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Men in same-sex couples are 12% less likely to have a STEM degree than men in different-sex couples

Sexual orientation of men is new ‘STEM gap’, study finds

Men in same-sex relationships are significantly less likely to have a degree in a STEM subject than men in different-sex couples, a new study has shown. 

Researchers, including from the University of Exeter Business School, believe they have found a new “STEM gap”, following previous studies that have established how race and gender influence student choice on whether to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) at degree level.

The peer-reviewed study identified 142,641 men and women in same-sex couples and 10,809,885 men and women in different-sex couples, using the 2009-18 American Community Surveys and additional data from the 2013-18 National Health Interview Surveys (NHIS), including information on undergraduate degrees taken and occupation.

They found that men in same-sex couples are 12% less likely to have a STEM degree than men in different-sex couples.

No such gap was discovered for women in same-sex couples studying STEM subjects and women in different-sex couples, although women were found to be massively underrepresented in STEM fields overall.

The study found that the STEM sexual orientation gap for men was larger than the gap between white and black men (4%), but smaller than the STEM gender gap, which was 21%.

The STEM gap for men also applied for STEM occupations, which was smaller – though still statistically significant – at 1%. 

​The authors found this STEM occupational gap repeated in the additional NHIS data. 

The study is among the first to provide a country-wide estimate of the representation of individuals studying for STEM degrees and related occupations that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer.

Its authors hope it will help to “start to address the dire need for statistics on sexual and gender minorities in STEM”.

The study also notes that gay male representation in STEM is systematically and positively associated with female representation in those same fields. 

Dr Dario Sansone, Lecturer in Economics at the University of Exeter Business School and co-author of the study, said: “These patterns are highly suggestive that the mechanisms underlying the very large gender gap in STEM fields such as heteropatriarchy, implicit and explicit bias, sexual harassment, unequal access to funding and fewer speaking invitations are related to the factors driving gap in STEM fields between gay men and heterosexual men.

“For example, perceptions that gay men are relatively feminine and that lesbian women are relatively masculine may contribute in part to the underrepresentation of gay men compared to heterosexual men in STEM and the lack of differential representation of lesbians compared to heterosexual women in STEM.” ​

The researchers hope their findings will spark a new focus on sexual orientation when considering the status of minorities in STEM fields.

Addressing this new STEM gap is important not only to create a level playing field but because “addressing these gaps could increase efficiency by improving group decision-making, company performance, and the quality of scientific work”, said Dr Sansone.

The study, entitled Turing’s children: Representation of sexual minorities in STEM, is published in the journal PLOS-ONE.

Date: 18 November 2020