Who gets to be diverse? LGBTQ+ inclusion in STEM

You have almost 500 applications total, 40 applications in your pile alone, and just six spots. In this undergraduate summer research program committee, you—as the only junior trainee (graduate student/postdoc level) representative—have to choose between the Latin American male who literally kidnapped his baby sister to protect her from sexual abuse; a Syrian female who barely escaped the political turmoil of her country and still struggles to establish refugee status in the United States; a Salvadoran female who was separated from her parents and detained at an ICE center and still cannot find her family; an Asian American male who barely escaped the grips of poverty by working 80-hour workweeks; and a Caucasian male from the lap of luxury who has a pristine application, comparable to a senior faculty application at the age of 18.

You agonize for days, consumed with anxiety at the thought of not only shattering dreams but actually obliterating the only ray of hope in a poor child’s life. But you signed up for this. You muster the strength to pick your top six applicants, only to walk into the chilly conference room filled with the other 11 committee members all from their own unique backgrounds, all in their coats of armor—armor-plated from head to toe and with the most powerful weapons their academic minds can bring to bear. Each person is willing to fight to the death to push for their top six, and a deadly war ensues as all members of the selection committee argue over why their choice—drawn from hundreds of applications in other piles that unfortunately you have never had the opportunity to see—should supersede your top applicant and push aside the woes and miseries you experienced over the past week in making your decisions. Angrily, you bark at how they could not possibly understand why your candidate did not deserve a position since they had not read the heartfelt personal statement, but also with the knowledge that you had not read theirs.

Eventually, the top six are chosen, but the heartache and pain in the room is nothing compared with that of the almost 494 equally deserving applicants who will receive nothing but broken dreams and no explanation of why they were rejected. This is the reality of diversity programs across the world, and yet we ask that another protected group should also deserve an opportunity: Should sexual orientation or gender identity be included as “diversity”?

In an effort to address this seemingly unanswerable question, I unscientifically surveyed a group of individuals for this blog post, most of whom identified as LGBTQ+, on their opinions and experiences that specifically addressed two main questions: 1) Have you faced obstacles, difficulties, or barriers in academic life due to being a member of the LGBTQ+ community; and 2) Do you believe, based on your personal experiences, that LGBTQ+ individuals should be eligible for diversity-related programs? The answers were as colorful as the iridescent rainbow our flag represents.

One question that virtually all interviewees asked me was, “Are LGBTQ+ people actually underrepresented in STEM?” All participants are either anonymous or referred to only by first name to protect their identities. ‘W’ (bisexual, cis male) mentioned that in his experience, it seemed as though LGBTQ+ people were actually overrepresented, with many of his peers and colleagues identifying as one of these categories, with the exception of transgender folk who definitely seemed to be underrepresented.

However, some studies show that LGBTQ+ people are actually 17-21% more underrepresented in STEM fields than should be expected1. Such numbers are potentially skewed by multiple factors. First, gender and sexual orientation are often fluid, making a definitive determination of an identity difficult for many individuals. Perhaps more importantly, a person’s sexual preference is not usually assessed in academia and is mostly discouraged for reasons of privacy. Even in institutions where optional reporting is performed, many individuals still do not feel comfortable disclosing their identity. In fact, of the 15 people who participated in our survey, more than half described their discomfort in disclosing their sexual identity during interviews, to bosses, and sometimes even to peers for fear of negative consequences. While to some these fears may seem baseless in the 21st century, Cech et al. showed in a recent survey-based study of over 25,000 individuals (~1000 LGBTQ+) that “LGBTQ STEM professionals were more likely to experience career limitations, harassment, and professional devaluation than their non-LGBTQ peers”2. Moreover, a majority of Americans still disclose some level of discomfort toward LGBTQ individuals, especially when it comes to their willingness to view public displays of affection3. So, no matter the true level of representation of the LGBTQ+ community in STEM, there are clearly explicit and implicit biases that serve as barriers to their success in career development, socialization, and comfort.

The single fact that LGBTQ+ people face discrimination, harassment, and other barriers is a major reason why many argued that LGBTQ+ people should be included in diversity-related programs. ‘Z’ (gay, cis male) stated that because “LGBTQ+ still face many challenges in the workplace and are discriminated against and frequently outcast, these experiences cause lower retention of LGBTQ+ people in academia as mirrored by the low percentage of LGBTQ+ faculty members compared to proportions in population.” While ‘W’ made a valid observation based on their experience that perhaps LGBTQ+ individuals are seemingly overrepresented among his peers, ‘Z’ and ‘R’ (bisexual, cis female) pointed out that due to “discrimination in advancement and often less emotional and financial support” retention is limited and the number of LGBTQ+ individuals in coveted faculty or other senior roles is far below the expected numbers based on proportion of population. Ellen Fung (cisgender female), director and coordinator of the CHORI Summer Student Research Program dedicated to increasing diversity in STEM, argues that LGBTQ+ people are certainly an underrepresented group and face many personal challenges, so being LGBTQ+ is included as an eligibility criterion in the program she directs.

Although it may seem imperative to combat the issues of LGBTQ+ inclusion, a series of obstacles cannot be ignored. First, LGBTQ+ is a very broad category. ‘X’ (bisexual, cis female) argues that including LGBTQ+ “individuals as URM [underrepresented minorities] may end up reallocating funds meant for BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] to more white people” since white individuals from more affluent or accepting backgrounds may be more inclined to reveal their identity. Beth (queer female) agrees and asks whether these types of programs may “penalize closeted people,” while ‘W’ emphasized this dilemma by playing devil’s advocate and asking, “What happens to the cis white male who kissed his frat brother?” Siobahn (bisexual, trans male) pointed out the additional challenges that trans and nonbinary individuals face: He described how he felt almost “estranged from most professors and classmates” simply by requesting the use of nonbinary they/them pronouns (prior to surgery), a seemingly benign and incredibly easy-to-satisfy request. This is even without considering the larger issues of constantly being misgendered prior to his gender-affirming surgery, or that after his surgery, he had to face the challenges of pretending to be a cis man to avoid potential conflicts.

For all these incredibly difficult challenges, virtually every interviewee agreed that trans and nonbinary individuals should be placed as the top priority for diversity inclusion initiatives should one for LGBTQ+ exist—a claim further strengthened by the fact that it was an exceptional challenge to find individuals who openly identified as trans/nonbinary in STEM for our survey. These are all valid points that make diversity inclusion for LGBTQ+ people even more challenging but also are not unique to this issue. For example, referring to the dilemma at the start of this blog, any diversity and inclusion process is already a complex maze that tries to prioritize who faced the bigger challenges and how they overcome these barriers to find success. The trite remark of “comparing apples and oranges” exists due to its undeniable accuracy. One of the greatest struggles of diversity programs is determining who is prioritized. Should decisions be made primarily on the identity of the individual (i.e., diversity of ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.) or on an individual’s experiences and the barriers they face?

Former President Barack Obama put it well when he questioned whether his children should be eligible for affirmative action considering the privileges his title and prestige carries. This was met with mixed reviews and even severe criticism. It was blatantly obvious during his presidency that even a president is not free from racism and discrimination. So how do we even begin to rate, score, or assign the level of “diversity” an individual possesses? And with this overwhelming challenge already in place, would adding another diversity category negatively affect any progress that has already been made? These questions are very difficult—and perhaps impossible—to answer, but the beauty of the American population is the rich kaleidoscope of personality, culture, and society. Thus, an effort to maintain this melting pot in the STEM fields is a worthy goal.

Everything starts with open communication. Diversity programs were not born overnight, and still in 2021, we have not even begun to eliminate half of the barriers, ceilings, or obstacles placed before our beautiful and powerful friends and peers. So, let’s ask the hard questions, keep pushing for change, and together obliterate the expired beliefs of previous generations. One can only hope that at some time in the future, diversity programs will no longer be required simply because it makes no difference what your skin color is, what your bank balance is, or who you identify as or even aspire to identify as.

  1. Cech, E. A. & Pham, M. V. Queer in STEM Organizations: Workplace Disadvantages for LGBT Employees in STEM Related Federal Agencies. Social Sciences 6, 12 (2017).
  2. Cech, E. A. & Waidzunas, T. J. Systemic inequalities for LGBTQ professionals in STEM. Science Advances 7, eabe0933 (2021).
  3. Doan, L., Loehr, A. & Miller, L. R. Formal Rights and Informal Privileges for Same-Sex Couples: Evidence from a National Survey Experiment. Am Sociol Rev 79, 1172–1195 (2014).


About the Author:

Ryo Higuchi-Sanabria has a unique profile having started in retail and restaurant management. He completed his Ph.D. in Nutritional and Metabolic Sciences at Columbia University while teaching in academia and as a group fitness instructor, giving him a unique approach towards science in his current research in stress and aging biology at the University of California, Berkeley.