New publication: A career cost for LGBTQ researchers who can’t come out at work

Queer scientists who don’t feel able to openly express their minority identities in the workplace pay a cost in research productivity, according to results of a new Queer in STEM study, which is now online at PLOS ONE.

This new paper, coauthored by Joey Nelson and Allison Mattheis, presents analysis of responses to the Queer in STEM survey of 2013, and a 2016 followup first proposed by Joey when we met at the 2015 Out in STEM conference — it’s been a long time gestating but we think it’s an important result. In the first Queer in STEM survey, 43% of participants said fewer than half of their coworkers knew their LGBTQIA identities. Those folks were less likely to describe their workplaces as safe or welcoming. That’s consistent with earlier smaller studies, which found LGBTQ folks who couldn’t be “out” in the workplace reported greater work-related stress and lower job satisfaction. So the argument for LGBTQ-friendly workplace policies has been that they help folks feel safe to bring their full selves to work, to ultimately be more productive.

But no one’s shown a direct link between expressing queer identity at work and productivity.

In that first QiS survey, we asked participants about their peer-reviewed publications, and we saw a suggestive pattern — those who were “out” to coworkers reported more papers. But that survey had unresolved confounding issues, notably that participants who weren’t “out” tended to be at earlier career stages, when they’d just naturally have fewer papers. Joey included a question to his 2016 survey to deal with this, asking participants how many papers they’d published AND how long it had been since they published their first paper. That gave us a quantitative control for the seniority effect. Joey also proposed that we recruit straight cisgender folks to answer the survey, to provide a “control sample” for questions about job satisfaction and workplace productivity.

If there’s a cost to working without disclosing a queer identity, we’d expect nondisclosing LGBTQ scientists to publish fewer papers (per time) than straight/cis peers, and that LGBTQ scientists who DO disclose would publish more, maybe even at the same rate as non-LGBTQ folks. That’s what we saw: In Joey’s survey, queer scientists who said fewer than half of their coworkers knew their sexual orientation published less than straight/cis peers; queer scientists who said most coworkers knew their orientation published similarly to straight/cis peers.

(Detail of Figure 2 from Nelson et al. 2022)

We think this makes the “cost of the closet” concrete in a way it wasn’t before. Publication count is a crude, incomplete metric of research productivity—but it impacts every aspect of research careers, and it gives us a window into challenges faced by underrepresented groups. There’s lots more to unpack, including the degree to which this effect translates to trans identity in parallel to sexual orientation (it doesn’t, but we think that makes sense) so rather than keep blogging about it, I’ll direct you to the full paper.