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Gay engineers fear ‘coming out’ at work

Nearly half of gay and lesbian engineers hide their sexuality from work colleagues, according to new research.

The survey for the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that 41.8% are not open at work about their sexuality, compared to just over 45% who say they are.

Reasons for keeping their sexuality secret included the fear of backlash from colleagues: “I have tried hinting to colleagues about my orientation, but this has only resulted in me becoming a laughing stock,” said one respondent.

Others felt that senior management would not approve: “You do sometimes hear homophobic remarks by senior managers. This does not send a reassuring message.”

However, some felt that being open about their sexuality was not relevant to their job role, and they did not want to make others feel uncomfortable.

Only 7.7% of respondents said they had experienced homophobic comments in the workplace, which may signal a changing, more tolerant industry, but the overwhelming majority of these engineers were not open about their sexuality: “My colleagues make homophobic comments.  Because I am not ‘out’ I feel safe challenging them,” said one respondent.

Some female respondents felt they were being discriminated against at work for being female as well as gay.

The glass ceiling

LGBT engineers also feel their sexuality affects their professional development, with around 17% saying their sexuality has created a barrier to career progression. Some noted a clear decrease in casual conversations when their managers discovered their orientation, which led to less professional interaction. “I was overlooked for promotions, hence my departure to another company,” said one.

Several engineers felt their careers had been hindered due to the public perception of the traditional engineer, saying the main barrier to promotion was that they didn’t fit the archetypal engineering manager mould: “A straight man, married to a wife who is happy to look after the children while you travel.”

Another was told during an appraisal that he needed to be “more alpha-male” to succeed. Some even feel they have lost their jobs due to discrimination at managerial level.

Engineers in certain sectors are able to take contracts abroad, but many feel homophobic law in regions such as Africa or the Middle East prevents them from undertaking these projects and hinders their career choices.

Some of the 34 lesbian respondents still experience gender discrimination at work, with one participant saying: “I don’t necessarily feel there is any explicit discrimination in terms of being lesbian. I think there are far more issues/discrimination purely related to being a woman.”

Not appropriate

Of the 17 transgender participants in the survey, many felt it was “not appropriate to be out”, regarding their transsexuality.  Many have experienced discrimination at work, with one citing archaic mindsets of senior management as the reason for hiding their transsexuality: “If I come out at work, what will that do to my prospects? I hear the sexist remarks from senior management. How much more will that affect a transgendered person who they have seen as male but wants to identify as female?”

Some have even had to leave the engineering profession altogether due to negative reactions at work: “People struggling with me being transgender have made it impossible for me to return to my previous occupation since I came out,” comments one respondent.

Despite respondents’ fears that their sexuality could hinder their career progression, 76.6% have not experienced direct homophobic or gender discrimination from their peers.

A total of 356 engineers took part in the IET LGBT diversity survey in June 2014. They were asked to answer a series of questions relating to their openness about their sexuality in the workplace, whether they felt their sexuality was a barrier to career development, discrimination they’d experienced in the workplace and the sector and region in which they worked.


Readers' comments (1)

  • I worked for one company who sent round a form saying "Tell us what your sexual orientation is so that we don't discriminate against you on the basis of your orientation." I ticked the "prefer not to say" box.

    I fail to see what relevance my orientation has to how well I can do my job. Or my gender. Surely these should be irrelevant in today's world.

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