The rainbow ceiling: LGBTQIA+ leaders are absent from STEM (and elsewhere)

Daniel McCalley
June 10, 2021
Series of test tubes with colorful liquids.
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Most non-LGBTQIA+ Americans mistake Pride as a celebration of a battle already won. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 fueled the embers of a still ongoing campaign for LGBTQIA+ rights. Indeed, today, hard-fought legal battles have enshrined marriage equality and workplace protections into law. What else could be left?

I, and surely most LGBTQIA+ people (particularly trans individuals), know many barriers remain before true parity is achieved. Consider, for instance, my scientific journey. I have been a scientist for nine years which is admittedly a short stint in the tenure-track research career timeline. But still, nearly a decade. In this time, I have never personally met a faculty member, department chair, attending physician, dean, or scientist otherwise occupying a leadership position who openly identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

The absence of queer and trans leaders certainly isn’t limited to the scientific community. Broadly speaking, LGBTQIA+ people rarely occupy decision making positions in the American workforce. In business, approximately 0.3% of senior leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies are held by LGBTQIA+ individuals. In politics, today’s Congress is the “gayest Congress” to exist wherein a whopping 1.8% of elected officials (ten people in total) identify as LGBTQIA+.

"I often find it difficult to even speak about these disparities for LGBTQIA+ individuals in STEM. Not because some of the aforementioned statistics are part of my reality. But because, often it seems, my audience does not want to hear it."

-- Daniel McCalley

LGBTQIA+ leadership gaps such as these are often chalked up to the argument that there is a “smaller portion” of queer or trans people in society. Our community, though, is estimated to make up anywhere from 3% to 7% of the U.S. population. And these numbers are increasing. With growing legislative changes and expansion of LGBTQIA+ rights, nearly one in six young adults in the U.S. identify as something other than straight.

The late Larry Kramer, a LGBTQIA+ activist known for his sharp, abrasive, and unforgiving speeches, once stated, “We are not crumbs! We should not accept crumbs! We must not accept crumbs!”. LGBTQIA+ people do not make up a crumb-sized portion of the U.S. We deserve more than crumb-sized representation in leadership and we ought to accept nothing less.

The “smaller portion” argument, therefore, falls flat. The far more likely truth is that this gap has been deliberately instituted – manufactured by explicit legislation and maintained by implicit discrimination.

The most explicit root cause of the LGBTQIA+ leadership gap stems from historical legislation aimed to relegate LGBTQIA+ people to the shadows of the American workforce. During the so called “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, President Eisenhower signed into law Executive Order 10450, which stated that federal employees suspected of sexual perversion (at the time, code for homosexual behavior) represented an extreme security risk and ought to be fired. From 1953-1973, this executive order was used as a pretext to fire thousands of federal LGBTQIA+ individuals. Countless more people were likely denied consideration for positions in the government. Not until 2017, with three days remaining in his presidency, did President Obama remove the final whispers of this order which limited federal security clearances available to LGBTQIA+ people.

These executive actions, however, applied only to federal employees. In the non-governmental workforce, LGBTQIA+ individuals could be terminated or denied a promotion strictly on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2013, Gerald Bostock, then a childcare advocate and federal employee in Clayton Georgia was fired from his position shortly after it became public knowledge that he had joined a gay softball league. The legal suit launched by Bostock made its way up to the Supreme Court in Bostock v. Clayton County. The ruling of the court granted federal employment protections to LGBTQIA+ individuals – conferring the protections offered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 onto LGBTQIA+ individuals. This ruling went into effect on June 15, 2020, meaning that I, a homosexual, will have enjoyed the basic right of federal workplace protection for a whole year next Tuesday.

The impact of decades of deliberate LGBTQIA+ exclusion from the workforce on today’s queer and trans leadership has yet to quantified. It reasons though, that restrictions active since 1950 limited the career advancement of LGTBQIA+ people living under those rules. Today, the average CEO, politician, or full professor is typically greater than 55 years old – certainly of the age to have been affected by these restrictions. Among the few existing LGBTQIA+ leaders today, it is likely that in earning their positions, they overcame barriers not encountered by their cis, straight counterparts. It is also likely that in many cases, these barriers did their job, keeping the LGBTQIA+ out of leadership positions.

Perhaps just as important as governmental action designed to limit LGBTQIA+ power, is governmental inaction. Far and beyond the most disturbing instance of inaction occurred during the HIV/AIDS crisis. The pandemic started in 1981 and it took Ronald Reagan four years to even utter the word AIDS publicly. Not a singule government health or advisory warning was issued. At its height, nearly 1 in 9 gay men were affected by HIV/AIDS, with 1 in 15 losing their lives. In sum total, sobering estimates suggest that the HIV/AIDS crisis, hitting the hardest in the 80s and 90s, wiped out 10% of the queer male population. A population who might now otherwise be of age to occupy leadership positions in business, politics and STEM.

Workplace protections have finally been enacted for LGBTQIA+ individuals and modern medicine has rendered HIV no longer a death sentence, yet implicit attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ individuals continue to present barriers toward career advancement. Today, 13% to 32% of LGBTQIA+ workers experience harassment or discrimination, with Black and individuals of otherwise intersectional identities bearing the brunt of these attacks. Nearly half of LGBT people chose not to come out to their coworkers or superiors, in an effort to avoid workplace discrimination. Ten percent of LGBTQIA+ employees leave their jobs on account of intolerant workplace conditions.

And so, nine years ago, to skirt the barriers outlined above, I sought a career in science – partly out of a love for the field, but partly out of my perception that academia was a ‘progressive bubble’. I felt confident that the STEM field, and academia more broadly, was an outlier to the explicit discrimination seen in the rest of the workforce. Surely, in the 20th century, the end of the LGBTQIA+ rainbow falls squarely on the ivory tower of academia.

Or so I thought.

LGBTQIA+ discrimination and harassment are far from absent in STEM and academia. In a large-scale, landmark study published just this year, Cech and Waidzunas deliver a suite of hard-hitting statistics. From a statistical perspective, their study is beautifully constructed – robustly controlling for demographics, career stage, job satisfaction and STEM discipline. From a realistic perspective, though, their study shines a light on one of the ugliest realities in STEM. LGBTQIA+ people reported greater barriers to career advancement, professional devaluation, social exclusion from their peers, harassment, and work-related health problems (e.g. insomnia, stress, anxiety, depression). And, given all the above, LGBTQIA+ individuals reported a greater likelihood to leave the STEM field altogether. 

“I tell you this, the function of the homosexual is to make you uneasy.”

-- Martha Shelly

Despite such strong evidence that harassment and discrimination are successfully weeding LGBTQIA+ scientists out of STEM, there has been no concerted effort to measure our representation (or lack thereof). Each year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) distributes surveys to assess the demographics of those earning college degrees and doctorates in STEM. Missing amongst these demographic surveys though are questions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. In the last decade, there have been frequent and routine calls to include survey questions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity; the NSF continues to drag their feet.

The data collected in these surveys are a vital measure of representation for demographic groups in STEM. Often this information is cited as the primary reason to develop funding mechanisms to support underrepresented groups in STEM. As such, few, if any LGBTQIA+ specific resources in STEM exist.

I often find it difficult to even speak about these disparities for LGBTQIA+ individuals in STEM. Not because some of the aforementioned statistics are part of my reality. But because, often it seems, my audience does not want to hear it.  In 2021, the mere mention of my identity as a homosexual in the workplace is sure to make nearly 2/3 of Americans (59%) uncomfortable. While public opinion toward LGBTQIA+ people has grown more favorable in recent years, the most salient piece of my identity is perceived as political or an affront to religion. Certainly, inappropriate for any workplace, let alone the sterile and unbiased environment of the lab.

My favorite quote regarding this phenomenon comes from Martha Shelly, a bisexual American activist and writer. In her 1969 razor-sharp essay, Gay is Good, Martha baldly states, “I tell you this, the function of the homosexual is to make you uneasy.”

I have felt this uneasiness, even in the ‘progressive bubble’ of academia. I have felt the way other scientists are made uneasy by the way I dress, by the sound of my voice, by my gay identity, by my limp wrist. I have felt myself to be in danger from homophobic colleagues launching slurs at me. I have felt myself to be the butt of the joke.

And perhaps worst of all, I have cut myself down to size to fit in with my straight counterparts in STEM; rubbed my fingers raw to remove the polish from their tips; lowered the tenor of my voice; defaulted to the word partner rather than boyfriend.

Nine years of science later, I am quickly approaching my dissertation defense – a monumental milestone in my scientific career and indeed, my life. As I prepare for this incredible opportunity, I am reminded of the LGBTQIA+ individuals who never got to experience such a moment; whose lives were prematurely taken during the HIV/AIDS crisis; whose right to work were restricted; whose careers were driven out of STEM by hatred, homophobia, transphobia, and, at times, violence.

I am reminded that in taking the stage to defend my dissertation, I take one step closer to a leadership position in STEM. One step closer to closing the LGBTQIA+ leadership gap.