Equilibrating Equality – The Current Situation of LGBTQ Scientists

Equilibrating Equality – The Current Situation of LGBTQ Scientists

Author: Lisa Pecher ORCID iD

Addressing diversity and equality issues in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has become a major focus in recent years in many fields, also chemistry. More and more workplaces inside and outside academia become aware of inequalities and obstacles that marginalized groups have to overcome and realize the benefits of diversity and inclusiveness. This started with challenging the under-representation of women not too long ago and fortunately, the past two decades have seen many initiatives aiming towards the promotion of gender equality between male and female scientists. This year, for example, the IUPAC initiated the Global Women’s Breakfast in many places around the world, a networking event for the empowerment of women in chemistry (a report on the event in Wiley-VCH’s offices can be found here).

However, there are other groups still facing many issues. In this article, I want to focus on the current situation of LGBTQ scientists (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer; see Glossaryalso the Glossary at the end of the article), whose sexual orientation and/or gender identity often puts them in a marginalized position. Visibility is a major issue here: Since being part of a sexual or gender minority is still stigmatized in many parts of the world and even prosecuted in some (the Equaldex project monitors the current state and progress of LGBTQ rights over the world), people are often afraid to out themselves (see Glossary) or are keeping this part of their identity a secret. The lack of visible role models might then discourage young LGBTQ scientists to pursue a career in research or lead them to abandon STEM fields even though they are highly qualified. While there has been significant progress in this regard in the past ten years, there is still a lot that needs to change.

Recent studies highlight the current state of LGBTQ scientists: This June, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) published a joint report with the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society, presenting the results of a survey about the workplace experiences of LGBTQ physical scientists in the UK [1]. The results showed that many more LGBTQ scientists (18 %) experienced exclusionary behavior than their non-LGBTQ peers (10 %). 28 % even stated that they sometimes consider leaving their job because of the work climate or discrimination experiences. However, respondents who are out at their job reported feeling more comfortable, on average, than those who are not out, underlining the importance of visibility. Similar recent reports from the US show essentially the same picture [2,3]. However, there are some distinctions to be made: While workplaces have become more welcoming for gay and lesbian researchers, the situation is often more problematic for transgender people [1,3]. Nonetheless, transgender researchers have become more visible in recent years [4].

Also, the concept of the “leaky pipeline”—that researchers in marginalized groups become less represented the higher one climbs up the career ladder—appears in this context. As one US study reported last year [5], it is even more pronounced when comparing gay/bisexual men with straight men than in the well-known case of comparing women to men. This does not only apply to professional scientists, but also to higher education: A 2018 study reported that, in the US, sexual-minority students across all genders are more likely to abandon STEM fields than their heterosexual peers [6]. While these studies provide an overview of the current situation in the UK and the US, surveys about the situation in continental Europe are sorely missing.

One reason for the obstacles that LGBTQ scientists have to overcome [7] is that often, there appears to be an unspoken rule that research and personal life should stay separated [8]. This puts LGBTQ scientists in the closet (see Glossary), even if they are not actively hiding their gender and/or sexual identity, simply because the topic isn’t addressed. In such a work climate, ordinary small talk can put them in uncomfortable and stressful situations: For example, a person who is not out and living with their partner in a homosexual relationship can answer a question like “How was your weekend?” either by mentioning their spouse—which involves a personal outing—or by actively avoiding talking about them. Both options cost energy that could otherwise be used more productively.

It is, therefore, crucial to promote the visibility of LGBTQ scientists in STEM fields so that their presence becomes commonplace, leading to fewer obstacles like those mentioned above and enable these researchers to unfold their full potential. The increasing diversity at workplaces does not only have a positive impact on the LGBTQ researchers themselves but can also fuel the overall productivity and creativity. There are several projects and initiatives working towards these goals. One I want to highlight here is the visibility project 500 Queer Scientists. On this webpage, contributors can share their personal stories about being LGBTQ in science. This way, they can become role models for young students and it gives them the opportunity to present themselves as valuable contributors to the scientific community. The project has been well-received [9] and now features hundreds of contributions from all over the world.

I want to highlight the scientific work and associated personal stories of LGBTQ chemists who are 500 Queer Scientists contributors and have published in ChemPubSoc Europe journals and/or sister journals at Wiley-VCH. The next article presents twelve LGBTQ chemists who share their experiences and their scientific work.


bisexual                   being sexually attracted to more than one gender

cisgender                 a term describing when a person’s gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth.
                                   (see also: gender identity)

closet                        LGBTQ people are considered to be “in the closet” if they are not out
                                   (see also: out)

gay                            in a strict sense: a term describing the sexual/romantic attraction of men to other men
                                   in a broader sense: synonym for homosexual, regardless of gender

gender identity        the internal self-perception of one’s gender. Can be male, female, both, something in between, or neither;
                                   commonly matches the assigned sex at birth (cisgender), but sometimes does not (transgender)

heterosexual           a term describing the sexual attraction of men to women and women to men

homosexual            being sexually attracted to people of the same gender

lesbian                     a term describing the sexual/romantic attraction of women to other women

out                             being open about your gender and/or sexual identity with other people

queer                        inclusive umbrella term for all gender, romantic, and sexual minorities;
                                   also used for identities/orientations where the other terms do not fit

straight                     synonym for heterosexual

transgender            a term describing when a person’s gender identity does not match their assigned sex at birth
                                  (see also: gender identity)


[1] Exploring the workplace for LGBT+ physical scientists, Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society of Chemistry 2019.

[2] A. Mattheis at al., A Model of Queer STEM Identity in the Workplace, J. Homosexual. 2019. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2019.1610632

[3] L. Wang, LGBT chemists seek a place at the bench, Chem. Eng. News 2016, 94, 18–20.

[4] R. Kwok, Transgender researchers want to make an impact, Science News for Students, May 16, 2019. (accessed August 30, 2019)

[5] J. Freeman, LGBTQ scientists are still left out, Nature 2018, 559, 27–28.

[6] B. E. Hughes, Coming out in STEM: Factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students, Sci. Adv. 2018, 4, eaao6373.

[7] A. Bond, What LGBTQ+ folk in STEM want to communicate to straight colleagues: unedited responses, The Lab and Field Blog, September 2, 2018. (accessed August 30, 2019)

[8] D. K. Smith, No sexuality please, we’re scientists, ChemistryWorld, April 1, 2014. (accessed August 30, 2019)

[9] J. Shadel, The Scientists Fighting to Make the Future of STEM More Queer, them.us, January 9, 2019. (accessed August 30, 2019)


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