William & Mary

American Physical Society report notes challenges to LGBT physicists

  • An ally in physics
    An ally in physics   William & Mary physicist Wouter Deconick is a member of an ad hoc committee of the American Physical Society that recently produced a report on the challenges that gender minorities face in the physics community.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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William & Mary physicist Wouter Deconinck is a member of an ad hoc committee of the American Physical Society that has just released a report titled “LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community.”

The report outlines the status of gender and sexual minorities within the physics community. Deconinck, an assistant professor of physics, notes that the report addresses the entire U.S. physics community,  including tenured professors, research scientists, graduate students and undergrads. The report was released at the March meeting of the APS and has been picked up by national media, including the journal Nature.

The report outlines challenges and barriers to LGBT physicists, who often encounter exclusionary behavior from other members of the physics community. Deconinck said the exclusionary behavior problem isn’t unique to physics by any means, but seems to be stronger in numerical fields such as physics. And, he said, the report does not mean that physicists, as a group, are bigoted.

“There is a tendency in physics to discount anything related to human emotions: only numbers and 'objective' measurements are important,” Deconinck said. “This means that physicists are in general well-meaning but oblivious to the effects of their actions. They have good intent, but that does not negate the negative impacts of their actions.”

A press release from the committee lists a number of findings from the report, which was the result of focus groups, a detailed climate survey and a set of in-depth interviews among members of the physics community who self-identify as LGBT.

•Over one third of LGBT climate survey respondents considered leaving their workplace or school in the past year; this was correlated strongly with experiencing or observing harassment or discrimination

•LGBT physicists have faced uneven protection and support from legislation and policies, and may be fired or, in some countries, charged as criminals as a result of their LGBT status or for discussing LGBT issues

•LGBT physicists with additional marginalized identities faced greater levels of discrimination women experienced exclusionary behavior at three times the rate of men, and particular challenges exist for LGBT persons who were also people of color.

Deconinck pointed out that trans physicists face particular workplace challenges, with more than 40 percent of the trans and gender-nonconforming population reporting their colleagues refer to them using incorrect pronouns.

“That is one of the easiest things someone can do to make the trans person feel accepted and comfortable,” Deconinck said, “and it appears that more than 40 percent of the trans physicists do not work in an environment where that is the case.”

The report includes a set of recommendations to improve the climate for LGBT, both within the APS itself as well as in the American physics community at large:

• Ensuring a safe and welcoming environment at APS meetings for LGBT individuals

• Addressing the need to systematically accommodate name changes in publication records

• Developing advocacy efforts that support LGBT equity and inclusion

• Promoting inclusive practices in academia, national labs and industry

• Implementing LGBT-inclusive mentorship programs

• Supporting the establishment of an APS Forum on Diversity and Inclusion.

Deconinck is an active supporter in a number of efforts to increase inclusion of women and gender and sexual minorities in physics and in science generally. He notes that his department has a climate steering committee that includes undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty.

 “I can't speak for LGBT physicists since I'm an ally and have not had to live through the intricacies of coming out to colleagues or students,” he said. “In general, William & Mary does pretty well, though. On the recent Campus Pride survey of schools, we scored 3.5 stars out of 5 on LGBT friendliness. That leaves room for improvement.”