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Dean's Corner

By Elizabeth H. Simmons, March 25, 2016

LBGT Climate in PhysicsAs a college dedicated to the study of science in societal context, Lyman Briggs College is deeply interested in questions about who is welcomed into the community of scientists. Over the last eighteen months, I've been part of a special ad-hoc Committee on LGBT Issues within my disciplinary professional organization, the American Physical Society. The committee's work has reminded me daily about the importance of the issues that we raise in Lyman Briggs.

The Executive Officer charged our committee to "advise the APS on the current status of LGBT issues in physics, provide recommendations for greater inclusion, and engage physicists in laying the foundation for a more inclusive physics community." This charge responded to the work of the grassroots organization lgbt+physicists from whom much of our committee's membership was drawn. Note that while LGBT is generally an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, the report interprets it to signify sexual and gender minorities in a broader sense.

After months of drawing together evidence from focus groups held at APS meetings, a climate survey, interviews with individuals who self-identify as LGBT, and the committee members' own varied experiences and observations, we completed the document LGBT Climate in Physics in January 2016. Our report was presented at the 2016 March Meeting of the American Physical Society and copies were sent to the chairs of physics departments nationwide. News of the report's findings and recommendations have been picked by international media, including Nature, Scientific American, InsideHigherEd and the Institute of Physics.

Our findings show that gender identity and expression have a significant impact on who is welcomed into the community of physicists—even though one's social identity is demonstrably irrelevant to one's ability to solve equations, build experiments, create models, or analyze data.

  • About 40% of survey respondents reported there was pressure in their department to "not act too gay," as if their identities were something to be ashamed of.
  • LGBT women reported exclusionary behavior at three times the rate of men, while open-ended responses and interviews revealed particular difficulties faced by LGBT people of color.
  • Transgender and gender-noncomforming individuals consistently reported the highest levels of exclusionary behavior, adverse climate, and unsupportive policies. The specific challenges faced by these scientists included lack of health benefits, lack of access to safe bathrooms, and a lack of respect and awareness from others.

The impact of these issues is highlighted by the finding that over a third of the total survey respondents considered leaving their workplace or university in the last year, and that this strongly correlated with those who also reported adverse climate for LGBT individuals.

Based on these findings, our report outlines six specific, actionable recommendations for the American Physical Society that would represent significant steps forward in enhancing the inclusivity and safety of the physics community for its LGBT members. These include the need to promote LGBT-inclusive practices in academia, national labs, and industry, to ensure that physicists can have their current name listed on their past as well as present publications, and to implement LGBT-inclusive mentoring programs.

As a professional physicist, I am discouraged to see that my field, which professes its mission to be the evidence-driven study of the physical universe, is not the technical meritocracy it often claims to be. But as a member of Lyman Briggs, I am not truly surprised that physics is subject to the same limitations and biases as any other human endeavor. As a member of Lyman Briggs, I also know that understanding the societal context of a field is key to improving its professional environment. Hopefully, our report will prove to be a good first step in that direction.

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