Industry bosses have been urged to show more leadership on tackling homophobia in the engineering workplace after a New Civil Engineer poll exposed continued hostility towards gay engineers.
This need for leadership is as great in consultancy as it is in contracting and is the stand out conclusion from a second pan-industry survey of attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people working in construction.
The survey was carried out by New Civil Engineer and sister titles Architects’ Journal and Construction News.
The results show that half of all LGBT construction employees surveyed said they had heard homophobic or transphobic slurs used as insults in the workplace in the past 12 months. Twenty three per cent said they had personally experienced offensive or inappropriate comments or banter about their own gender or sexual identity.
The situation is just as bad when only considering the views of those working for engineering consultancies, often assumed to be more tolerant places than construction sites. Fifty three per cent of LGBT engineers working in these firms reported having heard homophobic slurs. Twenty seven per cent said they had personally experienced 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 over the 12 months covered by the poll. One in five of those responding to that survey had experienced offensive behaviour directly.
WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff senior marketing manager Jo Henessey is one of the founders of the firm’s LGBT network, Vibe. She describes the latest survey results as “very worrying”.
The survey found that 40% of all workers in the built environment – and almost half of LGBT workers – have heard the word “gay” used as an insult. Of those, 30% 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 wanted to see more from management.
In the survey, while 77% overall and 73% working in consultancy felt their line managers would be comfortable with LGBT colleagues, barely half across the industry (51%), and less than half in consultancy (49%), felt their line managers would be comfortable dealing with problems concerning the gender identity or sexuality of employees.
And around a third were unsure 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.”
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
Jo Henessy, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff
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.”
The same respondent added: “An 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?”
Another respondent said: “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’”.
“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 all 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 74% felt their colleagues would feel the same way, a view which reflects concern about attitudes across the wider industry.
It’s still acceptable to be openly homophobic in the construction industry
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 time-frames 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.”
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 took place between 15 August and 26 September and was completed by 1,403 people working in the built environment sector.