Does your sexual orientation affect your progression in the workplace? Are your colleagues accepting of your sexuality? Is it irrelevant to your role or should you be out and proud in the office? We asked E&T’s LGBT engineering community to share their experiences of working within the industry.
“A lot of employers take the stance: ‘why should we care what you get up to in the bedroom?’. But really the question is; if you’re not comfortable at work can you perform at your best?” Chris Edwards is client group manager at LGB rights charity Stonewall, which helps companies achieve best practice in terms of sexual equality. In an attempt to address the perception that engineering is more LGBT-discriminatory than other industries, E&T recently conducted a survey into the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender engineers in the workplace.
While many will question the relevance an engineer’s sexuality bears on their employment, it may help to look at the issue in regards to profit. Studies have shown that workplaces that are truly inclusive are proven to attract and retain staff that are more creative, productive and able to reach their full potential. This is particularly pertinent in industries such as engineering, which is not only experiencing a skills shortage but is also struggling to recruit younger engineers into an ageing workforce.
EY (formerly Ernst & Young) has conducted global research showing that employees in fully inclusive environments bring in over £70,000 per year more to an organisation than those working in areas where they feel they can’t be themselves.
Honesty is the best policy
The E&T survey respondents are almost evenly split in their openness at work about their sexuality. Just over 45 per cent say they are open at work about their sexuality, while 41.8 per cent say they are not.
The 45.2 per cent who are open support EY’s study that being out at work has increased productivity. One respondent says: “I have developed the most productive professional relationships with colleagues that I have been open with about my sexual orientation.” Others say the changing marital legal landscape has allowed them to be more open, while another claims a supportive recruitment process allowed him to “come out during the hiring interview”.
Forty-six per cent of participants would like to be out more but feel their work culture would not react positively. “I think that others would lose respect for me, which in my position would affect my ability to get projects done,” says one respondent. Others feel the diversity measures currently in place would not protect them: “I do not want to be known as the ‘gay engineer’,” says one, while another warns: “It would be a disaster [coming out]. The senior management in engineering companies are – as a generalisation – homophobic. They may pay lip service to diversity policies, but that is how it is in the UK in 2014. Unfortunately.”
Some felt that taking part in conversations about their home life could be construed as “attention-seeking”. Edwards stresses the importance of a working environment where you’re able to be yourself. “This is how we build relationships both with colleagues and clients, and if gay people can’t do this they are being excluded from this relationship-building process,” he says.
“It’s much more difficult to perform as effectively as you’d want to because you’re always having to judge situations or scenarios on whether this is the right place to come out, if someone asks me what I did over the weekend, how do I answer that? I’m always having to make these judgment calls on whether this is the right environment for me to say that I was with my boyfriend.”
Respondents to our survey echo Edwards’ fears, saying: “It would be a relief to never have to pretend to be something I’m not for the first time in my life.” And: “It would be easier not to have to compartmentalise two parts of my life. Sexuality is a small part of me; at work I’d like it to be a non-issue.”
The glass ceiling
But it’s not just social functions or office chit-chat that many LGBT engineers feel excluded from. Around 17 per cent feel that their sexuality has created a barrier to their 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.”
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, working in the defence industry, was told during an appraisal that he needed to be “more alpha-male to succeed in the UK defence industry”. Some even feel they have lost their jobs due to discrimination at managerial level.
Emmeline Tang, lead consulting engineer of Mission Critical Services at Arup, says these experiences are not uncommon, and that many LGBT engineers experience a culture of tolerance at work rather than acceptance. “One of my directors [at a previous employer] favoured another [straight, male] engineer over me and nominated him for an award for a project that I’d been working on but he had never really been involved in,” she says. “Although it wasn’t outright homophobia, the whole office noticed this and commented on it: it was discrimination.”
Home and away
Engineering is a global industry and, as a result, engineers in certain sectors such as oil and gas are able to undertake contracts to work on projects abroad. Many engineers feel homophobic law in regions such as Africa or the Middle East prevents them from undertaking these projects and hinders their career choices. One says: “My company has a lot of overseas opportunities; some of these are in countries where I wouldn’t be comfortable being a gay person. This barrier to taking opportunities could potentially hinder my career progression.”
Other respondents speak of feeling unsafe working in certain regions: “I am discriminated against as I am limited in the involvement I can achieve due to laws that would be a threat to my liberty and life.”
Tang, who originates from Singapore where it’s still illegal to be gay, agrees. “If you go section 377 in Singaporean law, it cites two men engaging in sexual activity as wrong and you can be jailed for that. There’s a huge push from the LGBT movement to get rid of that, but the government refuses to. Homophobia is still very prevalent in Singapore.”
She believes that in some areas of the world it does not make sense for gay engineers to be out, as in some regions homosexuality is punishable by death. “In the Middle East you can be killed for being gay, it’s a very dangerous place to be out.”
Tim Macavoy, events director at professional technology and engineering diversity network InterTech and UX editor at Skype, says that for lesbian and transgender engineers, being discriminated against because of their sexuality is only the tip of the iceberg. “Certain areas of the engineering industry lends itself to homogeneous cultures, and that can be difficult to work in. Engineering in general struggles with attracting gender diversity, as well as LGBT, and I think this is something the industry as a whole is very aware of.”
Worryingly, some of our 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.”
Of the 17 transgender participants in our 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.
Only 7.7 per cent of respondents felt they’d been discriminated against work, and were subjected to “slurs”, “mocking” and “homophobia”, with some questioning whether they’d picked the right career. One, who works in defence, says: “I had bad experiences when in the army, there’s not a chance in hell I’d ever tell anyone again.”
Despite respondents’ fears that their sexuality could hinder their career progression, 76.6 per cent have not experienced direct homophobic or gender discrimination from their peers. “I’ve not experienced any homophobic comments made to me about my sexual orientation,” says one. “I’ve experienced no hint of being treated differently to anyone else.”
Macavoy says this response is encouraging. “I think we’re becoming more aware that creativity comes from diversity and wild ideas and different backgrounds and experiences,” he says. “Some companies who are headed up only by straight, white men take a look around and say, ‘this probably isn’t good enough’. They want to change the way their organisations are run: they want to change their conversation with people.”
A total of 356 engineers took part in our 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. Out of the 50 respondents who answered ‘other’ to our question regarding sexuality, 20 answered heterosexual. Unfortunately this fraction skewed our results by a minimal amount, which is normal during an open, online survey.