Physicists Take On Work and Classroom Culture for LGBT Scientists

Ramon Barthelemy describes the experiences faced by LGBT physicists for the AAAS Colloquium Series on 28 June. | Carla Schaffer/AAAS

Sixteen percent of physicists between the ages of 18 and 26 identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and many have experienced or observed harassment on campus or in the workplace, according to a speech by researcher Ramón Barthelemy.

“If we want a community that moves forward, and takes the physicists that are coming to us, and helps their careers, we need to include LGBT physicists,” said Barthelemy, an astrophysicist currently serving as a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, sponsored by the American Physical Society and the American Institute of Physics, at the U.S. Department of Education.

Barthelemy delivered his remarks at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., as part of a monthly speakers’ series that features timely topics relevant to science and society. The 28 June Colloquium Series address, held in honor of LGBT Pride Month, took place a day after the Stonewall Inn was designated as a national monument in recognition of the gay rights movement. The New York City bar was the site of a 1969 uprising that became a major catalyst for the modern LGBT rights movement. The speech also came less than three weeks after the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 dead.

“It’s a reminder for us to galvanize ourselves to push forward, and to recognize that each one of us can make change, and make a difference,” Barthelemy said of the recent tragedy.

Barthelemy is co-author of a report, entitled The LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community, which presents a demographic picture of LGBT scientists and their experiences in the classroom and the workplace, drawing from surveys of 324 individuals across the LGBT spectrum, as well as interviews and focus groups. The American Physical Society, an organization dedicated to advancing physics, released the report at its meeting in March.

The survey found that 36% of participants considered leaving their major, department, or workplace, after encountering an unwelcoming or hostile culture, but, Barthelemy noted, experiences varied across the LGBT spectrum. Gender-nonconforming individuals and LGBT women were more likely to experience harassment than LGBT men, the survey found. Forty-one percent of gender-nonconforming respondents and 31% of female respondents reported experiencing harassment in the last year, compared with 11% of male respondents.

An even higher percentage of transgender physicists – nearly half of those surveyed – experienced harassment in the last year, including comments, shunning, touching, and assault. Gender-nonconforming individuals and LGBT women were also more likely to witness others being harassed, Barthelemy said. Even when not the target of harassment, respondents who watched it unfold in their departments or workplaces were more likely to consider leaving their positions, he said.

The report recommends that the American Physical Society take several steps to improve the climate for LGBT physicists, calling on the society to ensure a safe and welcoming environment at meetings through the adoption of a code of conduct, and the establishment of a confidential system for reporting harassment. The report also recommends that the society develop advocacy efforts to support LGBT inclusion globally, establish LGBT-inclusive mentoring programs, and promote inclusive practices in academia, industry, and in the national laboratories.

The reports’ authors also called on the society to accommodate name changes in publication records to improve the climate for transgender physicists. Currently, transgender scientists are faced with what Barthelemy called a “double-bind.” They can either publicly out themselves as transgender by including publications authored under a name of a different gender, or leave uncited such publication accomplishments. The choice: “Potentially face discrimination, or make themselves look less accomplished.”

Women, people of color, and people with disabilities, who responded to the survey, reported being stigmatized by their gender, race, or their physical condition in addition to their LGBT status. The finding prompted the authors to launch plans to establish a forum on diversity and inclusion that includes leadership roles for LGBT individuals, people of color, women, and people with disabilities – and recognizes the role of overlapping identities.

The society has accepted the policy recommendations, and is in the process of implementing them, Barthelemy said.

The report also revealed that the level of inclusion or respect classmates or work colleagues showed LGBT physicists had a significant bearing on whether LGBT physicists were satisfied with, and successful in, their academic or professional careers, he said.

In selecting a graduate program, one respondent said it was more important to find an open and welcoming academic environment than selecting a department based on its research specialties. Another, a physics professor, reported not being invited to social events with a same-sex partner and indicated the practice had negative career effects. Such practices have real consequences, Barthelemy said, highlighting the importance of such events full of “informal connections where research projects are built and collaborations begin.”

“We saw the relationship between climate, and people’s ability to do their work, and be successful in the physics community,” Barthelemy said.  “Fortunately, we also saw this relationship in reverse.”

Some survey respondents, for example, reported successfully connecting with advisors and colleagues who displayed “safe space” stickers in their offices or listed themselves on an “OutList” maintained by the advocacy group lgbt+physicsts, a group that gathers the names of physicists who choose to publicly identify as LGBT or allies.