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Making your departmental more LGBT+ friendly is more just eliminating exclusionary behaviors and policies

Title: Workplace climate for LGBT+ physicists: A view from students and professional physicists

Authors: Ramón S. Barthelemy, Bryce E. Hughes, Madison Swirtz, Matthew Mikota, and Timothy J. Atherton

First author’s institution: University of Utah

Journal: Physical Review Physics Education Research 18, 010147 (2022)

We’re only about two weeks away from the start of this year’s Physics Education Research Conference (PERC) about “queering physics education.” Coincidentally, exactly a month before PERC starts, the final paper of a three-part series on the American Physical Society’s LGBT+ climate in physics survey was published, which is the focus of today’s article.

Unlike the experiences of women and to a lesser degree, Black and Hispanic students and professionals, the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender, and other gender and sexual minorities (LGBT+) have received minimal attention in the literature, with most of the studies on LGBT+ people having been published in the last 15 years.

Yet, the work that has been done has found that LGBT+ professionals experience a variety of negative experiences that cause them to feel less comfortable in their workplaces and an increased chance of leaving their institutions. One study that looked at STEM students found that LGBT+ students were almost 10% less likely to complete a STEM degree than their heterosexual peers.

As everyone deserves to feel safe and welcome in their workplace and schools, the authors of today’s study wanted to determine what impacts whether someone is considering leaving their school or workplace and what impacts whether someone is out, assuming being out to your classmates and colleagues is related to your feelings of safety.

For their study, the authors used data collected from a survey by the APS ad hoc Committee on LGBT+ Physicists. The survey included questions about climate experiences, consideration to leave, and demographics. The committee distributed the survey via social media and physics list-servs. Participants were also asked to share the survey with anyone else they knew who met the inclusion criteria. Overall, there were 324 responses usable for this study.

When looking at the results, the authors found that most responses were from people in academia (84%), with 58% of the total sample being undergraduate or graduate students and 22% of the sample being postdocs or faculty. Because the results were similar for all types of students, graduate and undergraduate students were placed into a single student group.

In terms of being out, 81% of respondents said that they were out to at least one of their co-workers with 33% of respondents saying they were completely out to their co-workers.

Of those responding to the survey, around a third reported considering leaving their institution in the past year. 39% of all respondents reported having observed exclusionary or harassing behavior while 22% had experienced it. (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Percent of respondents who considered leaving, experienced exclusionary behaviors (EB), and observed exclusionary behaviors. (Figure 1 in paper.)

Of course, a binary yes or no has experienced exclusionary or harassing behavior question doesn’t provide too much information about the specifics of the culture so the authors looked at a set of 20 Likert-scale questions from the final part of the survey. These questions covered topics such as whether LGBT+ employees/students felt they were treated with respect, felt accepted by their co-workers, felt they must be secretive, or were met with thinly veiled hostility.

To reduce the amount of data, the authors then used principal component analysis, which finds a more simplified structure to the data. The authors were left with two factors that they called LGBT+ inclusion and LGBT+ exclusion, that accounted for nearly 60% of the variance in the responses.

Next, the authors used these variables along with demographics to model the probability a LGBT+ person would be out or consider leaving their current position.

They found that respondents who scored higher on the LGBT+ inclusion factor were 1.7 times less likely to consider leaving while participants observing exclusionary or harassing behavior were 2.3 times more likely to leave. In addition, students were 1.7 less likely to consider leaving than faculty or post-docs were.

When looking at being out, the authors again found that scoring higher on LGBT+ inclusion had a large effect. Respondents who reported more inclusion were 2.02 times more likely to be out while those who scored higher on LGBT+ exclusion were 0.688 times less likely to be out. Students were found to be 0.52 times less likely to be out than faculty and postdocs were.

Because the LGBT+ inclusion factor was associated with someone being less likely to leave and more likely to be out while the LGBT+ exclusion factor was associated with the opposite, researchers suggested that explicitly inclusive behaviors are just as if not more important than a lack of exclusionary policies and behaviors for providing a welcoming climate for LGBT+ people.

When focusing on the students’ results, the authors noted that the diverging pattern of being out and considering leaving might be due to the specific circumstances of being a student. Students are often only able to transfer so many credits to other universities and may have to pay for additional semesters to complete their coursework if they change their major at the current institution. Therefore, even if a student doesn’t feel safe or welcomed in their current department, they may choose to stay anyways due to financial and logistical reasons.

Overall, the results point to departments and institutions needing to focus on creating an explicitly inclusive climate rather than only trying to mitigate an exclusionary climate if they are serious about supporting LGBT+ students and staff. The authors suggest that an explicitly inclusive climate would affirm LGBT+ people’s participation and existence in those spaces. Moreover, this would need to happen both in daily interactions and through the department’s policies. Longer term, departments and institutions need to work on breaking the silence around LGBT+ issues in physics for there to be a truly welcoming and inclusive workplace.

Additional Reading

Figure used under CC BY 4.0.

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