Papers are a key currency for academic careers—which is why publication disparities among various groups, such as men versus women, are often a focal point for efforts to increase equity and diversity. Now, a new study quantifies another of these gaps: LGBTQ academic scientists who don’t disclose their sexual orientation in the workplace publish fewer papers than their out or non-LGBTQ peers.
It isn’t clear whether the act of disclosure itself frees LGBTQ scientists to publish more. Another possibility is that the results reflect workplace culture; a safe, welcoming environment that encourages disclosure may also foster productivity. But regardless of the direct cause, “It shows that we’ve got substantial climate issues,” says Kristen Renn, an associate dean at Michigan State University who studies LGBTQ issues in higher education and was not involved in the study.
The good news, though, is that if you are in a place where you feel safe and supported, being open about your identity is best for your career, says Bryce Hughes, an assistant professor at Montana State University whose research indicates that undergraduate students who are LGBTQ have lower retention in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). “It should feel encouraging that the research is showing if you don’t hide it—if you’re able to be out and be comfortable—you’ll be more productive,” says Hughes, who was not involved in the study.
According to the paper, published today in PLOS ONE, openly gay and bisexual men published the most among LGBTQ respondents, reporting publication records that were roughly equivalent to that of straight men. LGBTQ scientists who didn’t share their sexual orientation with their colleagues, on the other hand, published the least. Nondisclosing LGBTQ women fared the worst, publishing 14 fewer papers in the first 20 years of their publishing career compared with straight men—pointing to a “double whammy of sexism and homophobia,” Renn says. The researchers didn’t find evidence of a similar effect of outness for gender minority scientists, but the number of nonbinary and transgender survey respondents was low—just 212 out of the total 1745 respondents, whereas 1093 identified as a sexual minority.
Publication counts aren’t necessarily an ideal metric of productivity, acknowledges study author Jeremy Yoder, an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge. “But it is tied to everything from hiring to grant funding to awards and recognition,” he says. “So if you are struggling to publish for whatever reason, that’s going to be linked to challenges in basically every aspect of advancement in academic science. And those things are going to play into people’s decisions whether or not to remain in the field.”
But the results don’t necessarily mean that all LGBTQ scientists who are out fare better than their less open peers, notes Anna Dye, a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University who works on LGBTQ policy initiatives through the U.S. National Science Policy Network and the UK Science and Innovation Network. “The people we aren’t hearing from are those that disclosed their identity and then subsequently left science,” she says. “There may be a selection bias for people who are out and that have supportive environments that helped them to thrive and continue in academia.”
It’s important for scientists to find those supportive environments because it’s stressful to be in the closet at work, Dye says. “If you aren’t able to share who your partner is, then that basically takes out most of your personal life that you can share with your co-workers. And that can create a lot of sense of isolation, and also fear of being outed.” It’s particularly tricky for early career researchers and those who live in locations without strong antidiscrimination laws, she adds, because they may feel a greater risk of being out.
“Not feeling like you could get to know your colleagues that closely could hinder academic progress,” Hughes adds. “Getting to know each other on a personal basis establishes some level of trust. They think of you when opportunities come up. They think of you when doing introductions.”
Faculty members who are open about their LGBTQ identity can serve as valuable role models for younger scientists who aren’t sure about coming out, Dye says. But that can only happen if universities create an environment that fosters disclosure—for example, by providing all gender restrooms, implementing inclusive name change policies, and facilitating opportunities for LGBTQ scientists to network with one another. Safe space certification, which provides academics with a sticker they can display in their office or lab to indicate they’ve undergone training in how to talk about LGBTQ issues, is also a good tool, Yoder adds.
Taking such steps may be important not only for individual researchers, but also for the future of STEM, Hughes says. “There probably is science that isn’t being done because of the climate that people are navigating.”