Jeremey Yoder came out as gay while he was a graduate student in evolutionary biology. After he did, colleagues would often ask him if LGBTQ people were underrepresented in science. He honestly didn’t know. “One night I was digging around on Google Scholar for research that could address this question, and not finding much,” he says. But like a true scientist, he realized that he could find most of his answers by gathering his own data. A survey.
He sent a text message to Allison Mattheis, a friend and professor at California State University, Los Angeles. She knew more about surveys than he did. “It said something along the lines of ‘If I wanted to do an online survey of queer folks in STEM, how would I do that?'” Mattheis says. “And I wrote back something like ‘Are you asking me to introduce you to the world of the Institutional Review Board and doing research with humans? Sure, you can do this!'”
Within a week, they had registered their domain: queerstem.org.
That was 2013. If you visit that URL now, you’ll find the new, ongoing Queer in STEM 2.0 survey–an extension born out of the national 2015 “Out in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics” (oSTEM) conference (disclosure: I participated in the previous survey). At that event, Stanford University’s Joey Nelson approached Yoder with an offer of some funding and some time.
And some unanswered questions. The first survey worked to quantify and qualify the queer experience in science. But the second iteration, opened up in June of this year, includes that most necessary of scientific elements: the control group. It aims to compare queer and straight scientists on issues like their spread across fields, workplace climate, productivity, and overall professional experience.
As of mid-July, more than 2,500 people had turned in their answers. That’s already 1,000+ more than the first survey, with four months still to go before it closes at the national oSTEM conference in November.
With version 1.0, Yoder and Mattheis received 1,427 takes on queer STEM life, following up with open-ended questions by email, and phone and video interviews. Daniel Cruz-Ramirez de Arellano of the University of South Florida joined the team in 2015 to help analyze that qualitative data, and they expect to submit a manuscript to a peer-reviewed journal by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, they’ve already published their more quantitative results in the Journal of Homosexuality–and some of them hit hard. Many people didn’t know anyone with their same identity in their entire field. “Especially disappointing was when I would interview two people working in a similar field who had stories that essentially mirrored each other,” says Mattheis, “but those individuals had never met each other.”
Two other results especially struck Yoder. First, more than 40 percent of queer STEM workers haven’t told their colleagues, coworkers, or students about their identities. And second, LGBTQ people who work in fields with more women per capita are more likely to be out at work.
While the first result may feel discouraging, the second, Yoder says, is the opposite. “It suggests to me that workplace diversity really isn’t a zero-sum game,” he says. “Making a career more accessible and comfortable for women as well as men may help to open it up for people of different sexual orientations and non-binary gender identities, too.”
After they completed the survey, Yoder and Mattheis presented their results at conferences and published their paper. But Mattheis moved to California, and Yoder became busy with his other research. They hoped someday to get new Queer in STEM results, find more collaborators, find more money.
Yoder and Nelson’s meeting at oSTEM provided the catalyst and the cash they needed.
The next generation
Just three days after they posted the 2.0 survey, more people had already answered than had participated, total, in the first. In this version, they take on gender and sexual identity separately, and the survey’s responsive design routes people to questions related to their career stage and identity. It also digs into what workplace characteristics correspond to a welcoming atmosphere, how having visible queer colleagues changes careers, and how productivity might change (or not) the longer people are out.
Another big difference, though, is that the team is soliciting responses from straight people, to get a baseline for comparison (please do not take offense at the use of “baseline,” straight people or statisticians).
If you haven’t been a queer person, you might be asking yourself why this survey is necessary. “It’s 2016. Get over it already,” you may be thinking. “I love everyone and am rainbow-blind. Also, some of my best friends are gay.” It’s true that there’s less overt discrimination than in the past. But in 28 states, it’s still legal for employers to discriminate against someone for their sexual or gender identity.
Even if that’s unlikely to happen (especially at universities, which often have their own anti-discrimination policies), the stress of wondering what your colleagues think of your sexual or gender identity–and of having to “come out” about them at all–is real. Sometimes, especially at work, that disclosure comes as a correction to an incorrect assumption.
“Do you want to invite your boyfriend to happy hour?” “Um, actually…”
“Can we have your wife’s number for the emergency call list?” “Um, actually…”
Even if you’re out and proud, it’s not easy.
But knowing how many queer scientists are out there–and what their experiences, good and bad, are–can help change both policy and climate. That’s why this survey is important, says Alex Bond, senior conservation scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who participated the survey. “Managers and administrators tend to respond better to numbers rather than a series of anecdotes,” he says.
That response could make the difference between a welcoming workplace environment and a tolerant one. “I think in many places, queer folk are accepted, but there aren’t that many where they’re encouraged,” he says. “At least not yet. But I like to think that will change.”
When he attended the first LGBTSTEMinar conference in 2015, he really felt that difference. “It was by far one of the best professional experiences I’ve had,” he says, “and the only conference to date where I felt I could truly be open.”
Elizabeth Hellen, who ran that conference, feels similarly. While she’s had mostly positive experiences at work, she’s often been on her own, identity-wise. So, the Internet being the community gathering place that it is, she started a blog called LGBTSTEM to find and tell queer people’s science stories: “The good, bad and boring,” she says. “I’m so interested in the boring.” In one interview, for instance, postdoctoral researcher Nathaniel Grubb noted his colleagues’ perfectly sensible reaction to a major life event. “In celebration of my nuptials, my lab mates threw a party and gave me a wedding gift,” he says.
Boring, here, means having queerness be such a regular part of lab-life that LGBTQ people just get to live regular work experiences, without worry, and that their diversity of perspectives and experiences are value added to the workplace, not something to be ignored, glossed-over, or assumed out of existence.
Part of the way to get to that point is to point out how many LGBTQ people exist in the sciences (and also everywhere–we’re everywhere). And that’s a driving idea behind the Queer in STEM survey. “In a lot of ways, the main goal of Queer in STEM is just to demonstrate that lots of LGBTQ-identified folks are working in science and technical jobs, and our concerns matter as a part of that workforce,” says Yoder.
The quantity of responses, then, is perhaps as important as the content of those responses. We are also here, each n says to the lone LGBTQ person in a lab. We are also queer.