Transgender scientists shed light on the hurdles they face in academia

March 14, 2024

In a first-of-its-kind commentary published March 14, 2024, in the journal Cell, 24 transgender scientists and their family members openly share their experiences in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) fields. The landmark commentary is featured in a sex- and gender-focused issue of Cell that covers a range of topics, including gender equity, the history of sex and gender research, and ways to improve the quality of research by incorporating more rigorous sex-related variables.

The barriers faced by trans people, exacerbated by anti-scientific transphobic arguments, impede their participation in science and career advancement. The commentary highlights the legal and material challenges that hinder trans people's educational attainment and productive research careers.

Neuroscientist and commentary author Dori Grijseels of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research says: “I hope that trans scientists can see this piece as a beacon of hope. It can be incredibly isolating to be a trans scientist, especially in particularly hostile places, but I hope that this commentary can give a sense of community to those scientists.”

Trans people are disproportionately subject to harassment and discrimination, and face heightened scrutiny regarding professional attire and behavior. The authors argue that rigid expectations of gendered behavior in the workplace perpetuate the marginalization of trans people, as well as cis people with non-conforming gender expressions. They also highlight the unique pressures faced by trans women of color and the consequences of appeals to professionalism.

The commentary outlines actionable steps for cis researchers to support their trans colleagues: showing respect without singling them out, educating themselves and others, and using privilege and influence for institutional and policy advocacy. The responsibility for these changes should not fall solely on trans researchers, as inclusive practices benefit the entire scientific community. “While it’s natural to feel hesitant about potentially making mistakes while trying to help, the risk of inaction—fueled by a fear of making mistakes—is far greater than the risk of attempting to make a positive change,” says neuroscientist and commentary author Evyn S. Dickinson of Yale University.

“When cis and trans people alike challenge sex and gender essentialism, we enshrine bodily autonomy and intellectual freedom. When we build institutions and systems to support all who contribute, we move to rectify scientific inequity and injustice,” the authors conclude.

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