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For LGBT Students, a STEM Career Is a Less Likely Option

New research suggests lesbian, gay, and bisexual students are being driven out of STEM majors.
Students work in a lecture hall.

Students work in a lecture hall.

The science, technology, engineering, and math fields have come under a lot of scrutiny for not being accessible—and in some cases being hostile—to women and people of color. A new study finds that same problem persists for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students.

Lead researcher Bryce Hughes, a professor at Montana State University, looked at the retention rates of 4,162 students across 78 different higher-education institutions, all of whom were enrolled in pursuing majors in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields (known collectively as STEM).

Three thousand eight hundred and forty-four of the students identified themselves as heterosexual in a survey taken at the beginning of their first year, while 318 students did not. A follow-up survey at the end of senior year found that 71.1 percent of heterosexual students stayed in a STEM major. By contrast, 63.8 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students reported staying in a STEM major.

Surprisingly, students who identified in the survey as non-heterosexual were more likely to get involved in undergraduate research, which is usually correlated with a higher probability of staying in the STEM fields.

When the groups were split according to sex, Hughes found that queer men experienced lower retention rates than heterosexual men, but queer women had higher retention rates than heterosexual women. Hughes supposes this is due to a hostility against femininity and an association between science and stereotypical masculinity that exists.

"Gay and bisexual men are probably somewhat stereotyped as more feminine and thus subject to a little more of a hostile climate," Hughes says. "Lesbian and bisexual women might somehow conform to a stereotype that their peers have about who belongs in the field better than heterosexual women."

However, all men, regardless of sexual orientation, were more likely to stay in the STEM major than women of all sexual orientations.

Hughes' study is among the first to look at the disparities between queer students and their heterosexual counterparts in the STEM fields. He suggests that more quantitative research is still needed. In the future, he hopes to see that research look also at gender identity—which would include trans and non-binary students—a component his study did not focus on.