Diversity in the biomedical workforce: The SCOTUS decision and the implications for LGBTQ scientists

rainbow flaskOn June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) delivered a historic civil rights decision. It is now the law of the land that same-sex couples have the right to marry. This decision puts the United States into a select group of 21 other countries in which same-sex marriage or civil unions are allowed. The SCOTUS decision has implications related to individual liberties and moral issues, but also in businesses and the general workforce.


What does the Supreme Court’s decision bring to the scientific workforce and to LGBTQ scientists in general? A first clear sign is the right to file for benefits for partners all over the country, since marriage now includes all couples. Thus it is expected that all U.S. research institutions will have to recognize same-sex couples, providing employees with spousal benefits just as they do for heterosexual partners. This is happening right now in several states. For instance, the University of Georgia system, which previously followed state rules denying benefits for gay couples, included same-sex partners on its benefit programs right after the SCOTUS decision on June 26. Similar situations happened in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, which had previous rulings against these benefits. The fact that LGBTQ scientists can provide benefits (such as health insurance) to their partners will probably allow gay scientists to apply to grad schools, jobs, and/or postdoctoral positions in places they would not have considered before June 26.


Despite being the law of the land, places can be more or less “welcoming” to openly gay scientists. Some universities do not include “sexual orientation” as part of their nondiscrimination statements. Instead, they use a rhetorical “other applicable status protected by law” to include LGBTQ minorities. Prospective students, postdocs, and job seekers still need to closely examine university and research institution statements on diversity. These can tell you a lot about the environment you might find in your new workplace.


Private and religious academic institutions can still be difficult for openly gay scientists, the institutions can claim First Amendment protection for discriminatory practices. Also a significant number of universities offer “diversity/minority awards,” which do not include LGBTQ scientists. Some institutions do not even consider LGBTQ a minority. Furthermore, some gay scientists fear prejudice from their peers during hiring and other selective processes since not all scientists have the same social progress mentality. This seems to be a major reason why scientists don’t come out of the closet. We can’t deny the advances of the LGBTQ cause, but prejudice is still out there.


What should we do as LGBTQ advocates after Obergefell v. Hodges? First of all, make sure the law is being followed. If you are in an institution in a state that didn’t issue same-sex marriage benefits before June 26, check whether it changed its policies regarding same-sex partners. Another important action is to look for diversity employment statements. Does your institution make clear that there is no official bias on sexual orientation and identity?


LGBTQ is a minority, invisible and present, but still a minority Therefore we are a piece of the complex diversity puzzle. And as all minorities, LGBTQ individuals need institutional protection and guidance to avoid discrimination. The ASCB is doing its part as a scientific society that advocates for a diverse workforce. Last year, a LGBTQ diversity workforce was approved by Council and will be implemented soon. Also, the LGBTQ Diversity Session at last year’s Annual Meeting was a success with a great blend of cell biology and career advice. This year’s speaker will be Matthew Welch, Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at University of California Berkeley. So please join us in San Diego for this event!


Minorities are a very important part of our society. For successful inclusion, we need to establish equality in law and policy, showcase examples of professional/personal success, and provide guidance. It is always good to see that we are heading in the right direction and June 26 was a great day. We are moving forward in science and in society.

About the Author:

Bruno Da Rocha-Azevedo is the co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Committee and works as a Senior Scientist at Eikon Therapeutics in Hayward, CA. He was a member of ASCB’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Taskforce and a past COMPASS co-chair (2015-2016). E-mail: brunodarochaazevedo@gmail.com Twitter: @brunodra.@brunodra