A Groundbreaking Study Reveals Widespread Discrimination and Suggests Just How Much Poorer STEM Fields Are as a Result.
In 1981, an influential letter was published in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Written by Shirley Malcom, then the head of AAAS’ Office of Opportunities in Science, the letter delivered an urgent warning: Discrimination against gay and lesbian professionals presented a problem to the field as a whole. “While we do not deny the effects on the persons who are discriminated against,” Malcom wrote, “we seldom see the effects on science and technology, which is poorer for the loss of any talent because of personal attributes that are irrelevant to ability as scientists and engineers, be it race, religion, sex, national origin, physical disability, or sexual orientation.”
More than four decades later, a groundbreaking new study suggests just how much poorer science and technology has become because of this discrimination. The research, conducted by sociologists Erin Cech of the University of Michigan and Tom Waidzunas of Temple University, is the first comprehensive national look at the experience of LGBTQ scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in STEM workplaces. With a sample size of more than 25,000, the study offers new insight into the bias that LGBTQ professionals must contend with at work. Among its findings: LGBTQ professionals experience 30 percent more harassment and social exclusion than their non-LGBTQ peers, and 20 percent greater incidence of professional devaluation, including lack of proper credit for their expertise.
Cech and Waidzunas’s work joins a long tradition of research that reveals practices and inequities that punish marginalized groups—and make a case for change. An early, visually striking use of data for advocacy is the collection of graphs titled “The American Negro,” which W.E.B. DuBois and his students prepared for an exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1921. In bold colors and often unusual shapes, the graphs documented the cultural, economic, educational, and intellectual achievements of American Negroes, supporting DuBois’s assertion that they were “a small nation of people who were studying, examining and thinking of their own progress and prospects.”
Data needn’t be complex to make a point. More than half a century after DuBois, investigative reporter Randy Shilts published And the Band Played On, which presented data in its simplest form to expose how the national press’s failure to document AIDS helped the disease spread unchecked. In October 1982, when seven people died from Tylenol laced with cyanide, he reported, the New York Times published 34 stories about the murders and the federal investigation that followed. The same month, 634 people were diagnosed with AIDS, and 260 died. In all of 1981, the Times published three stories about AIDS, and in 1982, it published another three.
Shilts, one of the first openly gay journalists to write for a major newspaper, was part of the nascent modern gay rights movement that grew around the 1969 Stonewall uprising. The scholarly Journal of Homosexuality was founded soon after, in 1974, with the goal of publishing research that provided alternatives to the prevailing model of homosexuality as pathology. Through the ’70s and ’80s, sociological, historical, and literary studies of gay culture burgeoned in its pages, and to a lesser extent in other journals. Yet the experience of LGBTQ people in the workplace was little studied—in part because the same social climate that kept LGBTQ professionals closeted created barriers to conventional scholarly work and powerful disincentives for research.
Rochelle Diamond, a founding member of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Science and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), has been a practicing scientist and fully out since the early ’80s. She recalled scholars receiving no encouragement to ask questions about LGBTQ people’s work experience, few individuals willing to identify openly as LGBTQ, no funds to support research, and few journals that would consider such work.
Donna Riley, head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University, has long advocated for an equitable playing field for all minorities in STEM education and employment. She recalls searching the literature for workplace studies in the early 2000s, and finding very little quantitative work. “[The research] was thin. I would say formal research on the LGBTQ STEM community is absolutely a recent phenomenon,” she explained.
In the ’80s and ’90s NOGLSTP stepped into this vacuum by publishing a series of pamphlets about the realities of doing science while gay, including “Who are the Gay and Lesbian Scientists?” about queer scientists of historical note, “Measuring the Gay and Lesbian Population,” and “Sexual Orientation and Computer Privacy.” The pamphlets were influential and widely (albeit quietly) circulated within the queer scientific community.