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LGBT Scientists Must Chart Their Own Course

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) scientists--a sometimes invisible minority within the scientific community--face unique career challenges. A recent panel discussion explored these issues and offered participants excellent advice. A panel of six, representing both junior- and senior-level faculty members and researchers from several Bay Area academic institutions and industry, was convened by the University of California, San Francisco?s LGBT Student Association with support from UCSF?s Postdoctoral Scholars Association, Women in Life Sciences, Graduate Students Association, LGBT Resource Center, and the UCSF Career Center.

The purpose of this first-of-its-kind event was to find out how the panelists had dealt with the challenges and triumphs associated with balancing their personal and professional lives as LGBT scientists.

Most scientists, gay or straight, believe that the quality of their science is the main determinant of a successful career launch. However, the audience for this event--around 50 graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff--also wanted to know how much personal lives REALLY count in hiring, tenure, and promotion processes. Is being LGBT different in academia than it is in industry? Should you come out as LGBT to your adviser while in grad school and if so, how? Should you come out as LGBT right away in an interview? Should you come out to your students? Or should you pass, simply allowing others to think you?re straight? Or should you actively protect yourself from potential discrimination, even if you have to lie about your personal life, until you?re comfortably ensconced in a position of security or leadership--say, a tenured senior faculty member or a senior-level manager?

With such tough issues on the table, the panelists struggled to provide across-the-board answers to the questions. Ultimately however, they could agree on only a single universal piece of advice during the spirited hour-long discussion:

Although much progress has been made for LGBT scientists in recent years, it is still wise--regardless of how stellar your science is--to plan carefully and to exercise caution when making choices about when, how, and to whom you come out.

In addition to this advice, panelists also made these points to LGBT scientists who are beginning to think about how to strike a balance between their work and personal lives:

It?s difficult to be an "out" LGBT scientist, but it?s easier than it used to be! One young faculty member in the audience applauded the courage of the senior panelists, remarking, "At least we now have heroes--successful scientists who happen to be LGBT and out at work, yet who are comfortable and secure in their professional lives. Ten years ago, there were no role models--no one!"

You have to chart your own course! Although each panelist was an out, successful scientist, it became clear that each individual had reached that point in their careers through a unique set of experiences and circumstances. Young LGBT scientists launching a career must create their own "best path" toward balancing a professional life with a personal life not valued by some colleagues. But how do you begin to plan your path? Panelists suggested considering these factors:

Location: Most agreed that in the San Francisco area, the "Bay Bubble" provides a uniquely protective place for LGBT scientists, where the quality of your science may overshadow your sexual orientation. One panelist noted that when she came out to her department chair after he had mistakenly invited her "husband" to a departmental party, he expressed neither shock nor surprise. This highly successful, now tenured faculty member has experienced no negative effect to her career. Other panelists had experienced less welcoming and even hostile environments at various stages in their careers and in various locations around the United States. Overall, the panel perceived universities located on either coast to be generally more open and welcoming communities than those in the Midwest or South.

Field of study and department: Some disciplines are perceived as more open than others to accepting and promoting LGBT scientists and engineers. Many perceive the life sciences to be a relatively "liberal" field. Within the life sciences, the panelists believe medical and clinical departments to be more accessible to LGBT scientists than basic science departments.

Before coming out, graduate students and postdocs in more conservative fields should consider the long-term implications of coming out. If you?re training at a university in a location where it?s comfortable to be out, but you?re in a conservative field, coming out may have few immediate negative consequences. But when it?s time to go on the job market, you may face a move to less accepting parts of the United States where you might have a different experience.

Short-term career goals: Is it best to "pass as straight" at work? For one panelist, the beginning of his career was "all about the science and only about the science." So only after he had reached a few important milestones in his career did he feel comfortable coming out and bringing his partner to work/social functions. Some panelists strongly agreed that this was the best approach, especially for temporary or short-term career assignments. Others did not see it that way. They stressed that shielding your life outside of the lab from co-workers merely defers an uncomfortable situation to a later date when they inevitably find out you are LGBT. One panelist summed up her approach: "It?s never right to mislead your co-workers."

Long-term career goals: One panelist stressed that "attrition occurs at all stages" within academia. The hiring, tenure, and promotion system is not particularly kind to LGBT scientists. Yet others felt that attrition is more prevalent primarily at senior career levels. One panelist mentioned that, "You can get in the door, but you might bump up against the Lavender Ceiling later on." This comment referred to the perceived tendency for committees to be blind to sexual orientation in hiring, but not in tenuring or promoting LGBT faculty to positions of leadership. Panelists theorized that the Lavender Ceiling may result from fewer opportunities for out LGBT scientists to fit into essential scientific social networks outside of the lab.

In the lab, it may take a long time for co-workers to adjust to the news of your sexual orientation. Panelists addressed the challenges they faced when coming out in laboratory environments where co-workers are close and constantly present. For some, the subtle approach worked best. They quietly "came out then dealt with the silence" while co-workers processed the information and, one by one, either became "ok with it" or, in rare cases, never spoke to them again. One panelist found the "shock approach" to be successful. She wore a "Nobody Knows I?m a Lesbian" T-shirt to the lab one day and then made jokes with her co-workers, which she said helped relieve stress among those who didn?t know what to say to her!

Change happens most effectively when it?s from the top down. Most panelists agreed that while acceptance in the lab often happens one co-worker at a time, the ideal company or university recruits and retains the best scientists, regardless of sexual orientation, by instituting top-down policies. One panelist from industry told about his benefits orientation, a first-day group meeting with human resources. Nothing special was made of the explanation of same-sex domestic partner benefits; the employees received a clear message that they have access to those benefits at any time, and equally with their married colleagues. The message sent to the group of new employees was that the company valued LGBT employees just as much as their straight colleagues.

The panelists for this seminar were:

          Dr. Robert Beatty (UC Berkeley)

          Dr. Frauke Bentzien (Exelixis)

          Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi (UC Berkeley)

          Dr. Joanne Engel (UC San Francisco)

          Dr. Joan Roughgarden (Stanford University)

          Dr. Michael Yakes (Exelixis)

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