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How to retain women and LGBT+ scientists in physics

Ramón Barthelemy, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Utah, sits on the U logo painted in the Pride colors.
Mathew Crawley
Ramón Barthelemy, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Utah, sits on the U logo painted in the pride colors.

New research shows LGBT+ physicists often face hostile work environments that result in many of them leaving the field. Results from new research reveals the importance of diversity and inclusion.

“In the course of my life, I've experienced homophobia, unfortunately. I had previously thought that I was going to keep my queer identity at home, and my physics identity at work," said Tim Atherton, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Tufts University.

Tim Atherton, a white man with a beard, stands looking at the camera.
Alonso Nichols
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Tufts University
Tim Atherton is an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Tufts University and active member of the LGBT+ Physicists Group. He is co-author of the series of publications that have come out of the survey conducted. Atherton says, "I want everyone going forward to have a more positive experience in life than I've had. I think people in leadership positions need to be more proactive at creating a positive climate."

“I had this experience where after teaching one of my courses, a student had wrote to me after the class was over and said, 'Thank you for being an out professor.' And my reaction was, 'Oh, wow, I didn't know I was out.' That was the first thing that made me realize I needed to work to create a positive climate for all of my students," Atherton said.

Atherton then started to talk about work climates and LGBT+ issues with other queer physicists, including University of Utah Physics and Astronomy Professor Ramón Barthelemy.

“This has led to a successful grant that I wrote with some other colleagues, where we are mapping the professional networks of both non-LGBT women and LGBT folks in general, and understanding how PhD physicists across academia, the government, in the private sector, navigate and build their professional networks," Barthelemy said.

Atherton said this study has resulted in the culmination of data that systematically looks at what is the climate for LGBT+ people in physics.

“This is a mixed methods study: it contains a survey that was sent out to members of the physics community, social media to reach the maximum number of people. We got 324 LGBT respondents,” explained Atherton.

Ramón Barthelemy, a man with brown hair, smiles at the camera.
Mathew Crawley
/
University of Utah College of Sciences
Ramón Barthelemy is Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UofU. He is the lead researcher of this study. Barthelemy is a mentor for many future physicists. It order to create more inclusive environments, he recommends that people, "... be open minded, listen carefully to your LGBT plus neighbors, colleagues, co workers, family members, and find out what are the challenges that they face and what you can do about it. it's not enough to just not discriminate. You also have to advocate".

Barthelemy, lead researcher of the study, said that depending on people’s compounded intersectional identities, which includes factors like gender identity, race, ethnicity and sexual identity have a substantial impact on their experiences.

“In the study data, both in the qualitative responses, the handful of interviews we did, and then also the quantitative responses, we find that women, transgender people and people of color have some of the toughest experiences being LGBT+ members of our community," said Barthelemy.

Atherton said the data also confirmed what these physicists have been experiencing in their community. "The second thing is that negative climatic experiences are contributing to people wanting to leave. ... I've been a physicist now for 15 or so years, and almost everyone I've ever met, who was queer has left. ... This represents a huge loss of talent.”

The data also showed the impact these negative work environments have goes beyond the person experiencing the hostile climates.

“What was also really surprising is the fact that it wasn't necessarily one's own negative experiences that would drive them away from the field. It was actually their observation of those negative experiences and the overall climate in the workplace on their campus," Barthelemy explained.

Survey data from the 324 participants led to an additional science publication. This new paper looks deeper into understanding how workplace climate can impact one's decision to leave physics. Barthelemy says they used workplace models to predict whether or not someone would leave or be open about their LGBT+ identity.

“What we learned from these workplace climate models was really that inclusion is more important than exclusion," Barthelemy said. "And really, when you extrapolate this, this shows it quantitatively, a neutral climate is not enough, you actually need to actively include people in order to get them to stay in the field."

Although the physics community is just one component of the larger STEM field, Barthelemy reminds us that making an effort to build better and more positive and inclusive environments are necessary when preparing to build better climates for the next generation of scientists.

“With one in six gen-Zers are identifying as being a part of the LGBT+ community, these are the bright minds that will be coming to us, right? And it's important that we make science be a place for everybody, and not just a select few," Barthelemy said.

Barthemely plans to pursue future studies that focus more on what fosters positive work climates.

“One really important thing is that we start doing research that celebrates identity, and looks at the positive things of being LGBT+ in physics," Barthelemy said. "I think it was crucial for us to demonstrate that there are challenges."

Barthelemy explained issues and challenges reach far beyond physics and academics.

“One thing that queer history teaches us is that rights come and go. This idea of a linear arc to justice is really troubled when we look at queer history and queer theory. It's important for us to always be vigilant to make sure that we're pushing in the right direction, in order to support these issues," Barthelemy said. "I think it's critical that we stay, and that we make it known that we are members of the community, we have value, and we deserve to be here just like anybody else.”

Colleen Meidt is a Science Reporter at UPR as well as a PhD student at Utah State University. She studies native bees in the Mojave Desert and is particularly interested studying the conservation status of the Mohave Poppy Bee. In her free time, Colleen enjoys photography and rock climbing in the canyons.