Shining a Spotlight on LGBTQ+ Visibility in STEM

In honor of the second annual LGBTSTEM Day on July 5, 2019, Eos dives into the issues of visibility for people of sexual and gender minorities in the sciences. How does being open at work affect scientists’ ability to perform? How does visibility affect young scientists’ growth? And how are LGBTQ+ people still missing from our data sets?
LGBTQ+ image - many raised hands painted rainbow colors

“Shining a Spotlight on LGBTQ+ Visibility in STEM” was written by Jenessa Duncombe and published on eos.org.


When assistant professor Lisa Graumlich told a university administrator in the 1980s about her partner, the administrator gave her a piece of advice: “She said, ‘It’s OK to be gay, Lisa, but don’t let anyone find out,’” Graumlich recalled. The administrator held a senior role at the university where Graumlich hoped to get tenure.

Three decades later, science undergraduate Rob Ulrich grew increasingly isolated working in a laboratory in a small town, where he struggled to find people whom he felt connected with in the sciences.

“I got to that point where I was so lonely and so isolated,” Ulrich said. He almost considered leaving science and recalled thinking, “I need to get out of here.”

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQ+) individuals continue to cope with inhospitable work environments, despite progress in public support for LGBTQ+ people over the past several decades. Scientists face workplace discrimination, lack of health services and infrastructure, harassment and assault, and other challenges, all of which can be compounded if they are part of other marginalized groups.

Yet according to a report released by the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society, and Royal Society of Chemistry in June 2019, one of the most basic needs of LGBTQ+ scientists is to be seen and respected for who they are. Increasing visibility is a critical area of action listed in the report.

According to a 2019 report, one of the most basic needs of LGBTQ+ scientists is to be seen and respected for who they are. Increasing visibility is a critical area of action listed in the report.

In honor of the second annual LGBTSTEM Day on 5 July 2019, Eos dives into the issues of visibility for people of sexual and gender minorities in the sciences. How does being open at work affect scientists’ ability to perform? How does visibility affect young scientists’ growth? And how are LGBTQ+ people still missing from our data sets?

To Be Seen in the Workplace

A person in a crowd holds up a sign saying “We Exist” with a rainbow flag flying in background
Credit: Karla Martinez/EyeEm/Getty Images

A person’s identity includes both visible and invisible aspects. Individuals with invisible and stigmatized identities, like people belonging to sexual and gender minorities, must repeatedly choose whether to reveal themselves to others in their daily life.

Choosing to be openly LGBTQ+ in the workplace can be particularly difficult in the sciences, where personal details are often thought to take a backseat to the pursuit of objective scientific truths.

Graumlich, who now serves as the dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington, said that building a welcoming workplace for LGBTQ+ scientists is not an abstract construct: She calls it central to science.

“Building a welcoming workplace for LGBTQ+ scientists is not an abstract construct: it is central to science.”

When Graumlich heeded the advice of her superior and hid her life from her colleagues as an assistant professor, she grew exhausted. As she withdrew into herself, dodging colleagues’ questions and staying silent during offensive jokes, she watched her scientific creativity deteriorate and her publishing rates slow.

Frustrated, Graumlich told her colleagues the truth. Soon after, her creativity rushed back to her, breathing new life into her work and helping her find her stride again while writing papers and applying for grants.

“In retrospect, I realized what a toll this had taken on me,” she said. “To me, the whole thing that I learned was that if we don’t bring our whole selves into our life and work as a scientist, something is missing.”

“If we don’t bring our whole selves into our life and work as a scientist, something is missing.”

Although data for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals are sparse, a 2013 online survey of 1,427 scientists found that 43% kept their LGBTQ+ identity hidden from the majority of their colleagues, even though research suggests that concealing one’s identity can lead to isolation, difficulties maintaining close relationships, and social avoidance. People in the disciplines of Earth sciences, engineering, mathematics, and psychology reported that they were less open to their colleagues than those in the life sciences, social sciences, and physical sciences. People working in fields with a higher percentage of female scientists reported higher levels of openness at work.

There is ample reason for LGBTQ+ people to keep themselves hidden: In the United States, individuals can be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation in 28 states, and gender minorities lack protection in most states as well. Even in states with workplace protections, sexual and gender minorities face prejudice. Worldwide, support for LGBTQ+ people varies, and people from marginalized communities may face increased risks talking openly with their colleagues.

For some, sharing their personal lives at work may seem irrelevant, which Graumlich can understand. But for increasingly cross disciplinary research on complex systems in the Earth and space sciences, Graumlich said, scientists must be able to not only perform at their best but work comfortably in teams and trust one another.

“We need science and scientists to be as productive and creative and connected to each other as possible,” she said. “If we don’t feel that we can be out, then science is suffering.”

To See Ourselves in Others

For scientists at the dawn of their career, having role models can transform their picture of what’s possible. The recent initiative Queer Science at the University of Minnesota brings queer and transgender high school students into laboratories for hands-on activities. But scientists at all career levels can benefit from mentorship.

During the process of applying to doctoral programs,  Shayle Matsuda found solace in a 1-hour meeting with a senior scientist in a different field who was also transgender.

“That one conversation was extremely pivotal for me,” said Matsuda, now a Ph.D. candidate at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

Transgender flag flies at office building
The pink and blue transgender flag flies above an office building.
Credit: Flickr.com/Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC BY 2.0

“Being in an office of someone who is so successful who had gone through the same things that I had gone through” was meaningful, said Matsuda. “That moment was really powerful and really important for me in finding myself and that I belong [in STEM].”

Despite the power of mentorship, not all students are able to find support.

As Rob Ulrich worked as an undergraduate in a laboratory at his institution, he struggled to feel less alone in science. “It was sad because I loved the research there,” he said, but he couldn’t wait to finish his degree and “get out.”

Ulrich wasn’t sure if he wanted to attend graduate school but decided to apply to programs just in case, using the locations of cities that openly welcome LGBTQ+ communities as his number one priority. When he received an offer from the University of California, Los Angeles, he decided to stay in the sciences.

“I honestly don’t know if I would have gone to graduate school had I not gotten into a school that was in such a great location for queer people,” he said.

A 2018 analysis of undergraduate students across 78 different U.S. institutions found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer students were 7% less likely to stay in a science than their heterosexual peers, and men were particularly at risk of leaving science. Nearly half of all transgender scientistssurveyed in the physical sciences have considered leaving their workplace, according to a separate analysis.

Bryce Hughes, the author of the 2018 study, told Eos that the most surprising finding was that students of sexual minorities still quit science even after participating in undergraduate research, one of the key retention tools for STEM.

“Undergraduate research is almost upheld as the panacea for keeping people in the science field,” Hughes said. Yet sexual minority students, who were 10% more likely to participate in undergraduate research, didn’t finish their STEM degree. The findings suggest that motivated and trained STEM students opt not to continue.

Invisible Data Points

Without proof that LGBTQ+ scientists are underserved or underrepresented, education researchers struggle to win grants from funding agencies to study LGBTQ+ retention and support. Researchers are stuck in a catch-22: needing more data but also needing more funding to provide that data, said Hughes.

To rally more data, 17 scientific associations and organizations wrote a letter to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in August 2018 requesting that the organization include sexual orientation and gender identity on their annual surveys of undergraduate and graduate students. The NSF obliged their request and agreed to add pilot questions in the future, most likely to their 2021 doctoral survey.

Another path to obtaining more data, Hughes said, is defining gender identity and sexual orientation as federally protected classes. Federal legislation would safeguard workers and drive organizations to collect LGBTQ+ data, just as they do for other protected classes like age, sex, race, disability, and veteran status. The Equality Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2019 and awaiting a Senate vote, is the most recent effort to ensure LGBTQ+ protection in law.

“If the Equality Act went through,” said Hughes, “that would impel a lot of organizations to then collect that data.”

Test tubes in a row filled with colored liquid form a rainbow
Credit: davidf/E+/Getty Images

Some researchers are taking matters into their own hands, like the grassroots initiative Queer in STEM. The group of researchers in education and STEM fields conducted two online surveys, the most recent of which included 3,200 respondents and is still being analyzed. One of the researchers, Allison Mattheis, said that their data set stood out from others in that it included a wealth of data on gender minorities.

“From my knowledge, we have the largest percentage of respondents who identified themselves as trans or gender nonconforming or gender queer,” Mattheis said of the second survey. “We are trying to include those voices in our research.”

Online Communities Leading the Way

While researchers still push for visibility in the sciences, Graumlich reflects that progress has been made, particularly as young scientists present openly and proudly at work and online. On the first LGBTSTEM Day last year, the event’s hashtag was tweeted more than 16,000 times and spanned many countries.

“It’s a pretty stark contrast with what my experience was in my early career,” Graumlich said.

For Ulrich, he credits the online database 500 Queer Scientists as one way he’s found community in graduate school. The website collects stories from scientists to share on their website alongside pictures and personal vignettes. Started 1 year ago, the site has over 900 profiles.

Headshots of scientists in the 500 Queer Scientists database
There are actually more than 900 participants in the online 500 Queer Scientists database. Credit: 500 Queer Scientists

Ulrich called the database instrumental in building a network of LGBTQ+ scientists all over the world.

“You’re instantly plugged into this online network of people,” he said. For other scientists looking to find community, he recommends looking online in addition to local options. “Once you do find us,” Ulrich said, “it’s so inclusive and welcoming.”

In a broader sense, Ulrich hopes that striving for equal opportunities for LGBTQ+ scientists will help STEM remake the mold of whom a scientist can be.

“We also need to break that stereotype that STEM is only objective and only your work matters,” Ulrich said. “Scientists and engineers are people too.”


—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow
Citation: Duncombe, J. (2019), Shining a spotlight on LGBTQ+ visibility in STEM, Eos, 100,https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO127693. Published on 03 July 2019.