Out LGBTQ scientists: Between success and discrimination | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 27.06.2022

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Out LGBTQ scientists: Between success and discrimination

Scientists who are out and part of LGBTQ communities have more emotional energy for their work, giving them a chance to thrive. But they still get prejudice.

Little Lego figurines in rainbow colors

Diverse and tolerant workplaces give LGBTQ scientists the chance to thrive in their fields

Whether it's starting a new job or joining a new working group or laboratory at your university: Pretty much any situation where you are in a new environment and want to make a good first impression can be nerve-wracking.

For people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ), there's an added layer to the nervousness. Should you tell your colleagues, classmates or professors about your identity? And if you don't do it right away, is there a point at which it's too late to bring it up? 

"Identity management is an ongoing thing for anyone who is not in the majority," says Kristen Renn, a professor of higher education at Michigan State University, whose research focuses on LGBTQ issues. 

The "majority" to which Renn refers consists of cis-gender, heterosexual people: Those who live with the sex assigned to them at birth and who are attracted to members of the opposite sex ― and who are likely not wondering whether to come out as straight when they meet new people.

But gay, transgender, asexual ― does any of that even matter when you are working or looking to start a career in STEM?

After all, aren't the sciences, technology, engineering and math based on cold, hard facts and numbers? So, there are no prejudices about sexual orientation or gender identity… Right?  

"In a perfect world, that is exactly how it would be," says Matthew Charles. "But of course science is done by people."

Charles is a physicist and lecturer at Sorbonne Université in Paris. He is also part of a team working on a Large Hadron Collider experiment at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzerland, and a member of the "LGBTQ CERN" network.

"In our field of particle physics, work is done in collaborations of often thousands of people," Charles says. "So it's important that we're able to work together in a constructive environment, and it's important that the individual scientists are treated with respect."

But, as Charles pointed out, science is done by people. And some people still harbor prejudices that hinder constructive collaboration.

Highly educated doesn't always mean open-minded

A team of researchers from the Institute of Physics, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK surveyed LGBTQ natural scientists and allies in the UK and Ireland in 2019. "Allies" is a recognized term for people who are cis-gender and straight and support LGBTQ communities.

They evaluated 1,025 surveys and found that 28% of LGBTQ respondents had considered leaving their workplace because of a negative climate or discrimination towards LGBTQ people.

When looking at transgender participants only, the number was even higher. Almost half of the transgender scientists reported that they had considered quitting their jobs because of a negative climate in the workplace.

"There are certain ideas in western countries about how being more educated means that you're more open-minded, which might not be as true in other countries producing top scientists," Renn says. "Just think about Russia or China or Iran. These are not necessarily places that have the most open societies in terms of LGBTQ."

Participants of a Shanghai Pride Run jump up into the air (2015)

Events celebrating the LGBTQ community, like this 2015 Pride Run in Shanghai, aren't common in China

Where scientists with different cultures collide

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, attracts scientists and researchers at the top of their fields from across the world.

Roughly 10,000 people, many of them affiliated with external organizations, laboratories or universities, work on experiments at CERN. Not all of them are on-site all of the time. Many researchers only come to Geneva for a short time, ranging from a few weeks to a few years. 

In such a transient work environment, with people coming and going all the time, the most efficient way for the LGBTQ network to inform people about its events, Charles says, is to put up good old-fashioned paper posters.

But in 2016 reports emerged that the LGBTQ network's posters had repeatedly been taken down, torn up or defaced.

In one instance, someone had scrawled the German word for pig across a poster. In another, someone had taped a Bible verse from Leviticus that called for the killing of gay men to a poster.

"Clearly, that's very distressing," Charles says.

A decade ago, he says, he wouldn't have felt comfortable sharing that he's gay with colleagues.

But there has been a lot of progress at CERN, says Charles, who has worked on-site at the Geneva facility in 2022 and before that between 2018 and 2020.

It really helps, he says, when leadership sets the tone and takes LGBTQ issues seriously.

When something happens now, "CERN comes down on that," Charles says. "They make clear they strongly disapprove, that this behavior is against the Code of Conduct and that it will not be tolerated by CERN."

Out LGBTQ researchers publish more papers

Open, welcoming workplaces are more conducive to productive research being done.

"People who are happy in their work and able to be their full selves, can be more productive," Renn says. "They can form partnerships, and collaboration in STEM is super important."

A review conducted in the US and published this March in the journal Plos One found that LGBQ researchers who were out at work published more articles in scientific journals than their colleagues who were not open about their sexual orientation at work. The researchers reviewed responses from a total of 1,745 participants. They did not observe an effect of outness related to gender identity (which is why there is no "T" in the LGBQ acronym used here).

Diversity at work: A win for everyone! - MADE

Renn says that welcoming workplaces could be one factor in the difference — that people who worked in places where they felt they couldn't come out were less productive. But there could be another explanation, too.

For scientists who are out in their professional lives, "the time and energy you are not spending concealing your identity is available for you to use for other things, like work," Renn says.

Charles confirms that. "It's one less thing to worry about. If you continually play the game of 'What do I say, how do I phrase this, what pronouns do I have to use referring to myself or others?' it adds a sort of overhead. It's another source of stress. And I personally found it much better not to have to worry about that."

Everyone benefits from a lack of discrimination

When university labs or research workplaces are open, welcoming places where scientists feel comfortable being out, it's also a signal for other LGBTQ researchers or students who are considering the next step in their careers. 

"Every field should be open to everyone," Renn says. "In the US we don't have enough scientists. We cannot exclude entire swaths of the population. And queer people might ask different questions or do their science differently."

So, by creating a welcoming, open work climate, an organization's leaders don't just give equal opportunities to members of the LGBTQ community, they also open up their labs and research facilities to a wider variety of perspectives.  

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany