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Call for leadership as hostility towards gay engineers continues

Pride Rainbow bands

Industry bosses have been urged to show more leadership on tackling homophobia in the engineering workplace after a New Civil Engineer poll exposed the continued hostility towards gay engineers.

Half of all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people working in construction surveyed in a joint investigation with sister titles Architects’ Journal and Construction News said they had heard homophobic or transphobic slurs being used as insults in the workplace in the past 12 months, with 23% personally experiencing offensive or inappropriate comments or banter about their own gender or sexual identity.

The situation is little different when considering solely engineering consultancies, often assumed to be more tolerant places than construction sites, with 53% of LGBT engineers working in consultancies reporting having heard homophobic slurs and 27% personally experiencing them.

It means little has changed since last year, when the same survey found that 60% of LGBT engineers had heard homophobic comments in the workplace in the last 12 months, with one in five experiencing offensive behaviour directly.

WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff senior marketing manager Jo Henessey is one of the founders of the firm’s LGBT network, Vibe, and described the survey results as “very worrying”.

More leadership is required to show that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated, and to provide reassurance that those reporting such behaviour will be supported.

The survey found that while 40% of all workers – and almost half of LGBT workers – have heard the word “gay” used as an insult, just 12% heard it challenged.

Those surveyed said they needed to feel that there would be more support from management should they challenge those using inappropriate language.

Just 39% of all those surveyed said they saw support for LGBT issues from senior colleagues in the industry, with 83% of LGBT workers wanting to see more support from within the profession.

And it’s not just LGBT engineers who want more support – 65% of all working in consultancy said they want to see more from management.

In the survey, while 77% overall and 73% working in consultancy felt their line manager would be comfortable with LGBT colleagues yet barely half (51%), and less than half (49%) in consultancy, felt their line manager would be comfortable dealing with problems concerning gender identity or sexuality for employees.

And around a third were not sure they would feel confident reporting inappropriate behaviour relating to gender identity or sexuality to their line manager.

“Clearly there is a lot more that companies need to do to create the right environment for LGBT staff but also to educate senior and middle managers on how to create and maintain inclusive cultures in their teams,” said Henessey.

“It’s a big problem in the industry that we cannot hide from and it’s time more firms took action to address this, whether in the office or on site.”

Henessey’s view was echoed by survey respondents.

“We need to be brave here as managers and directors and set examples for the next generation of engineers,” said one. “Graduates will have a different outlook on life than I have which has resulted from the decades of awareness and tolerance campaigning; they will have an ‘out’ expectation and demand for that acceptance and tolerance formed from their whole life experience of tolerance and support of the education system and wider society.

“A LBGT graduate catapulted into an exciting career full of opportunity will fail when the reality of our profession hits. Construction and consulting is homophobic and intolerant. Their careers and future will need support from senior managers seen to be out and accepted. But we are not. Again, is it time to be brave?” said the respondent.

“I think that we need to move from the prevailing culture that has senior leaders saying ‘yes, we should do this and that’ to them taking ownership: ‘I will do this and that’,” said another respondent.

“We need to get to senior people actually doing things, giving up their time, being present and leading by example, rather than the current status which is ‘this is a good idea, but someone else can deal with it’.”

Overall, 50% of those surveyed said they thought their profession was inclusive of LGBT employees; 62% said they had openly LGBT colleagues; and 95% said they would be comfortable working with such colleagues. But reflecting those who may have taken the survey, just 74% felt their colleagues would feel the same way.

Views of respondents suggest this caution is well founded.

“It’s still acceptable to be openly homophobic in the construction industry. I’ve seen one glaring example of this in the last week and been told of another,” said one.

“It is a sector dominated by misogynistic, racist homophobes who by and large take pride in it. Things are getting better, though timeframes are to a degree dependent on average life expectancy in the industry,” said another.

But there is reason to be hopeful, with positive action having good results.

“Since coming out and transitioning at the end of last year I have received a positive response from almost everyone I have dealt with professionally,” said one respondent. “This is in contrast to my fears before coming out. I have engaged positively with construction LGBT forums and am finding positive support in the industry.”

And these successes need celebrating.

“Celebrating diversity is key,” said a respondent. “We are often just negative about LGBT issues. If we focus on the positives and publicise the good news stories, improvement and change will continue.”

About the survey

New Civil Engineer in partnership with sister titles Architects’ Journal and Construction News, conducted an exclusive industry-wide survey into attitudes towards LGBT employees.

The survey was open from 15 August to 26 September and was filled out by 1,403 people working in the built environment industry.

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