Data Collection Bolsters Inclusivity of 2SLGBTQIA+ Scientists

June 10, 2024

Limited data on 2SLGBTQIA+ scientists is a major barrier to improving working conditions and representation in STEM
Limited data on 2SLGBTQIA+ scientists is a major barrier to improving working conditions and representation in STEM
Source: iStock
The lack of relevant data on the 2SLGBTQIA+ (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, plus) community is a substantial barrier to building initiatives that improve working conditions and representation of this community in microbiology. To address this barrier, many professional societies, journals, academic institutions and research organizations are beginning to recognize the importance of collecting sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) data on their memberships. However, these initiatives are frequently driven by those who do not identify as 2SLGBTQIA+. 

Often, because of barriers in language and/or understanding of diverse sexual, gender or transgender (trans) identities, data about the 2SLGBTQIA+ community are collected in ways that can hinder understanding, are scientifically inaccurate or serve as a microaggression, suggesting to 2SLGBTQIA+ folks that the people collecting and/or presenting those data may be confused about or misunderstand our identities. For example, the well-meaning question, “Which gender do you identify with?” (which might be accompanied by the multiple-choice responses of “man, woman, other”) is necessarily othering and alienating to people who do not identify as a man or a woman. Additionally, without questions to separate gender identity from trans identity, trans individuals are not given the appropriate opportunity to choose to share the intersections of their gender identities and experiences. It is therefore vital that the data collected in service of DEI initiatives are appropriate and avoid conflation of sexual/gender identities.

In an era where DEI is becoming a fundamental pillar of organizational and community development, the methods used to collect data about the 2SLGBTQIA+ community require particular attention and sensitivity. The effectiveness of DEI policies hinges not only on the availability of data, but also on the inclusive and respectful manner in which they are gathered. This requires a deeper understanding of best practices for inclusive data collection specific to the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, which emphasize the importance of thoughtful approaches that respect individuals' identities and experiences. 

Current Practices and Challenges for 2SLGBTQIA+ Data Collection 

Members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in STEM face particular challenges in the workplace, classroom and beyond. Specifically, 2SLGBTQIA+ members often do not feel comfortable sharing their sexual and gender identities in their workplaces; experience feelings of loneliness, isolation and invisibility and are more prone to abandon the prospect of an academic career. These challenges give rise to a number of inequities, additive to the fact that 2SLGBTQIA+ scientists are sorely underrepresented in STEM spaces. Unfortunately, data on the outcomes and demographics of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in STEM are sparse, which makes addressing these challenges difficult.  

In many cases, demographic information about the 2SLGBTQIA+ community is simply not collected. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) previously received criticism for not including questions about sexual orientation in its workforce surveys. The NSF is considered the “gold standard” for data across STEM, and this gap sets a worrying precedent as the NSF data is often used to determine who is considered under-represented.  

Advocates for 2SLGBTQIA+ folks in STEM are also clear that one of the primary obstacles to better understanding and addressing 2SLGBTQIA+ challenges in STEM is the gap of SOGI demographic data on the STEM workforce. According to a report from the ASPEN Institute, without official data, governments cannot provide grant money, educational support and additional resources sorely needed to help address issues of 2SLGBTQIA+ underrepresentation and inequality in STEM. Therefore, without data on the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in STEM, the field will struggle to combat the barriers present.   

2SLGBTQIA+ STEM Data Collection Best Practices 

Recently, the co-chairs of the United Kingdom-based organization LGBTQ+ STEM outlined best practices for data collection in regard to the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Here’s the bottom line: 

  1. Sexual, gender and trans identities are interconnected, yet are separate concepts. They should therefore be split into 3 categories, where questions regarding each can be asked individually. 
  2. Organizations must make the task of data collection transparent to the participants. It is important that participants are aware of how the data will be analyzed and used from the beginning. Doing so helps build trust with the community and empowers the participants to make an informed choice about their participation. 
  3. Flexibility is important. Sexual, gender and trans identities are often fluid and complex, which requires that the answers to questions about these concepts reflect that. Where defined vocabulary is necessary, participants should be able to select more than 1 option. A free-form input, as well as options “prefer not to say” and “I do not know” should also be included. 

These are high-level guidelines designed to ensure that the basic needs of both the researchers and those participating in a survey are considered. Example questions can facilitate the preparation of such surveys. These examples help organizations separate the concepts into the aforementioned categories: sexual, gender and trans identities. Here is a brief example: 

What term best describes your gender identity? 

Many times participants may have intersecting identities. Providing data value options that allow them to connect and link such identities is essential for inclusion.
Many times participants may have intersecting identities. Providing data value options that allow them to connect and link such identities is essential for inclusion.
Source: iStock
Please check all that apply: 

  • Agender/no gender. 
  • Female. 
  • Genderqueer. 
  • Male. 
  • Non-binary. 
  • I do not know/questioning. 
  • Prefer not to say. 
  • I am _____________ . 

There are a few key features of this question:  

  1. It has many common options. 
  2. Participants have the choice not to answer. 
  3. There is a blank section for the participant to fill in options that may be missing. 
  4. Participants can check as many options as apply.  

Allowing participants to pick multiple options if they have multiple intersecting identities, fill in a missing option or choose not to answer at all ensures that the participants’ identities are respected, and their own understanding of their identities is appropriately captured. In this way, this question empowers the participant, rather than forcing them into strict categories or boxes. 

Following the simple rule: “Nothing about us, without us,” will also help ensure the purpose of collecting SOGI data is clear to participants, and that the collected data represents the community one is working within. Engaging in good participation practices and having members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community engaged in the organization, messaging and questionnaire development process aid in ensuring that issues are flagged, the community is represented and the questions are effective and appropriate. This can also help avoid common pitfalls, such as using incorrect or othering language or assuming genders using automated tools that often use sex as a characteristic to (inaccurately) define gender. Such tools actively misgender people by denying them the ability to express their own gender identity and reinforce stereotypes about gender to the detriment of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

Additionally, not all the identities within the 2SLGBTQIA+ community are the same or use the same language, which is why flexibility and community engagement are key to ensuring that the questions are appropriate. For example, Two-Spirit (2S) identities are important parts of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in both the U.S. and Canada and, therefore, need to be properly considered in Canadian and American institutions' collection and analyses of data. These identities overlap with indigeneity, and, consequently, will require particular care when crafting questionnaires about both indigenous and 2SLGBTQIA+ identities. This scenario might change in Western Europe or in countries in the Global South, in which Two-Spirit identities might not be included, but other intersectional aspects of the community with different historically marginalized and underrepresented groups are relevant in the local contexts.

Organizations, like the Pride in Microbiology Network (PiM Network), Pride in STEM and Out in STEM (oSTEM), are good places to seek additional information regarding this kind of data collection, as well as 2SLGBTQIA+ members who can provide insight into the community’s needs and help develop questionnaires. 

Data Supports Inclusivity 

Ultimately, data collected in a thoughtful and respectful way will help in the development of specific DEI policies locally and internationally. It will bring together the community both for professional and outreach purposes, which is currently a central goal of many 2SLGBTQIA+-supporting organizations and communities, such as the PiM Network and more. In essence, prioritizing inclusive data collection practices is not only imperative for understanding and addressing the unique challenges faced by 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals in STEM, but also essential for fostering a more equitable and supportive environment within and across STEM fields. 

Learn more about supporting the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in STEM!

Author: Landon J. Getz , Ph.D.

Landon J. Getz , Ph.D.
Landon J. Getz, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in Karen Maxwell's lab in the department of biochemistry at the University of Toronto.