25 September, 2013

Preliminary results: Out of the lab closet?

Please note that the findings reported here are preliminary as we continue data analysis. We welcome feedback, questions, and the opportunity to share information. However, we ask that you do not cite any information found on this site without contacting us directly at jbyoder@umn.edu or amatthe5@calstatela.edu beforehand. Thank you!

So what did all the queer STEM professionals who answered the Queer in STEM survey tell us about their experiences? One of the first, most straightforward ways we can understand people’s experiences is to ask them, how “out” are they?

Being out, or open about our gender identities and orientations, can be quite complicated for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, or queer. Some of us have a presentation that’s androgynous or gender variant enough for most people we meet to pick up on it; some of us try to provide a hint by wearing a rainbow wristband or other indicator. And, as several people pointed out after answering the questionnaire, those of us who identify as transgender with a gay or lesbian or bi orientation may be out about their gender identity but not about their orienation—or vice versa!

So, for many of us, coming out is a daily task. Still, how out we are in a given situation or social group says a lot about how comfortable we are in that context.

On the survey, we asked participants to rate how “out” they were using a scale of 0 (“I am not out to anyone in this group”) to 5 (“As far as I’m aware, everyone in this group could know”). And we asked about how out participants were to other people in multiple personal and professional contexts, including:

  • family
  • friends
  • online social networks
  • coworkers or colleagues in your own department or division
  • coworkers or colleagues in other departments or divisions

It turned out that participants' “outness” scores are strongly and positively correlated across all these contexts—on average, people who are completely out to family tended to be very out to coworkers or colleagues, too.

So to simplify our analysis, we created composite outness scores, by averaging participants’ outness scores for personal contexts (family, friends, online social networks) or professional contexts (colleagues in your own division, colleagues in different divisions).

And these outness scores revealed an interesting pattern:

As you can see, most of our participants are entirely out in personal contexts—but in professional contexts, we see an interesting split. A large portion of our participants are also completely out to their colleagues, but almost as many told us that they’re not out at all. This pattern held across all of the STEM fields we surveyed.

However, some other differences among participants’ reported experiences did seem to affect how out they reported being. We were interested in the climates participants experience at work, and in the communities where they lived—in both a general sense, and in terms of specific institutional support.

For example, we asked participants to rate whether the community in which they live is safe for LGBTQ folks, or unsafe; and whether they felt it was welcoming to LGBT folks, whether they felt they’re treated the same as their neighbors, or whether they felt it was un-welcoming.

Pariticipants who rated their community as safe and welcoming were more likely to be out to friends and family. These visible differences are strongly statistically significant (p = 1.127e–09 and p = 1.716e–12, respectively, in Kruskal-Wallis tests).

One particularly interesting pattern, here, is that participants who weren’t sure about how safe or welcoming their communities are no more out—or even a bit less out—than participants who felt their communities are unsafe.

We also asked about the legal status of same-sex marriage in the communities where participants work—as a proxy for general institutional and legal support of LGBTQ folks.

The legal status of same-sex marriage also made a statstically significant difference in how out participants said they were in personal contexts (p = 1.195e–05).

We saw similar patterns in professional contexts. We also asked participants to rate whether their workplaces feel safe, and welcoming—and whether their employers provide benefits to LGBTQ employees. Participants’ reported outness to colleagues mirrored the patterns we saw in more personal contexts:

Participants who rated their workplaces as safe and welcoming were more likely to be out to their colleagues, in effects that were strongly statistically significant (p = 5.309e–16, and p < 2.2e–16, respectively). Again, we see the pattern we found in personal contexts—participants who aren’t sure whether their workplaces are safe or welcoming are slightly less out to their colleagues than participants who rated their workplaces as unsafe, or hostile.

Whether or not their employers provide benefits inclusive of LGBTQ employees also had a strongly significant effect on how out our participants are to their colleagues (p < 2.2e–16).

These results are consistent with the idea that workplace and community climates—how safe and welcoming places feel for LGBTQ folks—can make a big difference to our ability to live and work while being open about who we are.

An interesting wrinkle is the survey results is that, even as we found these strong effects, we did not see significant differences in personal or professional outness among participants from different geographic regions, or from communities of different sizes. That suggests that some “traditional” rules of thumb about communities that are safer for LGBTQ folks—larger cities, and parts of the U.S. like the Pacific West and the Northeast—may be more complex than usually understood. We’ll return to this question in future updates on the results of the Queer in STEM survey.