Openly out in science: To be or not to be?

The impersonal culture of scientific workplaces can promote conformity while sweeping our innate differences under the rug. LGBTI researchers share how this has coloured their professional interactions and experiences.

Krsjn/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Krsjn/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


“I was invited to give a talk in Mauritius, it’s on the [LGBTI] Amnesty list and I said ‘Nope, not going there.’” After declining the offer, Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith, a prominent University of New South Wales astronomer and project scientist for the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder radio telescope, emailed the conference organisers to let them know the reason for her decision. While female same-sex sexual activity is legal in Mauritius, some sexual activities are not and there is no recognition of same-sex unions and marriages. “Perhaps think about the next place you hold your conference,” she told them. They never formally addressed her with a response. After Dr Harvey-Smith wrote about this incident on social media, another researcher made an unhelpful comment implying she shouldn’t be going to conferences with the aim of having sex, anyway.

There is a common culture in academic workplaces of prioritising your research output over your mental and physical wellbeing. Part of this may be due to the fact that research predominantly relies on external grants for funding. The work itself often feels intrinsically personal to both supervisors and students as they decide which projects to pursue and are responsible for driving them forward. There is an unrelenting pressure to write original and innovative grants. Understandably, “academic” is often a central facet of the self-identity that students and supervisors alike craft for themselves.

Sometimes, remaining silent is more appealing than divulging personal information.   Anthony Nom/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sometimes, remaining silent is more appealing than divulging personal information. Anthony Nom/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Like many fields, the history of research isn’t exactly bursting with well-known lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) scientists — most people would struggle to name even one. This means there is a lack of role models for young researchers, and this is problematic because in many academic workplaces, personal discussions are often avoided.

While all academics can feel isolated at times, these feelings of isolation are often heightened among LGBTI and queer researchers because they may feel the need to hold back personal information. As Morgana Bailey notes in her TED Talk, a Deloitte study from 2013 found that 61% of all employees have changed their behaviour or appearance to fit in at work. Among LGBTI employees, 83% altered themselves to avoid seeming “too gay”. The same study found that employees believe conforming to company culture is crucial for their long-term career success which is particularly problematic in academy due to its hierarchical structure.

Kate* is a PhD student in molecular biology at an Australian university who identifies as bisexual. However, she became less open about her sexuality following negative experiences with her supervisor and lab colleagues. In casual conversation, colleagues would flippantly say 'faggot,' or use 'gay' as a synonym for 'bad.' The situation became personal when her supervisor alluded to her sexuality in front of a new lab member in a joke. Her supervisor then made matters worse by explaining the joke and directly outing her.

An LGBTI person may choose not to come out at work until they trust their colleagues.   Neil Tackaberry/Flickr  (CC BY-ND 2.0

An LGBTI person may choose not to come out at work until they trust their colleagues. Neil Tackaberry/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0

“I kept it together for the rest of the meeting, got home and then angst-ed over what to do about it,” Kate said. “[I] spent about half an hour crafting a two-line email calling him out on it because I knew I couldn't have him as my supervisor if he did things like that. Fortunately, he responded well and apologised and hasn't done anything like that since, but in that time before I sent the email I had no idea what could possibly happen when I called him out.” After that experience, Kate said that now “people typically have to show themselves to be decent before I say much at all,” a sentiment that was repeated by many of the people I interviewed.

It is problematic if LGBTI and queer scientists devote so much of their time to work, yet feel that they must separate their true self from their work self. If they most often socialise with colleagues that they do not feel accepted or even safe around, it can be understandably distressing. The distinct hierarchical structure of academia compounds this, as trainee scientists rely on their supervisors to encourage their professional growth and provide opportunities for development. This can be in the form of new projects, teaching opportunities, or simply guidance. An LGBTI or queer student may worry that potential ill will from a supervisor may result in fewer such opportunities.

People I spoke with typically agreed that they either deliberately avoid divulging information about their sexual orientation or are intentionally vague until they can gauge potential reactions from colleagues. “I often use gender neutral pronouns, such as ‘they,' when I talk about my [female] partner,” explained Jess, a PhD student from Sydney. “I prefer to wait until I know a little bit about the person before I make it obvious.”

There is still more work to be done to create inclusive workplaces.   Matt Buck/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There is still more work to be done to create inclusive workplaces. Matt Buck/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sophia Frentz, a PhD candidate from Melbourne who identifies as queer, pointed out the difficulty involved in navigating the impersonal culture of science when coming out: “Science can be a lot more private about personal lives, and because being queer is more personal — if I said ‘I have a girlfriend’ that’s providing more information on me than saying ‘I have a boyfriend,’ as straight is considered to be the norm — it’s therefore more hidden.”

While situations like these can arise in any workplace, an established culture of separation of home and work life, combined with the stereotype of what a scientist is, means that LGBTI and queer scientists may feel the need to filter themselves. This can cause feelings of isolation and psychological distress. This is problematic, in part because navigating highly prejudiced communities shortens an LGBTI person’s life expectancy by an average of 12 years, due to increased risk of homicide, suicide and cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, the pressure to have a single-minded dedication to research can discourage personal conversations that might otherwise be helpful. Of course, not every research institute breeds this culture, but it is something to take into consideration when asking why LGBTI and queer researchers might find it difficult to fully be themselves in their workplaces. 

In acknowledgement of these problems, there have recently been many publications discussing what can be done to change the professional climate. In 2014, the American Astronomical Society Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality laid out best practices for university departments in supporting LGBTI researchers. The recommendations include not tolerating offensive language, becoming an advocate, avoiding assumptions, championing LGBTI researchers and increasing their visibility within the department. Initiatives such as these are important for fostering an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere in all workplaces because the psychological safety of each employee should be a core value of all organisations.

*Names and some details changed to protect anonymity

Edited by Deborah Kane and Ena Music, and supported by Cathy Cavallo.