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On Campus Podcast – LGBTQIA+ Students and STEM Majors

Season 1 – Episode 49 – LGBTQIA+ Students and STEM Majors

The data indicates that LGBTQIA+ undergraduate students are less likely to pursue and complete STEM majors compared to their non-LGBTQIA+ peers. A 2016 study by Queer in STEM found that less than 60% of queer scientists are openly out. To foster a diverse and inclusive STEM community, it is crucial to have varied perspectives and ideas contributing to scientific breakthroughs. However, more extensive research and data are necessary to fully comprehend the impact of LGBTQIA+ individuals studying STEM undergraduate majors.


Episode Transcript

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Darren Gaddis: From CITI Program, I’m Darren Gaddis and this is On Campus. Today LGBTQIA plus students in STEM. I spoke with Bryce Hughes at Montana State University. As a reminder, this podcast is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice or guidance. You should consult with your organization’s attorneys if you have questions or concerns about relevant laws and regulations discussed in this podcast. Additionally, the views expressed in this podcast or solely those of the guest and do not represent the views of their employer. Hi Bryce. Thank you for joining me today.

Bryce Hughes: Thank you for the invitation. It’s my pleasure.

Darren Gaddis: To get us started today, what is your professional and educational background?

Bryce Hughes: I have a PhD in education from UCLA in their higher education and organizational change program, a master’s degree in college student affairs, a master’s degree in student development administration from Seattle University and a bachelor’s degree in general engineering from Gonzaga University. I’ve been a faculty member at Montana State ever since finishing my PhD, starting non-tenure track, then assistant professor and recently promoted a year ago to associate professor with tenure.

Darren Gaddis: And to help us ground today’s conversation, when we referred to LGBTQIA plus, who does this acronym referred to and who is included within this group?

Bryce Hughes: LGBTQIA plus, most people might be familiar with other iterations of it, such as LGBT, LGBTQ. For the most part, it’s meant to encompass anybody of a minoritized sexual or gender identity. The letters stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, sometimes also questioning intersex and asexual with a plus to acknowledge that even those seven letters may not fully encompass the diversity of sexual and gender identity that we consider part of LGBTQIA plus communities.

Darren Gaddis: What are some specific trends you are seeing around LGBTQIA plus students in STEM majors?

Bryce Hughes: For the most part, the little bit of evidence we’ve been able to gather to date has shown that LGBTQIA plus students will leave STEM majors at higher rates than their peers who are heterosexual or cisgender, which mirrors other trends that we’ve seen for different minoritized groups of students. Many of us are familiar with the research on women in STEM or students of color in STEM, and the disparate types of outcomes that students experience based on those different forms of being marginalized in higher education. Beyond that, one of the things I would say is there’s not too much evidence as of yet, and part of that is there’s been some effort to try to get the agencies that collect the data that we typically use to understand these trends to collect LGBTQIA plus demographic data.

There’s been some advances made with the National Science Foundation recently that might allow us to see what this looks like for doctoral students on their survey of earned doctorates. And there’s been some movement forward with the Department of Education. Their most recent high school longitudinal study has included a wave of data collection where they’ve asked demographic items around sexual orientation and gender identity that will allow some education researchers to explore this relationship further.

Darren Gaddis: And what are some factors that contribute to LGBTQIA plus students pursuing STEM majors at lower rates than their peers?

Bryce Hughes: A report was published not too long ago that pooled data from some of the National Survey Institutes that conducts regular surveys of college students like the Higher Ed Research Institute, but when they pulled this data together into a report on what the state of higher education is like for LGBTQ students in general, at least a snapshot at the time that it was published, it showed that there were differences in the majors that LGBTQIA plus students pursue in addition to some of the disparate outcomes I’ve been able to test that have shown students leaving these majors at a higher rate than their peers. LGBTQIA plus students are less likely to select STEM majors in the first place. Some of this can be attributed to where someone might be in their identity development at the time that they enter college.

Many students seek out opportunities to learn more about what it means to be LGBTQIA plus and that may draw them into majors where topics of sexual orientation and gender identity are quite commonplace, and that’s typically in the social sciences, the humanities, majors that are outside of STEM, as well as the kinds of social opportunities they have through student organizations. However, we might also point to some of the cultural factors within STEM that have also made it less welcoming for people of different minoritized backgrounds. For example, if people who work in STEM fields know that having a diverse workforce or diverse work environments produce better outcomes, solve the kinds of problems that a broad cross-section of society would like to see STEM solve or to be able to have the kinds of innovation and creativity that bringing multiple perspectives to a problem can bring, then we should see some changes within STEM departments around how they bring in students of different backgrounds and keep them, retain them within these majors.

And we’re still not seeing that at quite the rate that would lead to the diminishment of the gap that has been observed with data in a meaningful sense to reach parity for all students. Some of the questioning then is around what is the environment like within STEM that might make it feel like it’s less of a place where LGBTQ students might want to be, and some of that may come down to the culture of does who you are as a scientist or who you are as an engineer matter at all to the quality of the work that you do? On the surface, people would say, well, sure, I mean anybody who has the talent and the interest in doing it should be able to do good science and engineering work, but we fail to take into account the fact that people encounter discrimination.

They encounter implicit and explicit biases in the classroom and in the laboratory and in work settings. And even the fact that people don’t think that it’s an issue that needs to be brought up within STEM can create a problem within STEM, where all of a sudden we just take it for granted that sexual orientation and gender identity don’t matter, which they really only don’t matter for people that it hasn’t mattered in the past. And that would be the same kind of people that have typically been drawn into STEM, so cisgender, heterosexual white, men, et cetera. Looking at all the different dominant categories around identity.

So one of the pieces is how open and welcoming are STEM fields to having the kinds of conversations that are needed to broaden participation among LGBTQIA plus people to be able to hear the kinds of issues that they may be encountering in classes and in labs and in the workplace. And what kind of personal work needs to be done on the part of leaders within STEM industries, leaders within STEM departments, STEM faculty themselves, other administrators and staff around are there areas where they may have implicit and explicit biases that are unwelcoming to LGBTQIA plus people? One of the analyses that I’ve done had shown that a factor that mattered for LGBTQIA plus students when it comes to staying in a STEM major is do they feel like they belong? And these cultural issues are what cause students to stop and question whether or not this is a place that’s for them.

Darren Gaddis: And with this information in mind, what can faculty members and administrators do to make a climate or environment where more LGBTQIA plus students feel welcomed in STEM majors?

Bryce Hughes: I want to say this is the question that most people are interested in, in that if it seems like we can agree that having a diverse STEM workforce is important and having diverse STEM learning environments is important that how do we reach that point? Part of its tricky. Some of the diversity and inclusion work that I’ve been involved with in the past has shown that the personal work on the part of individuals, individual faculty, administrators and so on, to better understand the lens through which they view the world and how that might differ from other people can go a long way in terms of them than being able to understand why certain steps might make a difference. For example, if faculty put a statement in their syllabus that says that they value diversity in the classroom and that they want to make sure that all students feel like it’s an environment in which, when I say a safe learning environment, I say that it’s safe to be able to take the kind of risks that are needed to grow cognitively and epistemologically to become a better scientist, to become a better engineer.

Sometimes identity threats can get in the way of the kinds of learning that students need to succeed. And so being able to say, this is an environment where I’m committed to making sure that it’s an environment where you will not experience the kind of harassment or discrimination that you might have in the past and that if so we will address it could go a long way to helping reduce some of the identity threats that get in the way of the real kind of risks that people need to take to be able to learn. A second piece are visible ways that STEM departments can show they are LGBTQ inclusive. When we think about LGBTQIA identities, it falls into a category of diversity that can often remain hidden or inconspicuous to those outside of those communities who either may not realize that such differences are present or the individuals themselves are actively managing disclosure of their identity to those around them, so they’re kind of actively trying to keep it hidden until they know the people around them will be supportive and open to learning this aspect of their lives.\

And so safe zone programs started as a way for institutional actors say faculty administrators, to be able to demonstrate I’m the kind of person who would be open to you being open about yourself, that you can talk to me about what’s happening. You can disclose to me that you’re a member of the LGBTQIA plus community, and the more people that do this, the more a department looks and appears to be a safer place for students to authentically express who they are. I often bring up the example, people always say, why would they talk about their sexual orientation in a physics class? And so I usually would say when you have students in groups and they’re working on a project together or they’re working on a problem in class and you overhear the kinds of conversations that are happening, those conversations veer off-topic. In many cases, you probably hear students make comments or say things about significant others in their lives, but does it affect the learning environment? Absolutely.

And in that instance, that kind of information, well, it may or may not be appropriate to share within that setting, it definitely can come up and the culture has not said that this information is unwelcome within this environment. On the contrary, it may often come across as quite benign and just something to say, Hey, let’s get back on topic. Whereas somebody who might be in the LGBTQIA plus community who’s in the midst of one of those interactions all of a sudden is on the lookout for am I being pressured to say more than I care to say? In fact they may actually be more comfortable sticking to the topic at hand and not talking about personal information, whereas an environment where that doesn’t matter, then there’s a lot less of that kind of self-monitoring going on, which can also get in the way of learning.

It takes a lot of emotional energy and it can be quite taxing. So when we say that this stuff isn’t relevant, it becomes relevant in very indirect ways that affect the interpersonal dynamics within the setting, which then affects the ability for all students to be able to learn with that environment. Thus actions that can be taken on the part of faculty and administrators that openly say to students, I’m committed to making this an inclusive environment. I’ve gone through trainings, I’ve put up visible signs, or I’ve put text in my syllabus that says, this is my commitment to you. It can go a long way.

Darren Gaddis: Knowing all this, are there public resources available for LGBTQIA plus students who are in STEM majors?

Bryce Hughes: Yes, there absolutely are. There are two national organizations that are specifically devoted to LGBTQIA plus inclusion within STEM. The older of the two is called Out to Innovate. Some listeners, if they’re familiar with Out to Innovate, they may know it by its older name, the acronym NOGLSTP, the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Science and Technical Professionals. They’ve changed their name to Out to Innovate to be more inclusive. They’ve been around, they’re affiliated with the Triple AS. They’ve been around since the 80s as a place, as a professional society for LGBTQIA plus people who are in the STEM workforce or in STEM academic departments.

Newer organization that is somewhere around 15 years old, I think at this point is oSTEM or Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. This organization is specifically targeted for students in STEM majors, both undergraduate and graduate students, and generally sponsor chapters around the country at various universities, similar to other organizations that serve minoritized communities in STEM, like the National Society for Black Engineers or the American Indian Science and Engineering Society as examples. oSTEM in particular is a great resource that is usually hosted on university campuses. Administrators and faculty can help make sure that an organization exists. Usually the students will come to them and say, we want to start a chapter here and go through the club and organization process at their university as well as the sponsorship process to be formally affiliated with oSTEM, but these organizations will need institutional support to succeed. They’ll need a faculty advisor.

I know that the chapter we have at my university at Montana State is quite thriving because of the support from our college of engineering. Usually universities will also have several student organizations, various safe zone training programs and so on. I guess the other point I might make is for faculty and administrators in STEM departments, their professional societies will also have resources or are likely to have resources. I’m affiliated with the American Society for Engineering Education, which has hosted some robust LGBTQ plus support programming for the past about decade or so, and I know that there are similar efforts happening in other society, so that’s another resource for faculty and administrators to be able to learn as well and connect with colleagues within their discipline around how can I create a more supportive environment.

Darren Gaddis: What else should we know about LGBTQIA plus students and STEM majors?

Bryce Hughes: I think the most important thing I’ve taken away from the research done in this area is the students I’ve been able to talk to, the work that they do within STEM, they’re passionate about what they do. They have the knowledge to be able to carry out the work, or at least if they’re earlier in their majors, they have the potential to reach that point. And the reasons that they may be considering leaving STEM have very little to do with whether or not they can actually do the work. Often it’s, has a lot more to do with what the environment is like for them. I always try to leave people with that impression that people leave majors for all kinds of reasons, both innocuous and say on because of the climate.

I mean, we are all complex people. We have a lot of different interests and sometimes our interests may shift, but I think what’s most important is that most of these students, nearly all of the students that I’ve ever met, definitely are interested and have the passion for this work and have much to contribute. And so we on our part in terms of being scientists and engineers and working in academic departments, should do our best to help them realize that passion into a fulfilling career.

Darren Gaddis: Bryce, thank you for joining me today.

Bryce Hughes: You are welcome. Thank you again for the invitation.

Darren Gaddis: Thank you for listening to today’s episode, and don’t forget to follow, like and subscribe to On Campus with CITI Program to stay in the know. If you enjoyed this podcast, you may also be interested in other podcasts from CITI Program, including On Research and On Tech ethics. I invite you to review our content offerings regularly as we are continually adding new courses, subscriptions, and webinars that may be of interest to you, like CITI Programs, Effectively Communicating Research Results to Non-Scientific Audiences webinar.


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Meet the Guest

content contributor bryce hughes

Bryce Hughes, PhD – Montana State University

Bryce Hughes, associate professor at Montana State University, studies LGBTQ student attrition from STEM fields. His NSF career award examines social networks, degree completion, and science/engineering identity. His research has been recognized by the American Society for Engineering Education and the American Society for Engineering Management.


Meet the Host

Team Member darren gaddis

Darren Gaddis, Host, On Campus Podcast – CITI Program

He is the host of the CITI Program’s higher education podcast. Mr. Gaddis received his BA from University of North Florida, MA from The George Washington University, and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.