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New research uncovers academic disparities among straight, LGBTQ+ students

| Thursday, February 17, 2022

Notre Dame assistant professor of sociology Joel Mittleman recently published research addressing education disparities among gay, straight and bisexual students, and how these disparities also exist among gender, birth cohort and race. 

According to Mittleman, it seems that women have always performed better in school than their male counterparts. But Mittleman found that the group with the highest levels of undergraduate and graduate degree attainment are not women. 

Professor Joel Mittleman, assistant professor of sociology, specializes in research at the intersection of education, gender and sexuality.Courtesy of Joel Mittleman
Joel Mittleman, assistant professor of sociology, specializes in research at the intersection of education, gender and sexuality.

Mittleman’s research found that gay men across all racial and ethnic groups surpass all other groups in the attainment of high school degrees, college degrees and professional or doctoral degrees. 

“There’s one group for whom the patterns are completely clear, which is gay men,” Mittleman said. “Gay men, no matter what data set — I’m using academic outcome, I’m looking at birth cohort — consistently outperform straight men and often outperform straight women.”

This finding, Mittleman said, has important implications.

It means that women’s outperformance of men in school cannot be based on biological sex differences. If gay men are outperforming women, there is nothing about being biologically male that prevents high academic performance, Mittleman said.

The academic achievements of gay students and straight students, according to Mittleman, relate to the intersection of gender and sexuality.

“There’s a lot of research about the way that boys can feel the pressures of masculinity and how that can undermine their academic performance,” Mittleman said. “There’s an idea that trying really hard in school and being a visibly committed student is not what a real man would do.”

Mittleman theorized that this culture of masculinity alienates male gay students, which makes it easier for them to perform well in school. 

This relationship between masculinity and academic performance, however, impacts other groups as well. One of these groups is the contemporary cohort of women of color in the LGBTQ+ community. 

According to a Business Insider article regarding Mittleman’s research, women who identify as LGBTQ+ may also “shy away from academic achievement because of its association with femininity.”

But, the relationship between lesbian women and academic success has always been complicated. When looking at data for the entire U.S. population, lesbian women earn more college degrees than straight women. However, Mittleman noted, older generations of white lesbian women are the ones experiencing this advantage. When looking at contemporary cohorts, straight women hold an advantage over lesbian women.

This disadvantage, he said, manifests itself through the suspension and expulsions rates of LGBTQ+ women. 

“I did find that the higher rates of suspensions and expulsions for queer girls versus straight girls are entirely concentrated among girls of color,” Mittleman said. “Among white girls, there’s no difference between queer girls and straight girls, but [among] girls of color, there’s a big disparity.”

Data regarding bisexual students and their academic performance is not as clear cut.

“At the population level, bisexual men and bisexual women are roughly at parity with their straight counterparts,” Mittleman said. “However, in recent cohorts — among whom reported bisexual identification is highest — bisexual men and, especially, bisexual women are disadvantaged compared to straight men and women.”

Mittleman said he believes his work addresses an area of research that has historically been lacking, and that it also highlights the contemporary LGBTQ+ experience in academic settings.

“I’m glad that the paper is getting some attention among Notre Dame students,” Mittleman said. “Whatever I can do to affirm and lift up the experiences of queer students at a school where it seems like they could be easily devalued is important to me.”

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