SWE. If you are interested in participating, please contact Dr. Smith at chrystal.smith@uconn.edu.

Below is more information on participating in these interviews:

Dear Student,

If you identify as LGBTQIA+ and are pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) program, we would like to conduct an interview with you about your experiences. The interview will take no more than 40 minutes and will be conducted via videoconference or by phone. For participating in the interview, you will receive a $25 Amazon electronic gift card. If you are interested in participating in the interview, please contact me immediately at chrystal.smith@uconn.eduto schedule an appointment.

This interview is part of the NSF-funded study titled, “Measuring the Effects of Academic Climate and Social Networks on Persistence of STEM Undergraduates.”being conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut (UConn) and the University of South Florida (USF) to gain a better understanding of the experiences and perceptions of LGBTQIA+ undergraduates in STEM Programs.

Dr. Chrystal A. S. Smith is the Principal Investigator of this study, which has been approved by the University of Connecticut Institutional Research Board (H17-188).  All the information that you share with us will be kept confidential. This information will be kept on the UConn computer server which is password protected. Study records will be kept for at minimum of three years.


Yoder, J. B. & Mattheis, A. (2016). Queer in STEM: Workplace experiences reported in a national survey of LGBTQA individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Journal of Homosexuality, 63(1), 1-27.

Hughes, B. E. (2018). Coming out in STEM: Factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students. Science Advances, 4(3).

Cech, E. A., Waidzunas, T. J., & Farrell, S. (2017). The inequality of LGBTQ students in U.S. engineering education: Report on a study of eight engineering programs.Paper presented at the American Society for Engineering Education annual conference, Columbus, OH.