Science has a diversity problem, and it’s not going away. Over the past few years, it’s been well-documented that women and people of color face numerous obstacles to success in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, known collectively as STEM. But according to new data from Montana State University, LGBQ students are also shying away from pursuing careers in STEM, even after they’ve already enrolled in STEM majors at college.
In a study published in Science Advances on Wednesday, Bryce E. Hughes analyzed a longitudinal data set of survey responses from 4,162 STEM-aspiring college students at 78 different institutions across the United States. The Higher Education Research Institute, which provided the data, gave initial surveys to freshman students in 2011 and followed up with final surveys in 2015 to see if they were still STEM majors by their fourth year of college.
Hughes found that LGBQ students are more likely to drop STEM majors than their heterosexual peers. While 71.1 percent of the heterosexual students surveyed were still enrolled in STEM courses by their fourth year of college, only 63.8 percent of sexual minority students remained in STEM. After accounting for compounding variables, Hughes found that gay, lesbian, queer, and bisexual students were 9.54 percent less likely to persist through four years of STEM studies. This means that even compared to students who are similarly positioned to succeed, sexual minority status students drop out of STEM fields at a higher rate.
These results, Hughes says, are the consequence of an unwelcoming climate towards sexual minorities in STEM. “One study I reviewed talked about the experiences of LGB faculty in the sciences and engineering, who described the environment similar to the former ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy in the military,” he tells Inverse.
Hughes posits that this gap is in part present because of some deeply held tenets in STEM culture. In science, objectivity is a paramount virtue; thus, many scientists don’t see the value in bringing diverse identities and perspectives to the table. After all, by following the scientific method, anyone should be able to do science well regardless of their background.
Hughes says this is a completely backwards notion.
“What this perception fails to account for are the ways our experiences shape the research problems we are drawn to, or the questions we think are important to ask,” Hughes says. “In addition, people who have had different experiences may define the same social problem in different ways, thus determining different solutions to the same problem.”
The cavalier attitude towards objectivity belies studies cited by Hughes that further prove that diverse viewpoints boost creativity and innovation in STEM teams. “Studies like these help dispel the erroneous argument that diversifying STEM means lowering standards,” Hughes says.
This line of thought is resilient because people in the science community are often reticent to discuss social issues. “Great strides have been made in the arts, humanities, and social sciences to bring LGBQ voices and lives into the curriculum as a way to improve the climate, but the culture within STEM remains resistant to discussions of inequality,” the study says.
If we want to make STEM fields more inclusive, they are going to need a real culture change, including more visibility among faculty, according to Hughes.
“Obviously, if we retain students who go on to graduate school we will also see more LGBQ faculty,” Hughes says. “But providing a supportive, welcoming environment in which faculty feel they can be open would go a long way toward this goal.”
Abstract: Using a national longitudinal survey data set from the Higher Education Research Institute, this study tested whether students who identified as a sexual minority (for example, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer) were more or less likely to persist after 4 years in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, as opposed to switching to a non-STEM program, compared to their heterosexual peers. A multilevel regression model controlling for various experiences and characteristics previously determined to predict retention in STEM demonstrated that, net of these variables, sexual minority students were 8% less likely to be retained in STEM compared to switching into a non-STEM program. Despite this finding, sexual minority STEM students were more likely to report participating in undergraduate research programs, and the gender disparity in STEM retention appears to be reversed for sexual minority.