Gay faculty less comfortable than closeted peers

According to a new Yale-led study, openly gay professors are less comfortable in their work environments across the country than their closeted peers. Eric Patridge, a research associate at Yale’s Center for Molecular Discovery and study lead author, analyzed a 2010 data set of 5,000 faculty across the country in finding the disparity in faculty comfort. The study appeared on Feb. 10 in the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. The News sat down with Patridge to discuss the implications of his findings on both students and faculty, and what can be done to improve the climate.

Q: Can you summarize for me the conclusions of the study?

A: In general, we found that 11 percent of LBGT faculty is out across the country. Out of those who are out, 94 percent of them are uncomfortable, and those are the sort of numeric representations that get to the scope of the paper that LBGT faculty are more uncomfortable than their closeted peers. This pattern of LBGT faculty who are openly gay being more uncomfortable is especially relevant for faculty in the STEM fields.

Q: How do you think this climate affects students?

A: That’s actually our next step. One of the things we wanted to do is help to empower those who can impact students —[it’s] the classical thought where you put an oxygen mask on yourself before you help those next to you. What we’re trying to do is empower faculty who can help to mentor the next generation of students. Our next step is actually to take the same data set that we originally used and do a similar analysis for students. We’re in the process of working out that data now, and we’re hoping that it will be ready in the next year.

Q: What do you think can be done to improve the level of comfort both for people who are out and closeted?  

A: I think one of the ways in which faculty can be supported is to show interest in them. Sometimes the best change is made through sitting down and having cups of coffee. At an institutional level, faculty also need support in terms of professional support, and sometimes that can take the form of creating opportunities for them to talk about them being LBGT.

Q: Do you think that the conclusion of the study speaks to a societal attitude towards openness in homosexuality, or do you think this has to do with the campus environment?

A: I would argue that the general sentiment across the country right now is in favor of LBGT communities. Academia, including [graduate] students, tends to lag behind the populous by about 10 or 20 years, and so what I think our paper is talking about is the academic culture.

Q: How do you think the trends in faculty comfort differ for students?

A: We have a polarizing generational difference where some of the older generation came out in a very different era. The coming-out process is a life process, and so those who came out in a very closeted and confining way might be substantially different from those who are just coming through now.

Q: How do you think openness in the work environment affects the professors’ relationships with one another? 

A: It’s important because in terms of faculty career advancement, colleagues are perhaps the most helpful people who can advance their careers. In terms of tenure, and also the peer review process in academia, we publish a paper and they get reviewed by your peers and you write a grant and collaborate with your colleagues in your department. A lot relies on your colleagues and your ability to get along with them and personally relate to them. If you personally relate to your advisor more so than someone else, you’re more likely to do better in you academic career than the person who doesn’t necessarily relate to their boss.

Q: You founded Out in STEM (oSTEM), a national organization promotes LBGT communities in science and technology. Can you tell me more about the organization?

A: oSTEM is a national society that serves LBGT people in the STEM fields and essentially we focus on educating students and building leadership opportunities for them. In the STEM fields you’re not often taught how to manage people. We wanted to create opportunities for that to happen. We started a couple years ago, and we do have a chapter at Yale now, which seems to be gaining fast interest. We have about 50 chapters now and our sponsors include Google, Alcoa, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, the CIA, GE, GM, and Genentech just joined us.

Q: Is there anything else that you’d like to say about your research or what it means for the students?

A: I’m not sure students will necessarily understand the importance of this. I hope that this paper fills a long needed gap in the literature that will empower LBGT researchers. It would be great if students and faculty gave it a read and tried to figure out how to use this research and similar research in ways to support their local LBGT communities.

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