It’s no secret that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields have a problem retaining women and racial minorities. Now, a new study provides quantitative evidence that the same problem applies to some sexual minorities—a group that anecdotally has been known to experience challenges in STEM but has eluded thorough examination owing to a lack of data. But there’s a twist: Retention is lower for men who identify as LGBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer), while LGBQ women are actually more likely to persist in STEM than their heterosexual peers.
“We’ve known for a long time that sexual minorities experience marginalization and devaluation in fields like engineering,” says Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who wasn’t involved in the new research but has interviewed lesbian, gay, and bisexual students about their experiences in engineering. That’s especially true for LGBQ men because there’s “a strong devaluation of femininity in STEM,” and gay men encounter discrimination that heterosexual men—and oftentimes lesbians—don’t have to deal with, she adds.
Now there are numbers to back up those experiences. The new study looked at a 2015 survey of 4162 college seniors at 78 U.S. institutions, roughly 8% of whom identified as LGBQ (the study focused on sexual identity and did not consider transgender status). All of the students had declared an intention to major in STEM 4 years earlier. Overall, 71% of heterosexual students and 64% of LGBQ students stayed in STEM. But looking at men and women separately uncovered more complexity. After controlling for things like high school grades and participation in undergraduate research, the study revealed that heterosexual men were 17% more likely to stay in STEM than their LGBQ male counterparts. The reverse was true for women: LGBQ women were 18% more likely than heterosexual women to stay in STEM.
These results show that “LGBTQ folks are in science, and we’re interested,” says Jeremy Yoder, an assistant professor of biology at California State University in Northridge who has also done some research about the experience of LGBTQ scientists. But when it comes to gay men, “we’re not necessarily finding conditions that make it as easy for us to stay, and that’s worrying.” It’s exciting to see some research attention on the problem, he adds.
Kristen Renn, a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, agrees that the new work is important but notes that we still don’t know why LGBQ men left STEM at a higher rate. She’d be curious to ask departing students whether they left because STEM wasn’t truly what they wanted to do or because they had to contend with a hostile climate.
It certainly wasn’t because they had less access to the lab: In fact, 49% of LGBQ students in the survey reported undergraduate research experience, as compared with 41% of heterosexual STEM students. Study author Bryce Hughes, an assistant professor of adult and higher education at Montana State University in Bozeman, thinks that may reflect the commitment of those LGBQ students who stay in STEM. Research experiences usually happen in the last year or two of a program, and the students that stick around until then may be especially committed. It could also be that LGBQ students in STEM feel that they need to “go above and beyond to prove their technical competence,” says Cortland Russell, the president of oSTEM, a nonprofit professional society that supports LGBTQ students in STEM, with more than 75 student chapters at colleges and universities across the United States and abroad.
One thing that could increase the likelihood of LGBQ students sticking with STEM is providing an environment where they can be open about their personal life, says Russell, who earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and now works in employee development and retention at Accenture in Atlanta. As a student, he got the impression that his “sexual orientation was not going to be talked about in the classroom,” which made it hard for him to be truly comfortable and himself, he says. And when he did come out, he’d sometimes notice people giving him a double take, as if to say, “Oh wait, you’re queer,” he recalls. Although this experience didn’t push him out of STEM, others might decide they don’t want to put up with it. Some fields may be better than others: In a 2013 survey about workplace experiences in STEM, Yoder and a colleague found that LGBTQA people were more likely to be open about their sexual orientation in fields with more women, such as biology.
Renn also thinks that it’s important to show undergrads why science can help people. In her work, she’s noticed that LGBT students sometimes switch majors to focus on areas that allow them to give back to the community. “They have come to see that there are injustices in the world” and it might be easier to see themselves positively impacting communities if they go into something like teaching or social work instead of science, she says.
But Yoder worries that gay men may move to education and the social sciences because those fields are viewed as being more feminine. “If students are finding their passion outside STEM, that’s one thing, but we want to make sure that they’re not being told that they shouldn’t be in STEM,” he says.
Hughes had himself majored in engineering during college but switched gears afterward to pursue a Ph.D. in education. “I found other activities that pulled me away and got me interested more,” he says. But sometimes he wonders whether “identifying as openly gay might have played a role.”
Update, 15 March, 3:30 p.m.: A statement was added to clarify that the Science Advances study did not consider transgender status.