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Exclusionary attitudes at work drive LGBT+ scientists away

There is a plethora of evidence that diversity in laboratories drives innovation and discovery within the sciences. Inclusion of people from a range of races, genders and sexualities has been shown to improve the quality of research via the introduction of different viewpoints and backgrounds. For example, as more women move into the sciences, how health problems like heart disease impact women differently has helped to improve treatment. Yet, it is still important that we cultivate inclusivity in the environments where these scientists work, and there is evidence LGBT+ scientists may be feeling alienated.

recent survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry has highlighted a hidden issue within the physical sciences, producing some bleak statistics on the negative attitudes that can persist within academia. In the poll, it was found that 28% of LGBT+ scientists have considered leaving their jobs because of the exclusionary attitudes that their co-workers hold. For transgender people specifically, this rises to half of those surveyed – 1 in 5 of whom consider leaving their job ‘very often’ because of their work environment.

It was found that 28% of LGBT+ scientists have considered leaving their jobs because of the exclusionary attitudes that their co-workers hold

However, these statistics may not represent the entire issue, as less than 60% of LGBT+ people in STEM are even out of the closet to their colleagues to begin with, as negative attitudes continue to persist that deter people from feeling comfortable enough to do so. These attitudes can come in different forms. For example, one in three physicists from the USA have been told to remain in the closet by work colleagues. This can be for a myriad of reasons: from personal safety to perceptions of being seen as ‘unprofessional’ by their peers. Whilst half of transgender and gender non-conforming people have been harassed in their department. With harassment often taking the form of refusal of co-workers to use the correct pronouns or name of transgender and non-binary people in their department.

Jennifer Dyer, head of diversity at the institute of physics, said that it’s “all the tiny things that, over time, build up to create a culture that isn’t particularly welcoming”. This often means that co-workers are not explicitly malicious in what they are saying but instead contributed to alienation by making inappropriate jokes or with specific use of language – such as using ‘gay’ in a derogatory way.

Less than 60% of LGBT+ people in STEM are even out of the closet to their colleagues to begin with, as negative attitudes continue to persist that deter people from feeling comfortable enough to do so

In a specific case of the hostile environment that can be fostered for LGBT+ people, back in 2016 the CERN laboratory – famous for its work on the large hadron collider – was involved in accusations of homophobia after posters put up by the lab’s LGBT club were torn down or defaced with homophobic bible scripture. Evidence that the well-meaning phrase ‘but it’s the 21st century’ does not always hold true when LGBT+ people raise their concerns about negative attitudes towards them.

Alfredo Carpineti, co-founder of Pride in STEM, and a gay astrophysicist, said “I see a lot of inequalities and challenges for LGBT people in STEM that are not being addressed.” Carpineti set up the organisation Pride in STEM to support LGBT people in the sciences and engineering in response to what he saw as a failing on the part of these academic institutions.

Carpineti set up the organisation Pride in STEM to support LGBT people in the sciences and engineering

This all amounts to a perception of the sciences as being less hospitable to LGBT+ students – lesbian, gay and bisexual students are 10% less likely to enter a career in STEM than straight students, perhaps unsurprising given the stats. But in losing these potential scientists we rob science of the chance to benefit from perspectives that otherwise would not be present in research.

Despite these persistent issues, 75% of all the respondents felt that the working environment for LGBT+ physical scientists was comfortable and 70% thought that the situation was improving. Yet this is still an issue in working progress, leaving 1 in 4 people still uncomfortable within their place of work due to attitudes towards their gender and sexuality.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual students are 10% less likely to enter a career in STEM than straight students, perhaps unsurprising given the stats

Surveys like this can be used as a jumping off point to work out where issues may lie for these scientists. This important work highlights areas where institutions could improve and make an environment where LGBT+ people can flourish and do their science without fear of prejudice. Hopefully in the future this will lead to a world where 100% of LGBT+ scientists feel comfortable and safe enough at work to come out to their colleagues.

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