The results of an New Civil Engineer survey into attitudes towards lesbian, gay and bisexual engineers show that homophobia and discrimination continue to be problems for the sector.
More than 60% of gay men and women engineers have heard homophobic comments in the workplace in the last 12 months, with one in five experiencing offensive behaviour directly. Meanwhile, less than half of all gay engineers feel comfortable being open about their sexual orientations with their immediate colleagues, a figure which falls to just 8% when visiting construction sites.
These are some of the findings of a survey into attitudes towards sexuality in the construction industry, a joint investigation between NCE and sister titles Architects’ Journal and Construction News. Altogether, almost 1,000 respondents from across the industry took part in the Attitudes in Construction survey, which explored issues such as visibility of sexual minorities in the workplace, management, and the problems of working in countries with poor records on gay rights.
The survey follows confirmation that companies from the construction and built environment sector failed yet again to appear on Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index in 2015, a list of the UK’s 100 leading firms for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality.
Matteo Lissana, client account manager, Stonewall said: “The construction and built environment sectors are historically very traditional, and changes in the industry take a long time to implement. The industry is still struggling with gender equality, which has remained for years the main focus of the sector.”
He added: “The [construction] sector must realise that [the current] approach is outdated and that diversity does not operate in separate compartments. The sector is coming to realise now that the shrinking talent pool is setting firms further and further away from an extremely vast and diverse number of employees.”
“Respondents from across the industry agreed that construction sites were the least welcoming to LGBT employees.”
The findings in this report are based on the feedback of engineering consultants and project managers, almost 300 of whom took part in the survey. Our sister titles Architects’ Journal and Construction News are reporting on findings within architecture and contracting.
Out in the workplace
Less than half (46%) of gay engineers said they felt comfortable being open about their sexual orientations with immediate colleagues. This compares poorly with other parts of the construction industry, such as architecture, where over 70% said they were comfortable being open about sexuality with colleagues, but is better than contracting, where only 27% feel this way.
Some felt that revealing their sexuality would impact badly on relations with colleagues and career opportunities, with 38% believing their orientation created barriers to progression in the industry. One gay engineer said: “I am discrete about my sexuality. I feel that if I were to be open in the workplace it would lead to a breakdown in friendships with colleagues and have an adverse effect on my future opportunities.”
Although 85% of straight engineers said they would be comfortable with gay colleagues, one in 10 said that gay employees should keep their orientations private so as not to make other colleagues feel uncomfortable, and one in five said that gay employees should remain discrete to avoid being offended by the attitudes of others.
The proportion of gay engineers who feel comfortable being open about their sexual orientations drops significantly when working outside their offices, to 17%when at client meetings and industry events, and to just 8% when visiting construction sites.
“I feel comfortable being openly gay in the consulting environment, but I keep my sexuality quiet on site or in meetings with contractors,” said one employee, and respondents from across the industry agreed that construction sites were the least welcoming to LGBT employees.
Stonewall’s Matteo Lissana said that not being able to be open about who they are can lead to LGBT employees “not trusting colleagues, lower job satisfaction and lower achievement levels within the organisation”.
One in five gay engineers has personally experienced offensive comments about their sexuality in the workplace within the last 12 months. More than 60% have heard offensive or inappropriate comments about sexuality in the workplace, and over half have heard the word ‘gay’ used as an insult.
One respondent said: “The industry as a whole scares me at the level I am entering it, as despite efforts for equal rights in the workplace, discrimination is fairly rife. I love what I do and it is a shame to feel threatened or at risk of persecution for being what I am.”
Some respondents suggested that homophobia was a generational problem, with older engineers who grew up during more conservative times being more prone to making offensive comments. One engineer said: “Some of the older generation are set in their ways. They struggle to comprehend female engineers let alone homosexual ones.”
Again, many respondents said they faced the biggest problems when visiting construction sites. “Attitudes on site are about 15 years behind attitudes in the office,” said one engineer.
A cultural shift is needed to make construction sites more welcoming said Lissana, adding: “If people who belong to a minority, such as LGBT individuals, enter a site where there’s a visible lack of diversity, they will feel uncomfortable and under pressure to blend in.”
The lack of visible LGBT role models appears to be a big problem in the profession, with only 41% of gay engineers reporting having openly gay colleagues. Just 18% said they saw openly gay employees at senior levels in the profession, and more than half of all gay engineers said they were discouraged by the lack of sexual minorities in the profession.
“When I see an openly LGBT CEO of a contracting firm then I will know that the industry is modern. Until then it’s still stuck in the 1970s,” said one respondent.
Richard Chapman-Harris, equality, diversity and inclusion manager for Mott MacDonald, said: “Role modelling is hugely important – you can’t be what you can’t see. But sexual orientation role models may not always be visible or ‘out’ at work for several personal and professional reasons. This can limit the aspiration of LGBT talent in the pipeline.”
Management and the profession
While 65% of gay employees feel their line managers are comfortable with gay employees, only 29% feel that their line managers would be good at dealing with sexual orientation issues.
For larger companies, this can often involve asking employees to work abroad in cultures which are more conservative or less welcoming to sexual minorities.
Just a third felt their line managers understood the concerns they might have about working in countries with poor records on LGBT rights.
One respondent said: “I have a transgender colleague working in a conservative Muslim country. I strongly question the logic of this person being placed in a client-facing role in a country where it is illegal to have this lifestyle.”
One in four gay employees would not feel confident disclosing sexuality on a confidential work-related form, and less than half said they felt confident reporting inappropriate behaviour relating to sexuality to line managers.
One respondent commented that industry bodies should take the lead in promoting sexual minority rights: “Promotion and guidance from leading institutions such as the ICE on LGBT issues would be a good start.” While trust in the profession is low, this falls even lower when other parts of the industry are considered. Just one in five gay engineers would recommend the profession as a great place to work for other gay employees, but just 4% would recommend the wider construction industry.
Commenting on this figure, Chapman-Harris said: “This is very low and will make it even harder for engineering firms to recruit from already shrinking and competitive pools of qualified talent.
“The reality is that the UK is becoming more and more diverse and the sector needs to appeal to all candidates, breaking away from traditional stereotypes.”