US scientific workforce survey to collect LGBTQ data

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday July 10, 2024
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Professor Jon Freeman, Ph.D.,, left, believes the SOGI questions are important. Emilda B. Rivers is the director of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Photos: Screengrab from YouTube and courtesy AmstatNews
Professor Jon Freeman, Ph.D.,, left, believes the SOGI questions are important. Emilda B. Rivers is the director of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Photos: Screengrab from YouTube and courtesy AmstatNews

A federal survey is set to start tracking the number of LGBTQ people receiving research doctorates in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, collectively referred to as STEM. It comes as U.S. census officials await word on their request to add similar questions to a monthly survey the agency conducts.

The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics is moving forward with the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) questions in its Survey of Earned Doctorates known as SED. The survey, which is conducted online each academic year, usually includes responses from at least 50,000 new research doctorate graduates.

The results, however, are delayed by several years, with the latest released being for 2022 and the 2023 one set for release this fall. The scientific statistics center, part of the U.S. National Science Foundation, plans to include the SOGI data about all individuals receiving a research doctorate from an accredited U.S. institution in a given academic year starting with the report for the 2025 graduating class.

The decision follows years of pressure from STEM professionals to see SOGI questions be added to the various surveys conducted by the federal scientific agencies. A group of Democratic U.S. senators last year had penned a letter calling for better data about the number of LGBTQ people employed among the country's scientific workforce, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

One of the more vocal advocates pressing to see LGBTQ data be collected within the STEM fields has been Jon Freeman, Ph.D., a gay man who is an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University. He also is the director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences Lab.

"These surveys are particularly important because the science fields account for one out of every four workers in the U.S.," said Freeman.

Having the SOGI information is needed to better understand how evasive workplace harassment is of LGBTQ people employed in STEM fields and what barriers to career advancement they face, Freeman has argued. It can also be used, he noted, to press policymakers to address the issues.

"They were engaged in some weird mathematical gymnastics to not add SOGI, so I have been calling them out on it," Freeman told the B.A.R. in a phone interview in early June.

The federal statistics center had tested adding SOGI questions to the STEM graduates survey. After initially announcing it would move forward with only asking about gender identity because too many people were quitting the pilot tested survey when they reached the sexual orientation question, Freeman obtained the data via a public records request.

As he detailed in a report published online earlier this year, both SOGI questions "performed excellently" on the pilot studies when compared to standard quality metrics for federal surveys.

"NCSES's next step should be easy: Include SOGI questions in all future surveys and stop hindering equity in STEM. The data are clear," Freeman wrote in a commentary published in the April 12 issue of Science.

Speaking to the B.A.R. that month, Freeman expressed frustration with how long the federal statistical center had dragged out adding the SOGI questions to the SED.

"It seems like over the past six years, this agency has been stonewalling, delaying, and obstructing the process of adding these questions," he said.

Feasible to add SOGI questions

A report released in May about the inclusion of the SOGI questions on the SED, which was conducted by RTI International for the federal scientific agencies, found it would be feasible to do so starting with the 2025 survey of the STEM graduates.

"Based on these results, considerations for the 2025 SED data collection cycle include adding separate questions for sexual orientation and for gender identity with detailed sets of response options and open-ended write-ins as well as assuring respondents that the individual-level data will not be shared with their doctorate institutions to address concerns about confidentiality and privacy raised by SOGI minorities," stated the 10-page report.

Of the 30,745 respondents to the SOGI test questions included in the report, between 2.5% and 2.9% identified as gender minorities depending on how they were asked the question. Between 13.0% and 14.7% answered affirmatively to the sexual minority questions used.

"This agency has been on and on for years about how small the population is and that these people don't exist," Freeman told the B.A.R. "Now we are talking about a study size of 30,000 Ph.D. grads in the country and we are talking 15% are LGBTQ-plus, which is much, much larger than a lot of racial and ethnic minority groups that are studied."

Just as Freeman had concluded in his own paper, the consultants reported that the "SOGI test questions in the SED yielded acceptable item nonresponse and survey breakoff rates while achieving construct validity."

They added that "the SOGI test questions yielded comparable or better data quality than these questions as measured by item nonresponse." And as far as privacy concerns about the LGBTQ data go, the report noted in bold lettering that "the majority of SOGI minority and nonminority respondents indicated that reporting their SOGI information in a federal government survey was comfortable and easy for them to do."

The consultants did suggest that respondents to the 2025 SED be informed "that their individual responses to the SOGI questions will not be shared with their institutions and will only be reported in aggregated form to help mitigate the risk of higher item nonresponse."

The federal center then announced in early May that "pending approval from the Office of Management and Budget, these SOGI questions would be included in the 2025 SED data collection effort that begins in June 2024."

Based on the results of the pilot, the White House budget office in late May signed off on the inclusion of the SOGI questions to the survey going forward.

"This collection is approved given the results of the 2024 Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity pilot. NCSES may proceed with collection," it concluded. "OMB concurs with NCSES decision to share only aggregate SOGI information (conditional on an appropriate risk of harm and disclosure analysis) to academic institutions."

The budget office also said it "strongly encourages" that the survey data from the piloting of the SOGI questions be released publicly "under controlled settings such as through their secure research enclave. OMB strongly encourages NCSES to seek public input on any planned revisions to SED recruitment, participation, collection, and data dissemination practices."

In April, a spokesperson for the federal science foundation had told the B.A.R. that the STEM statistical center "is committed to and is conducting research to ensure the potential inclusion of SOGI questions in our surveys. NCSES's SOGI research complies with the Office of Management and Budget statistical standards, is conducted in coordination with other federal statistical agencies, and uses a measured approach to ensure the findings appropriately balance data quality, respondent burden, privacy concerns, and data user needs."

Since 2022 the Biden administration has been pushing federal agencies to improve their collection of LGBTQ demographic data in a host of realms. As the B.A.R. reported in May, the U.S. Census Bureau is eyeing an August start date for testing SOGI questions on its American Community Survey.

It is waiting for the White House's budget office to approve its doing so this month. Known as the ACS for short, the federal questionnaire is sent monthly to 295,000 households in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and the SOGI question would be asked of all residents per household who are age 15 and older.

The ACS already asks if respondents are living in a same-sex couple household and whether that means they are married to or have an unmarried partner of the same sex. Based on 2022 ACS data, the census estimated there are roughly 1.3 million same-sex couple households in the U.S., with 57% of them married.

In a June 26 blog post timed to Pride Month, Census Bureau Director Robert Santos noted the agency's proposed SOGI trial in the ACS. He said it will help census officials ferret out any issues in how it is asking the questions based on how respondents are answering them or if it appears they are confused by them.

"Other federal agencies have identified uses for SOGI information, such as for civil rights and equal employment enforcement. Collecting these data in the ACS would give us insights that have not been available from smaller surveys," wrote Santos.

While he did not say anything about adding SOGI questions to the 2030 census form, Santos did list the various federal surveys his agency conducts where it collects LGBTQ data. He plugged a recently unveiled "landing page" that makes it easy for the public and researchers to access the information.

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