‘People have found the strength to come out after reading other scientists’ stories’

Lauren Esposito on her campaign to make LGBTQ+ scientists more visible

The Biologist 65(5) p7

I am queer and I’m a scorpion biologist. The first time I uttered this simple phrase into the depths of the internet was in June this year. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but I knew that I was tired of feeling alone in STEM. I’ve been ‘out’ since my teens, and a scientist since my 20s, but those two worlds were always separate.

Being ‘out in STEM’ is not always a comfortable place. A 2016 report by the American Physical Society found that sexual minority physicists face working in a climate that reinforces gender role stereotypes; a culture that requires, or at least strongly encourages, LGBT people to remain closeted at work; and a general lack of awareness about LGBT issues among professionals[1].

Further, the magazine Chemical Engineering and News conducted an informal poll of its readers and found 44% of LGBT respondents said they had felt excluded, intimidated or harassed at work in the course of their career[2].

Determined to do something to help, I started a campaign that relies on short, self-submitted biographies to raise the visibility of the fantastic people working in STEM. After doing more research, I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that nearly 40% of LGBT people working in STEM fields report that they are not out to their colleagues [3].

The reasons behind a decision as personal as coming out in a professional setting are clearly complex, but research published in the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering suggests a few key factors: out STEM faculty at universities are 7.2 times more likely to experience exclusionary behaviour by colleagues than those who are not out, and 69% of out faculty members report that they feel uncomfortable in their university department[4].

For those who are wondering what one’s sexuality has to do with one’s science, the answer is twofold. First, it shouldn’t have anything to do with it. However, when discrimination, exclusion and harassment impede our ability to do great science, visibility and allies are needed. Second, it benefits society to have science done by the most diverse possible range of people, with the most diverse possible range of perspectives and approaches.

That includes LGBTQ+ people. The ‘500 Queer Scientists’ campaign was launched with a single tweet and 50 short biographies collected through word of mouth. Three months later, we have amassed more than 725 biographies of people from a huge variety of geographic areas, STEM disciplines, academic levels and identities.

The response to this campaign from the community has been overwhelming and positive. People who didn’t know any other LGBTQ+ colleagues are making new connections in their field (or even at their own institutions), and we’re seeing tweets, posts and messages from people expressing how happy they are to see this many LGBTQ+ scientists. Just browsing our list of contributors is making people feel stronger and more supported.

People have shared posts about finding the strength to come out after reading other 500 Queer Scientists participants’ stories, and faculty members have shared emails from other colleagues congratulating them and offering support. We have had more than 50,000 direct engagements on our social media accounts.

Our hope is that this new-found community can come together to remove the barriers of isolation and provide support, helping to reduce rates of attrition in STEM careers. Recent studies have shown that sexual minority students were 8% less likely to be retained in STEM compared with switching to a non-STEM programme, but more likely to have worked in a laboratory than their heterosexual counterparts[5].

If this campaign has shown me anything, it is that the next generation of LGBTQ+ STEM workers will be following in the footsteps of giants because, as this campaign has demonstrated, we are here, we are queer, and our contributions have propelled science forward.

Lauren Esposito is assistant curator and Schlinger Chair of  Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences

Twitter: @500QueerSci

1) Atherton, T. J. et al. LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community. American Physical Society (2016).
2) Wang, L. LGBT chemists seek a place at the bench. Chemical Engineering and News 94(41), 18–20 (2016).
3) Yoder, J. B. & Mattheis, A. Queer in STEM: Workplace experiences reported in a national survey of LGBTQA individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Journal of Homosexuality 63(1), 1–27 (2016).
4) Patridge, E. V. et al. Factors impacting the academic climate for LGBQ STEM faculty. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 20(1), 75–98 (2014).
5) Hughes, B. E. Coming out in STEM: Factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students. Science Advances 4(3) eaao6373 (2018).