For years it has been known that attracting women to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is difficult; however, a new study conducted by MSU higher education professor Bryce Hughes, Ph.D., reveals this is also the case for LGBTQ+ undergrads. Hughes’ research, published in 2018, was the first to provide quantitative evidence showing that students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer were 7% less likely than their heterosexual peers to complete a STEM degree. With the help of his recent five-year, $695,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation, Hughes will be able to further study the experiences of LGBTQ+ undergraduates in STEM fields.

Hughes analyzed data from a national survey given to 4,000 students at 78 institutions across the nation in 2011 and 2015 to see whether first-year students who identify as LGBTQ+ were still pursuing a STEM degree by their fourth year. In this research, Hughes was unable to specifically examine the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming students due to statistical limitations with the data collected, but will do so in future studies.

In order to have a better understanding of the barriers LGBTQ+ undergraduates face, Hughes will explore their different experiences as well as identify policies, practices and interventions to address these concerns. His project will scrutinize three different areas of study. 

First, Hughes will delve into the social networks of LGTBTQ+ STEM students from various campuses and will compare these networks to those of their heterosexual, cisgender counterparts to see whether they have stronger STEM networks. Students participating in the study will also rate the degree to which they disclose information about their gender identity and sexual orientation within their networks.

Secondly, Hughes will compare the rates for completing STEM degrees in four, five and six years between LGBTQ+ students and their peers, along with the differences in overall college degree completion rates. This data will be collected from the National Student Clearinghouse, the Higher Education Research Institute and the National Center for Education Statistics. 

During the last part of his study, Hughes will focus on the discipline-based identities and future career goals of LGBTQ+ STEM students. By exploring these topics, Hughes will be able to understand how students view themselves compared to their discipline as well as their hopes for the future.

Overt discrimination, peers questioning your competence and a feeling of not being welcome can limit an LGBTQ+ students’ participation in the field. There are also more subversive factors. “[In STEM fields there are] demands to keep the personal out of the professional,” Hughes said.  Because of this, LGBTQ+ students and other minorities may feel pressured to fit into the white, heterosexual male standard of these fields. “If you’re in the majority you don’t realize the parts of your identity that are validated,” Hughes said.

John Paxton, professor and director of the Gianforte School of Computing and an advisor to MSU’s chapter of Out in STEM, has also seen a need for work for LGBTQ students in STEM.

“Because the LGBTQ+ identity is one that is historically marginalized, Dr. Hughes' NSF CAREER award is an important step for learning how universities can better support and retain LGBTQ+ students in STEM fields,” Paxton said to MSU News Service. “I anticipate that Dr. Hughes' findings will have great benefit to LGBTQ+ students, their universities and society at large.”

To view Hughes’ published paper from 2018, Coming Out in STEM: factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students,” visit https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/3/eaao6373.