Issue Date: May 23, 2011
Coming Out In The Chemical Sciences
When people notice the wedding band on Barbara L. Belmont’s ring finger and ask her about her husband, Belmont doesn’t hesitate. “My wife,” she corrects them.
Since revealing her sexual orientation as a lesbian more than 25 years ago, Belmont, who is a chemist at a small analytical company in Southern California, is used to these types of exchanges. “I pretend that it’s no big deal, and I just keep talking,” she says. “But I’m acutely aware that it is a big deal. I just revealed something to this person that might cause them to change their opinion about me.”
From having everyday conversations with colleagues to applying for grants and tenure to weighing job offers, being in the minority in terms of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression can affect a scientist’s career. The effect can be as innocuous as an awkward silence or as detrimental as lost funding opportunities or even a lost job.
C&EN spoke with chemists from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community to better understand their workplace challenges and to gain insights into how employers can create a more diverse and inclusive environment to attract and retain the best and brightest talent.
Unlike for women and racial and ethnic minorities, statistics are lacking on how many LGBT chemists are in the scientific workforce. In part, that’s because chemists who have not “come out of the closet” by openly disclosing their sexual orientation may choose not to self-identify. Without any solid numbers, it’s hard to know who the LGBT population is in the chemical sciences and what their needs are.
“We’re largely invisible,” says Belmont, who chairs ACS’s new Subdivision for Gay & Transgender Chemists & Allies, which is part of the Division of Professional Relations. “We don’t have any physical identifiers, and in this heteronormative culture that we live in, we are all presumed to be heterosexual unless we mention that we are not.”
A significant challenge that LGBT chemists face in their careers is deciding whether or not to come out at work. “I think that the biggest fear that you have as a gay chemist is that you can’t predict how people will react,” says Benny Chan, an assistant professor of chemistry at the College of New Jersey who is openly gay.
For academics, that uncertainty can rear its ugly head in the peer review process. The anonymous review of papers and grants is “a really good thing in a lot of ways, and it works very well for advancing science,” says Janice M. Hicks, deputy division director in the National Science Foundation Division of Materials Research, who is openly lesbian. But “you don’t know if coming out of the closet is going to influence that particular set of reviews,” she adds. “There would be no accountability if someone had a bad feeling about you and they took it out on your grant, or even if they did it in an unconscious way.”
The tenure process can be similarly affected. “There is a closed-door meeting of senior faculty, and you have no idea what they’re saying about you. You don’t want to take a chance on losing your career or not getting tenure if you don’t have to,” Hicks says. “On the other hand, the energy to stay in the closet takes up a lot of your time and strength.”
Chan agrees. “Hiding your personal life can be detrimental to your emotional health because folks around you are talking about their families all the time,” he says. “If you can’t talk about that kind of stuff, it really separates you socially and makes it an uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s very isolating.”
LGBT chemists say that a clear nondiscrimination policy at the state, university, or company level can offer some sense of protection. According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national LGBT civil rights organization, 13 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. But it remains legal in 29 states to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and in 37 states to do so on the basis of gender identity or expression.
A major milestone, LGBT chemists say, would be to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. This proposed legislation would extend federal employment laws—which currently prevent job discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, age, and disability—to also cover sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill is currently under consideration by the House of Representatives.
But policies can do only so much to provide a supportive work environment. LGBT chemists can search for jobs in states that have nondiscrimination policies, but that “can’t predict what your colleagues are going to do,” says Chan. “If there’s a policy, then I know that I’m protected from getting fired, but it doesn’t guarantee that it’ll be a pleasant work environment.”
Large companies have become more supportive of LGBT issues, and many now have LGBT employee affinity groups and extend benefits to same-sex partners. HRC rates Fortune 500 and other large U.S. companies annually on how they treat their LGBT employees. The number of companies that received a 100% ranking on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index rose from 13 in 2002, when the organization started the surveys, to 337 in 2011. More than two dozen companies that commonly employ people in the chemical sciences received a perfect score on this year’s index.
Chemist Larry Wagner, who is openly gay and worked at Texas Instruments for more than 30 years before retiring in 2007 to launch LWSN Consulting, says that over the years he’s observed an increase in the support of LGBT engineers and scientists at Texas Instruments. “One of the things that I’ve seen that’s really optimistic is the number of senior managers who have become involved with the LGBT affinity group and the activities associated with them,” he says.
Barbara Moriarty, a research associate at Nalco who is openly lesbian, says that although Nalco does not participate in the HRC rankings, it has demonstrated a commitment to its LGBT employees by starting to offer domestic-partner benefits. “With a company like Nalco, everything is judged by the bottom line,” she says. “If they can see that they’re going to lose a part of their population because they don’t offer these benefits, they’re going to start offering them.”
Air Products & Chemicals received its first perfect score of 100% on HRC’s 2011 Corporate Equality Index. Stephen J. Jones, senior vice president and general manager of Air Products’ Tonnage Gases, Equipment & Energy Division and a member of the corporate executive committee, which is responsible for the company’s diversity strategy, says Air Products has had a long-term commitment to its LGBT scientists. But the firm got the perfect score this year because it began offering domestic-partner benefits. “If you’re in a workplace and you don’t feel like you’re valued, it’s demotivating,” says Jones, who is a straight ally. “We want people, including our LGBT employees, to feel that they’re recognized, respected, and valued as part of the Air Products team.”
Rochelle Diamond, chair of the National Organization of Gay & Lesbian Scientists & Technical Professionals and a lab manager at California Institute of Technology, says companies have other ways to make LGBT scientists feel included. For example, they could promote the Safe Space program, which encourages LGBT scientists and their allies to affix a sticker with an LGBT symbol on it to their office doors to indicate that their space is welcoming and inclusive.
A supportive workplace can be a big factor in attracting and retaining an LGBT employee. “If you love where you work, and you feel like they support you in every endeavor, you’re going to be a very devoted employee and do whatever it takes to stay with that company,” says Belmont, who incidentally is Diamond’s spouse.
Chan says that when he was job searching, he turned down a lucrative position with a large petrochemical company because it had a low HRC ranking. “It was a phenomenal offer, but I decided not to go there because I knew that I would have to be closeted while I worked there, and I knew that would wear on my self-esteem and it would wear on my emotional state in the long run,” he says.
Job satisfaction is even harder to attain for transgender chemists. According to a 2011 report on transgender discrimination by the National Center for Transgender Equality, the unemployment rate for transgender individuals is twice the rate of that for the general population, with transgender individuals of color experiencing up to four times the national unemployment rate.
In addition, 90% of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job. And 47% said they had experienced an adverse job outcome, such as being fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of being transgender or gender nonconforming.
“Michael,” who asked that his name be changed for this story, transitioned from female to male when he was an undergraduate student. Now a postdoc in a chemistry department at a large research university, Michael says he has not told anybody at his workplace about his gender reassignment out of fear of repercussions. “My past experiences have shown me that if I am out, it dramatically changes the way that people interact with me, and it makes me feel unsafe in my work environment,” he says.
“I leave myself at home when I come to work. When I go home, I’m able to be my whole self again,” he says. “At this point, it’s just a compromise that I have to make. The other choice for me is to be so nervous that I can’t function.”
Michael says that receiving adequate health care is another challenge. “I pay for health care from my employer and would like to use it to deal with my myriad medical conditions, but I’m not able to honestly,” he says. “I fear that every time that I go to the doctor, there are potential repercussions that my sexual reassignment could somehow get back to human resources and that my health insurance could get canceled.”
Gender identity protection either at the state level or at the company or university level will be a big factor in Michael’s decision about his next job. “I don’t want to live the rest of my life in the closet. I’d like to be able to go to a place where I feel like I can be out,” he says. “When I’m at work, I’m here because I want to do this job well and because the company or the university that I work for has decided that I’m the best person to do that job, and in the end my gender identity shouldn’t have anything to do with that.”
A supportive workplace can make a big difference in a transgender individual’s decision to come out. When "Samantha", a quality-control assistant at Genentech, began her transition from male to female in 2008, she turned to the company’s Out & Equal employee resource group for support. She was put in touch with the company’s senior diversity manager, who had written the company’s transition policy. That person connected her with someone in the benefits department, who explained the resources that would be available to her while she transitioned.
“Human resources was instrumental in really helping me create the transition that I needed,” Samantha says. Two days before Samantha was to begin living full-time as a female, the director of her department at Genentech made an announcement to her colleagues about the company’s nondiscrimination policy and explained to them that Samantha was undergoing transition.
The next day, a corporate trainer talked to her colleagues about transgender issues and transsexuality. “After the trainer’s presentation, the group was given a letter from me explaining what my transition meant to me personally, what I had undergone so far in my journey, and what people could expect when I returned,” Samantha says. “The next day, I showed up, returning from that point forward as Samantha.”
Despite the preparation by human resources, Samantha still wasn’t sure how her colleagues would respond to her. “As well as you think you know people, when faced with something like this, you just don’t know how they’ll react. You come in bracing yourself for pitchforks and torches, and you’re met with hugs and floral arrangements,” she says. “It was great to see the character of my department come through and shine in that moment and see how these people who had been professionally supportive of me previously were now personally supportive of me in my transition.”
Samantha credits California’s nondiscrimination laws, along with Genentech’s own nondiscrimination policy and culture of respect for its employees, for her smooth transition back to work. “There’s a recognition that the science doesn’t happen without engaged employees, and when a person can bring their full, authentic self to work, they’re going to be a happier, more satisfied, and more productive employee,” she says.
LGBT chemists say that the more of them who are out, the better. “I think there is a big case for being visible in the workplace,” says Chan. “As the community that is already out becomes more visible, I think that it will help the other folks that are closeted” to feel more comfortable in being themselves, too.
Note: This story was modified on February 27, 2015, at her request, to change Samantha’s real name to a pseudonym.
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