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To retain and inspire LGBT+ physicists, welcome them

2 June 2022

Being out about queer identity correlates with enhanced work productivity.

Ramón Barthelemy.
Ramón Barthelemy, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah, has authored three recent papers on the work climate for LGBT+ students and professionals in physics. Credit: Mathew Crawley

Most of the LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other gender- and sexual-minority identities) physicists Tim Atherton has known over the years have left the field. “Obviously that represents an enormous loss of talent to the physics community,” says the Tufts University professor, whose research is in computational condensed-matter physics.

Several recent publications look at the work climate for LGBT+ students and professionals in academic STEM fields. In addition, a grassroots group of mostly early-career, mostly LGBT+ physicists is organizing a conference that will focus on “queering physics education”—an effort to make physics culture an intentionally welcoming environment.

To gain an understanding of why academic physics loses LGBT+ practitioners, Atherton and collaborators revisited data collected in 2015 by the American Physical Society (APS), which surveyed 324 LGBT+ physicists from undergraduates on up (see Physics Today, March 2015, page 25, and “LGBT physicists: The interviews,” Physics Today online, 27 February 2015). They supplemented the data with in-depth conversations with five survey respondents. In varying configurations, the researchers published articles in October 2020 and March 2022, and a third one is expected to come out this summer.

Thirty-six percent of respondents had considered leaving their workplace in the previous year. In terms of retention, “there was no difference between observing and experiencing harassment,” says Atherton. “That was a striking finding.”

Twenty-two percent reported having experienced exclusionary behavior such as shunning, harassment, or being ignored. Among transgender respondents, that percentage jumped to 49%. Women, transgender people, and gender-nonconforming people were more likely to experience harassment than men. The climate was particularly challenging for people with multiple marginalized identities.

Atherton divides exclusionary behavior into two categories, chilly and aggressive. Chilly behaviors include misgendering, using incorrect pronouns, not inviting LGBT+ people to participate in projects and proposals, and the like. More aggressive forms of exclusionary behavior include stalking, verbal abuse, inappropriate touching, and sexual harassment.

Other researchers have looked across the sciences at how openness about queer identity correlates with publication rates. In two surveys, Jeremy Yoder, an evolutionary biologist at California State University, Northridge, and two colleagues found that “folks who describe themselves as not able to fully express themselves report higher workplace stress, less satisfaction, and less sense of belonging,” says Yoder. Those factors, in turn, reduce productivity, he says. Their first survey, conducted in 2013, included 633 LGBT+ scientists. In 2016 the researchers surveyed 1116 LGBT+ scientists and, for comparison, 629 scientists who were cisgender and straight. They discuss both surveys in a March 2022 paper.

LGBT+ scientists who were open about their identity in the workplace published nearly twice as many peer-reviewed papers as those who were not. They had on average 13.9 publications versus 7.1 publications, respectively. Their straight peers averaged 15.6. The authors also break down the numbers by gender, career stage, and identity. For example, lesbian and bisexual women who disclosed their sexual orientation published more than straight women, 1 versus 0.85 papers per year on average. Non-disclosing lesbian and bisexual women published 0.65 papers per year. (The numbers cited here are from the authors’ 2016 survey.)

So, does disclosing queer identity improve the workplace climate? Or are people more likely to disclose when the climate is friendly? Definitely the latter, but possibly both, Yoder says. “We show that the more comfortable people are, the more out they are. And when people are less stressed, they can do their science.” He notes, however, that disclosing queer identity is not easy. Many STEM fields have a “culture of masculinity”; moreover, STEM workplace cultures often discourage talk about life outside the lab under the assumption that “it makes you look less committed to the work.”

“Marginalized people are under continuous stress,” says Ramón Barthelemy, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah who focuses on physics education research. He is an author on the trio of papers based on the APS survey. “The big takeaway is that the absence of a negative climate is not sufficient to support LGBT people. You have to have an actively inclusive community.”

Queering physics education

Transforming physics classrooms and research spaces into inclusive environments is the thrust of this year’s Physics Education Research Conference. An annual add-on to the American Association of Physics Teachers summer meeting, PERC will take place on 13–14 July in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We are trying to empower instructors and researchers to incorporate elements of queer theory and other schools of thought into their courses,” Mike Vignal, a postdoc in physics education at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a Zoom interview with several of the conference’s nine organizers.

Queer theory looks at stereotypes around gender, said co-organizer Sara Mueller, director of instructional physics labs at Brown University. “I didn’t meet another queer physicist until my fourth year of graduate school. It seemed there was no one like me in my educational path or research field,” Mueller said. “My goal with the conference is to make tools and resources available for others—including colleagues who are not queer—to provide a good education.”

The organizers pointed to their statement in a planning document online: “In the context of physics education, we want to apply the theory to unpack who has power in physics to control the production of future physicists, how physics policies and practices are sometimes built on ideas of punishment and power, and how [physics education research] embeds binaries in both its content and sociological research.”

Sydney Smith.
Sydney Smith will be one of the performers at a variety show by Joule’s Molly House at the Physics Education Research Conference next month in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Joule’s Molly House bills itself as an “electrically charged queer, sober space.” Credit: Kendall D. Lartigue

One PERC plenary session will pair a physics instructor and an expert in queer theory. In a demonstration about electric charge, for example, the queer theory expert might make a point about not using men and women attracting each other as an analogue for negative and positive charges attracting each other. “There is a lot baked into physics curricula,” said Mueller, “so take it apart and look at what you want to keep and what you don’t. Do it in pieces and it’s manageable.”

“We want to plant a seed that your classroom can look different,” said Mueller. “Examples can look different. The right answer can be ‘I don’t know.’ We don’t know what plants are going to root. But we are trying to be intentional about what we plant.”

The main social event associated with the conference is a sober variety show with a drag performer. It is a fundraiser to benefit a local alcohol-free bar for queer youth. In planning the event, said Vignal, “we have partnered with four local queer organizations.”

“We are advocating for making space for people to exist as their whole self,” said Ben Pollard, an assistant teaching professor in physics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and another of the conference organizers. Comfort with bringing one’s full self to the classroom or lab has similarly been found to be important for Black physicists (see Physics Today, October 2019, page 24, and February 2020, page 20).

Atherton lauds the conference organizers and their goals. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2020, he says, one-sixth of Generation Z adults identify as LGBT. “That means the number of LGBT students is increasing. I hope people will educate themselves.” It’s necessary, he stresses. “The academic sector can’t be complacent. We should try to retain physicists.”

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