Addressing LGBTQ+ Disparities in STEM and Higher Education: Making the Invisible Visible

Jon Freeman

In May the National Science Foundation announced plans to add questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to its Survey of Earned Doctorates, an annual exit survey of all individuals who will receive a research doctorate from U.S. institutions. The survey’s data have been used since 1957 by NSF, the NIH, Congress, and the White House to track the makeup of the U.S. research workforce, set national policies, and direct funding toward data-driven solutions.

For Columbia researcher Jon Freeman, associate professor of psychology, the announcement was the culmination of a six-year personal campaign.

Speaking to CUIMC faculty, staff, and student attendees of this year’s LGBTQ+ Health Lecture Series, organized by the Office of Faculty Professional Development, Diversity & Inclusion, Freeman said his interest in LGBTQ+ disparities in STEM initiated when he heard of the many career challenges of junior LGBTQ+ scientists. But he realized that the problems were invisible and went unaddressed due to the lack of data and initiatives. 

In 2018 he published an opinion piece in Nature, urging the scientific establishment to do more to retain people in STEM who identify as LGBTQ+.  

As he looked into existing research, he found stark disparities: LGBTQ+ people are far more likely to face career barriers and workplace harassment than others in STEM, they are less represented than statistically expected, and undergraduates who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely than other students to abandon their STEM major.

“These students are interested in STEM, but something changes that makes them feel like they don’t belong,” Freeman said during his talk at the medical center.

To address this issue, Freeman campaigned for robust data on the number of LGBTQ+ researchers in the U.S. workforce. Including sexual orientation and gender identity questions on the NSF’s annual surveys of the U.S. scientific workforce, particularly the Survey of Earned Doctorates, was an obvious solution.

“Data from these surveys will allow policymakers to understand and address disparities in STEM, help universities prevent and stop bias, and help change the conversation more broadly such that LGBTQ+ equity is a recognized form of diversity in science,” said Freeman, who was recruited to Columbia in 2022 as part of Columbia’s LGBTQ+ Scholarship Initiative.

Though NSF’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, which administers the surveys, initially seemed receptive in 2018, Freeman said, progress stalled. Freeman and his colleagues persisted in pressuring the agency to begin piloting the questions in 2021, and President Biden even issued an executive order the next year directing agencies to advance the use of LGBTQ+ data. Freeman eventually filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests in 2023 and 2024 to obtain the agency’s pilot data, wrote a letter to the NSF director signed by 1,700 other scientists, and filed a scientific integrity complaint with NSF and the U.S. House of Representatives. In addition, Freeman’s campaign gained the backing of members of Congress and major scientific organizations.

Freeman’s analysis of the pilot data contradicted the survey agency’s claim that participants found the questions too invasive to answer.

“Getting into the details of survey breakoff rates isn’t very exciting, but that’s what was needed when the agency misrepresented its pilot results,” Freeman said. “The data show that respondents had less of an issue responding to LGBTQ+ questions than many benign questions on one’s primary job, weekly work activities, income, and other topics.

“One takeaway that I learned from this effort is to know your audience,” he added. “Trying to get officials to come around to LGBTQ+ issues doesn’t always work because they either don’t care or are even hostile or opposed; find other ways to get people in power to do what you want. In this case, I used the survey agency’s own data to make my case.”

Freeman hopes the data will be used to create change.

“LGBTQ+ people can often be invisible,” he concluded. “We know that women and members of underrepresented minorities are much more likely to stay in STEM when they encounter more senior scientists who share their identities, when they can see themselves as having a visible presence in science. Theoretically, the factors driving the retention of LGBTQ+ individuals are the same. Belonging is key.”