Transgender and gender non-conforming students in STEM: what’s behind lower retention rates?

non-binary student

Research has revealed that transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) students continue in STEM majors at a rate roughly 10% lower than their cisgender peers. We spoke to experts of LGBTQIA+ inclusivity in HE about why this is, and what institutions can do to address the issue.

In January 2022, the research paper Factors Influencing Retention of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming (TGNC) Students in Undergraduate STEM Majors’ was published.  

The authors, Jeffrey Maloy (University of California), Monika B. Kwapisz (University of Washington) and Bryce E. Hughes (Montana State University), set out to confirm or deny their suspicions that the lower retention rates seen among certain demographics in STEM also extended to the TGNC community.

“Based on anecdotal stories and experiences, as well as results we’ve seen with other minoritised communities in STEM spaces, particularly with lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals, we strongly suspected that undergraduate STEM environments were not equitable and inclusive spaces for TGNC people”, explained Maloy.  

And they were right: their research revealed that “despite TGNC students’ high levels of academic ability and academic self-confidence”, various factors resulted in TGNC students completing their STEM learning pathways at a lower rate than cisgender students.  

What is causing these lower retention rates?  

Confidently identifying the causal factors in these lower retention rates of TGNC STEM students is not an easy task.  

The researchers found that a complex combination of factors create hostile environments for TGNC students in STEM majors, as well as these students being attracted to non–STEM majors by several positive factors. 

No matter the field of study, TGNC students have a vastly different college experience than their cisgender peers, especially regarding their emotional health and civic engagement for TGNC students. 

However, Hughes highlighted that STEM fields tended to be “particularly unwelcoming to people from minoritised social identity groups”, while equally expressing the need for research on LGBTQ student academic success across the board. 

The authors also identified previous research which supports the idea that STEM fields may “disproportionately stigmatise help-seeking behaviors and conversations surrounding mental health issues”. 

This is significant given that the paper states that “nearly 54% of TGNC students reported feeling depressed frequently, and 30% frequently sought personal counselling, compared with 15% and 8%, respectively, of their peers.” 

Essentially, the only reliable predictor of leaving a STEM major was whether or not a TGNC student sought personal counselling. 

On the unique environment of STEM specifically, Maloy added: “While objectivity certainly has its place in the scientific endeavor, this idea is often oversimplified by the scientific community to a notion that the personal identity of a scientist is irrelevant to their professional practice and scholarly work.” 

He continued:

“To people whose identities are highly salient to their daily experiences, this fetishisation of the oversimplified idea of objectivity can easily be interpreted as a disregard for or delegitimisation of their lived experiences.” 

In other words, Malory theorises that it is the very commitment to impartiality and depoliticisation seen within the scientific community that may be a contributing factor in the creation of an unwelcoming environment for certain members.  

The value of data 

This research is important because TGNC students are important,” says Kwapisz. “They deserve the research attention the broader student population receives.” 

But conducting research about the experiences of LGBTQIA+ students in higher education students has not always been easy. 

“Up until recently, when data on gender has been collected, it’s collected in a binary fashion (for example, male and female) and under the assumption that gender identity is congruent with sex assigned at birth,” explained Bryce. “Most institutions still collect gender data in this manner.” 

In 2015, the decision was made by the Higher Education Research Institute to begin collecting data on these identities– in turn giving Malory, Hughes and Kwapisz access to a large, inclusive dataset and allowing them to conduct large-scale quantitative analysis in this area for the first time. 

In fact, Monika Kwapisz remains hopeful that as more data is collected on the experiences of TGNC students, “mental healthcare will continue to move toward de-stigmatisation and TGNC students will be highlighted in institutional retention efforts.” 

What steps should higher education institutions take? 

The authors suggest various steps institutions can take to address the issue. 

These include:  

  • Improving faculty training on diversity and inclusion 
  • Addressing student attitudes and behaviours towards each other  
  • Adjusting questions on gender in institutional data collection surveys  
  • Encouraging research focused on TGNC students  
  • Destigmatising conversations surrounding mental health in STEM spaces.  

To get a clearer idea of what else should be done within the higher education sector, we also spoke with Dr. Julie Johnston and the team at Queer Science, an organisation that actively encourages and welcomes queer students into the STEM space through events, collaborative research, experiments and study sessions.  

Increasing visibility is probably the most important but also least-understood and often poorly-integrated [practical step],” says Dr. Johnston, a lecturer at University of California Berkeley and postdoctoral researcher at Lawrence Livermore national Lab. “STEM professors often still have the mindset that their research and topics are separate from TGNC and other communities. We need to have curriculum overhauls which include explaining how niche STEM topics impact real people in real communities to increase visibility.”  

Dr Johnston does so by incorporating social justice projects into her engineering classroom on environmental biological processes – exploring the intersection of microbial kinetics, engineering and equality and encouraging discussions on how engineered biological systems, like wastewater pollution, can disproportionately impact certain communities. 

She continues: “From the perspective of a young TGNC person, why would they become an engineer if they could do more for their community in a social science or medical program? We need to show them how STEM has been used in the past to create inequality and emphasise how we’re working to repair that in the future.” 

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