Sexual Orientation Gap Exists in STEM Fields, Study Finds
A new study recently quantified the sexual orientation gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), finding men in same-sex relationships were 12% less likely than men in heterosexual relationships to have a bachelor’s degree in any STEM field. It backs up a growing discussion around the unwelcoming environments of STEM fields that gatekeep against any demographic that is not cisgender heterosexual men.
The study, published in the journal Plos One, found the sexual orientation gap between gay and straight men was smaller than the gender gap between men and women in STEM, but still significant when looking at the representation of queer (to-be) scientists in these fields. It found no similar gap between women in same-sex relationships in STEM fields versus those in heterosexual relationships.
“These patterns are highly suggestive that the mechanisms underlying the very large gender gap in STEM fields such as heteropatriarchy, implicit and explicit bias, sexual harassment, unequal access to funding and fewer speaking invitations are related to the factors driving the gap in STEM fields between gay men and heterosexual men,” co-author of the study, Dario Sansone, told The Guardian.
Past studies have documented in what ways gay men, more than any other queer demographic, are disproportionately targeted by the well-documented hostility of STEM fields. One 2018 study explains the phenomenon by highlighting “a strong devaluation of femininity in STEM,” which might disadvantage gay men more than straight men or lesbian women.
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Interestingly, the current study found the representation of gay men in STEM fields had a positive correlation to female representation in the same environments, meaning efforts to close the gender gap help narrow the sexual orientation gap as well, perhaps by displaying an embrace of feminine traits within what is usually a male-dominated masculinity culture.
The latest research — involving 140,000 people in same-sex relationships and 11 million people in heterosexual relationships — is one of the few large-scale looks into the representation of sexual minorities in STEM, opening a new avenue of investigation that has so far been saturated with documentation of the gender gap between men and women only. The new study takes the conversation one step further, into documenting the presence of gay men, but more research is needed to drive educational and employment policies and shape STEM environments that welcome all interested students regardless of gender, sexuality, class, or caste — thus achieving true inclusion.
It’s especially imperative looking at the rate of attrition of gender and sexual minorities in STEM, especially transgender and non-binary individuals who experience disproportionate rates of bullying and harassment, not just in educational institutions, but also in workplaces as scientists.
Prioritizing inclusion policies in education and the workplace can not only make STEM more diverse but improve the quality of scientific work that comes out of such fields, Sansone added, making scientific innovation more representative, and accurate.