Almost two decades ago, when Christopher Schmitt was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he attended a lecture about the now-famous T-shirt-sniffing experiments, which suggested that scent plays a role in sexual attraction. The speaker, an endocrinologist, discussed the studies, in which women rated men’s attractiveness by the scent of T-shirts the men had worn days earlier. Women consistently preferred the scent of men who had specific differences in their major histocompatibility complex, a set of proteins that are critical to immunity and, in this case, mark potential mates as genetically alluring.

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Women and minorities, who today constitute about 70 percent of college students but earn only 45 percent of STEM degrees.President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

Schmitt, now a Boston University assistant professor of anthropology and biology, was intrigued. “It was the first time I’d heard of that kind of study,” he says. He approached the professor after class and asked if similar experiments had been tried with gays or lesbians. “She just kind of looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’” he recalls. Embarrassed, he cut the conversation short and fled.

“To this day, I don’t know if she meant ‘what would be the hypothetical deductive reason for that?’ or ‘why would you ever do that with gay people?’” he says. “So part of that was my own timidity. But part of it was also being 20 years old, and gay, and thinking, ‘Oops—I just stepped over some invisible line.’”

Science prides itself on being apolitical, gender-neutral, and color-blind—open to all, focused only on finding truth. Many find these ideals of scientific inquiry refreshingly dispassionate. But these same ideals can also, paradoxically, stifle discussion of sexual identity, leading many gender and sexual minorities to feel unwelcome, or at least unsure, in science. “Individual identity factors are often considered inconsequential or irrelevant to STEM professional achievement,” notes an article in the Journal of Homosexuality, reporting on the 2015 Queer in STEM survey, “but research suggests that being part of a marginalized or minoritized group can hamper job satisfaction, career success, and workplace productivity.”

Why does this matter? Because, to stay competitive in the world economy, America needs more scientists and engineers—and evidence shows that diversity may lead to better science.

Chris Schmitt
Christopher Schmitt, assistant professor of anthropology and biology. Photo by Eva Marina

While it’s important to tackle underrepresentation for all minority groups, the often-hidden struggles of LGBTQ+ individuals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are particularly challenging to quantify and address. About 3.5 percent of Americans, including about eight million people in the nation’s workforce, identify as LGBT, according to research noted in the Queer in STEM survey. But further data is hard to come by: the National Science Foundation, for instance, produces regular reports on the state of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in STEM fields, but does not include LGBTQ+ people in the research.

This lack of data contributes to a sense of invisibility among LGBTQ+ scientists, which many find off-putting. Schmitt, who double-majored in English and zoology, sensed it in his undergraduate classes. “In a humanities field like English, being queer or gay or lesbian was a topic that was under discussion as part of coursework. In my zoology classes, it never came up,” he says. “And because it never came up, it wasn’t clear whether or not it was okay. That leads to a kind of silence that is discouraging for people who are queer.”

Wanted: More scientists, better science

In a 2012 report on undergraduate STEM education, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said that the United States needed to produce about one million more college graduates with STEM-related backgrounds to maintain its “historic preeminence” in these fields, and to retain the economic and social benefits that come along with it. This goal could be met, added the report, by modestly increasing the number of college students who graduate with STEM degrees. But many students who start out in STEM choose to switch majors, and no, it’s not just because the math is too hard. One of the main reasons students give for leaving: “an academic culture in STEM fields that is sometimes not welcoming or attuned to members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields—including women and minorities, who today constitute about 70 percent of college students but earn only 45 percent of STEM degrees.”

Efforts to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM professions have met with mixed results, according to a 2014 article in the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. Between 1973 and 2008, the number of women holding STEM doctorates in academia rose from 9 to 34 percent, while the number of underrepresented ethnic minorities rose only from 2 to 9 percent. And while efforts to increase STEM diversity continue, notes the article, “virtually none of these focuses on LGBT communities.” Exclusion can have severe consequences: the American Physical Society March 2016 report on the LGBT Climate in Physics noted that over one-third of LGBT survey respondents “considered leaving their workplace or school in the past year” after experiencing or observing harassment or discrimination.

Because it never came up, it wasn’t clear whether or not it was okay. That leads to a kind of silence that is discouraging for people who are queer. – Christopher Schmitt

“If you’re LGBT and minority, you’re in a double bind. If you’re in a minority and LGBT and a woman, you’re in a triple bind,” says Rochelle Diamond, chair of the board of directors of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP). “We have to do a better job about making it more possible for minorities to have good STEM careers.”

Aside from the “we need more scientists” argument, evidence suggests that diverse teams encourage more innovation and creativity, and may lead to better science. A 2014 article in Scientific American on “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” notes that “simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints, and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”

Diverse viewpoints can also challenge the status quo. While scientists take great pains to remove personal bias from their work, they make observations, conceive experiments, and interpret data under the influence of their culture, experience, and worldview. Sometimes their biases are so ingrained that they go unrecognized or pass as truth, leading researchers to make seemingly obvious—but ultimately incorrect—conclusions.

A famous example is Bateman’s Principle, introduced by English geneticist Angus John Bateman in 1948, which asserted that the rule of “choosy females and promiscuous males” reigns supreme in the natural world. This principle influenced decades of research on sex roles across species, and while the interpretation holds true in many cases, it is certainly not universal. “When the result of an experiment confirms a societal bias, people may be less likely to question it,” says Kristina Cohen (GRS’17), a BU PhD student in biology. Recent analyses found many problems with Bateman’s experimental design and data analysis, questioning the validity of the original findings.

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About 3.5 percent of Americans, including about eight million people in the nation’s workforce, identify as LGBT.Queer in STEM report

Many argue that more diversity in STEM fields can guard against misinterpretations like these, and—more important—lead to innovative ways of seeing the world and solving problems. Diverse perspectives, says biology professor Karen Warkentin, can only improve science. “Feminist biologists and queer—or queer-informed—biologists are likely to notice different things and ask different questions, compared to people without those perspectives,” says Warkentin, who is also a professor of women’s, gender & sexuality studies at BU. “People bring different ideas from their life experience that can be really helpful in solving problems. And we have better science that way.”

Warkentin, who made the notable discovery that frog eggs can hatch early to evade predators, cites her own work as an example. “Why did I discover ‘escape hatching’ but others who had worked with eggs of the same frog species before me did not?” she wrote in an email, noting that this work initially faced strong skepticism from some senior colleagues—what she calls “a lack of appreciation of the extent of the possibilities”—but eventually helped shift scientific thinking about embryos and hatching. “There are, of course, many factors that influenced my thinking, but queerness is certainly part of it. My personal experience reinforces that generally accepted things are sometimes incorrect, and I have plenty of experience in pursuing my own interests counter to prevailing expectations.”

Disrupting the stereotype

Warkentin had been out as a queer scientist for two decades before coming to BU, enjoying the diverse and open environment of the University of Texas-Austin during her PhD work. When she arrived at BU in 2001, she found the University, and her department, “not that accommodating or friendly” to LGBTQ+ faculty. “There were no single people in the department. There were very few women. There were no other queer people that I knew about,” she says. Warkentin also noted that the campus, under President John Silber (Hon.’95), had banned the Gay-Straight Alliance at the BU Academy, and declined to include sexual orientation in the campus nondiscrimination policy. “It was surprising, coming to BU, to lose the diversity and openness I was used to, even though it was in Massachusetts,” says Warkentin. “It was surprisingly hard.”

Karen Warkentin
Karen Warkentin, professor of biology and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies. Photo by Sean Mattson

Warkentin says that the atmosphere on campus has improved dramatically. “In BU Today recently, there was an article about the incoming class, and there was a quote from an incoming student saying something like, ‘I’m an awkward trans kid from LA…I know BU is the right school for me,’” says Warkentin. “And I was like, ‘Wow, that is amazing. That is awesome.’ It is a reflection of how far BU has come.”

The Queer in STEM study, which surveyed 1,427 LGBTQ+ STEM professionals about their experiences, found that researchers were more likely to be “out” in certain disciplines—namely life sciences, social sciences, and physical sciences—suggesting that researchers viewed those disciplines as more open to sexual and gender minorities than others, like earth sciences and engineering. This correlated, in general, to the number of women in the discipline. “Fields that had better representation of women were significantly more likely to be rated as welcoming to LGBT people,” says Allison Mattheis, an assistant professor of applied and advanced studies in education at California State University, Los Angeles, who coauthored the study. (The exception was psychology, in which fewer respondents than expected reported being “out,” a finding that researchers chalked up to standards of nondisclosure in the field.) Mattheis says that female leadership disrupts the stereotype of a scientist as a white heterosexual male. “There are more possibilities of what it looks like to be a professional in those fields, and it doesn’t narrow people’s expectations quite so much.”

Mattheis also noted, however, that few of the study respondents could identify even one openly LGBTQ+ teacher or faculty member from their student days. This translates to not only a dearth of role models but also a potential lack of the social connections and mentors that are critical for success in science.

People bring different ideas from their life experience that can be really helpful in solving problems. And we have better science that way. – Karen Warkentin

“Our opportunity to pursue a career in science is tied not only to our success as scientists but to who we know and who knows us,” says Eric Patridge, the founder and outgoing president of Out in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (oSTEM), an organization for LGBTQ+ students in STEM fields with 60 chapters worldwide. “It’s usually a professor who buys into us as a person, who gives us the opportunity to publish. And so I would argue that our career advancement is intrinsically tied to social identities and personal relationships.”

To address this issue, NOGLSTP and MentorNet have collaborated to connect LGBTQ+ mentors with mentees across STEM fields, oSTEM hosts an annual professional development conference, and NOGLSTP also hosts a biennial career development summit called Out to Innovate, which connects LGBTQ+ students, academics, and STEM professionals. Other professional groups have also reached out to the LGBTQ+ community. The American Chemical Society, for instance, has a Gay and Transgender Chemists and Allies group under its Professional Relations Division. The American Physical Society’s LGBT Climate in Physics report called on the society to advocate for LGBT equity and inclusion.

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Over one-third of LGBT survey respondents “considered leaving their workplace or school in the past year” after experiencing or observing harassment or discrimination.American Physical Society’s report on the LGBT Climate in Physics

Mattheis notes that universities and other institutions that want to attract and retain LGBTQ+ staff, faculty, and students can take steps to show their support, such as providing benefit packages that include same-sex partners and trans-inclusive health insurance coverage. They can also require gender and sexual diversity training for all members of the campus community and provide support groups for LGBTQ+ graduate students, staff, and faculty. An informal meeting with a handful of LGBTQ+ students at BU led to other suggestions, like posting signs on faculty doors to indicate “safe spaces” that welcome people of all gender identities and establishing official campus groups like oSTEM. Students also noted that professors who ask students for their preferred gender pronouns, and offer their own, demonstrate an openness to various identities.

Some professors, like BU’s Schmitt, make a point of being “out” to students. “As a student, it really stymied me that there were no ‘out’ gay role models,” he says, “and so I decided all along to be as open as I could be.” He says grateful students have approached him after lectures, and he has also received numerous notes of thanks, some from students who say they had never met a gay scientist before. “That’s really meaningful to me,” says Schmitt, “because I remember being in that position.”

“I do think it’s really important to push the boundaries of the assumptions that students have about who can be a scientist, what a scientist looks like, and where they come from,” he adds. “And for queer students at least, to be like, ‘You can be this fabulous rainbow unicorn that you are and still be a working professional scientist. These are not incompatible identities.’”

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15 comments

  1. SOMEBODY FINALLY PUT IT IN WORDS!!! I’m literally tearing up in the Photonics building as I type this because of how much this article means to me. As a queer, minority student in engineering, this article has managed to eloquently explain a truth that I’ve deeply felt all throughout my years as an undergraduate and graduate student but never had the words to explain before now. Thank you to everyone quoted and involved with this article. It means so much to hear it all put into words and to realize that it’s not just something in my own head that only I think about!

  2. This is a wonderfully supportive and convincing argument for encouraging minority support in STEM education. As a gay STEM graduate I faced considerable discrimination in my first years of work, so much so that I quit my job as a chemist and went back to school. Having to re-start my career has had long term and deep repercussions in my life. The study of the experience of LGBTQ professionals in STEM is helpful – it might also be helpful for someone to survey LGBTQ professionals who received STEM degrees, but are no longer working in the field to determine why they left.

  3. Proud to be part of our out community and creating environments in which scientists can be all of who we are: complex, beautiful and varied.

  4. In thirty years in the software industry I never saw any discrimination against non-heterosexuals, and watched discrimination against women fade. I never saw substantial growth in Afro-American co-workers, but I don’t think I saw discrimination there. It was never acceptable to treat a co-worker on any basis other than their work. I’m sorry if some have encountered this but I have never worked for an employer in which this sort of mistreatment was tolerated.

    1. The pathway into STEM starts far before someone is hired into a company…. the lack of growth in Afro-American co-workers should be a red flag for you that the pathway into the company is broken.

  5. This article seems to start from the assumption that LGBTQ people are an under-represented group within STEM fields. This is strange considering the piece later admits there is no data on how many LGBTQ people there are in STEM. We simply don’t know either way whether they are an over- or underrepresented group in this population.

  6. It has been my experience that companies generally don’t care who does technical work, just that it get done.

    The simple fact of the mater is that we do a lousy job of STEM education as highlighted by the number of fortune tellers, tarot readers, astrologers and similar business that manage to stay in business. We should encourage anyone who has talent to pursue STEM despite minority status or disability.

  7. BU has certainly come a long way since 1995. More training of the community would be good as well – those of us who don’t identify as part of an underrepresented group are sometimes unaware of the harassment and exclusion experienced by other people (yes, even today), and we could all benefit from greater awareness of how our societal and personal biases discourage qualified people from joining or remaining in STEM fields. Thank you for this article!

  8. I don’t go to work wearing a sign that states I’m heterosexual, or other, I just go to work and act professional, to the best of my ability anyhow, nobody is perfect haha. If you dress neutral and professional, and act professionally, nobody would know, or care, what your sexual preference is. So if someone out there is gay, its nobody’s business but their own, and it should stay that way in the work place. There is no room for sexual tensions in the work place, it is counter productive. Study what you want, do what you love, its all good and it shouldn’t matter what your sexual preference is, provided it is legal of course. Keep sex, and sexual orientations, out of the workplace. If you drag it in, then you will face resistance from those who disagree with your lifestyle. As homo sapiens, procreation naturally occurs between men and women, so if you are gay, don’t be surprised that there will be haters who think your sexuality is a deviation, or even a sin. Just accepted it, own it, and be all you can be. If you spend your entire life worrying about what haters think you will end up wasting your time and energy, and never feel great about yourself.

    1. many members of the LGBT community are visually non-heterosexual and have mannerisms typically classified as non-heterosexual. Also, discussion of spouses/ partners and workplace parties to which they are invited are often common in professional workplaces. All of these are instances in which sexuality does come up or one can be discriminated against even if they do not explicitly announce their sexuality. As a heterosexual person, I am sure it seems easy to hide your sexual orientation or keep it “private” because you do not think twice about mentioning your partner, your community, your sexuality, dressing how you feel comfortable, bringing a loved one to a office party, award dinner etc. You should check your heterosexual privilege here, and maybe consider hiding a large part of who you are in the workplace is not as simple as it seems, nor should anyone have to do it.

  9. Another left-wing liberal article. Why is it always about race and gender with liberals? If someone makes a major scientific breakthrough no one cares about that persons race or gender… it’s just about the quality of their work. You want to be part of a minority group that gets harassed on college campuses try joining the college Republicans.

    1. In order to make a breakthrough, one needs to be hired, not discriminated against, and given the same resources and opportunities as everyone else. This here is where the problem occurs. Also, republicans have never been enslaved or mass killed because they are republican, minorities have.

  10. Here’s a big problem: “these same [scientific] ideals can also, paradoxically, stifle discussion of sexual identity, leading many gender and sexual minorities to feel unwelcome, or at least unsure, in science.” So not mentioning human homosexuality in a zoology class (about non humans?) makes someone uncomfortable? The apparent point is that, even in circumstances to which human sexuality is completely irrelevant, homosexuals should expect and demand positive recognition or else… what? They won’t feel welcome? Please, if this is “straight” – keeping human behavior out of science that is not about human behavior – then this science is not “too straight.” It’s not straight enough.

    1. You’ve just provided an excellent example of heterosexual or heteronormative assumptions. Zoology has a lot of topics which intersect with gender and sexuality. Read the book “Biological Exuberance.”

  11. I have a reaction to the very beginning of the article and an idea for an experiment. A group of sexually diverse individuals sniff t-shirts worn by a group of sexually diverse individuals to see if there is any stereotypical response to preference for attraction.

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