The engineering sector could well be alienating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender minorities through active or unconscious discrimination. Tom Wallace has set up the InterEngineering professional network to try to address the issue. Ben Cronin reports.
If you thought engineering had a long way to go to address the small numbers of women in senior positions in the profession, the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) engineers presents an even bigger challenge for the industry.
Unlike the number of female engineers, however, nobody really knows how many LGBT engineers are working in the profession. A recent survey by the Institution of Engineering & Technology’s E&T magazine found that 46% of LGBT engineer respondents would like to be open about their sexuality in the workplace, but have resisted doing so because they fear that the culture at the companies they worked for would not react positively.
Dismayed by the statistics, Tom Wallace, a gay structural engineer with WSP, joined with other engineers to set up the InterEngineering professional network with the aim of connecting, informing and empowering LGBT engineers.
“As a profession we’ve focused a lot on women and engineering and we should do because we’re behind when we talk about diversity,” he says. “It’s a very white male profession and we’ve been slow to act. But only now are we beginning to look at other elements of diversity.”
Wallace contacted NCE after it teamed up with sister titles The Architects’ Journal and Construction News to conduct an anonymous survey exploring attitudes to sexuality across the whole of the construction sector. The Attitudes in Construction survey is still being compiled, but Wallace thinks the results will be invaluable in helping to keep LGBT issues at the top of the agenda.
When asked if he had experienced overt discrimination in the workplace or could think of examples of other engineers in the InterEngineering network who had suffered discrimination, Wallace said the problem tended to be more insidious.
“We call it the problem of ‘continuously coming out’,” he says. “Every time you’re in a situation it’s a question of whether you want to be all of yourself or whether you just want to be a professional ‘bot’ who does engineering. For example, if you want to bring your partner to a work event, you have to make a decision about whether the people around you will support that.”
He cites other examples in which someone who is a transsexual or homosexual overhears a colleague being criticised and their sexuality is brought into the conversation. “I think we see it quite a lot with people who are lesbians who hear other colleagues who are lesbians being badmouthed and people might put in the fact that the colleague is a lesbian when they’re insulting her,” he says.
In such scenarios most people decide to suffer in silence rather than take the nuclear option of complaining to the HR department. As a result, Wallace says engineering may be alienating valuable talent at a time when it can ill afford to do so.
“The last thing you want do is have everyone told off and told how they have to behave to you, so what most people do is they decide to leave and they don’t even tell people why. We’ve got a skills shortage and we can’t afford to be losing people like that,” he says.
Mercifully, Wallace thinks that active discrimination against LGBT engineers is fairly limited but he maintains that it’s still up to the person coming out to make that judgement about their colleagues. “That’s where increasing visibility for such a hidden minority is so important,” he says.
He, for one, says he would be more comfortable coming out in a company where there was an openly gay person on the board of directors. “If that was the case, you’d know the company couldn’t be that bad,” he says.
For the record, he thinks his current employer, WSP, is doing a good job in making him feel comfortable and giving him the sense that his sexuality isn’t holding back his career. Another statistic from the E&T survey, however, suggests others might not be so lucky; 17% of UK respondents to this study felt that their sexuality had created a barrier to their career progression.
So what advice would Wallace give to companies that were trying not to alienate their staff in this way?
“The best diversity and inclusion campaigns come from the bottom up,” he says.
“The best thing you can do is normalise the conversation, make space and not make a big thing about it.”
In addition, the InterEngineering website provides a list of engineering members who have signed up to the diversity champions programme set up by lobbying and campaign group Stonewall. For an annual cost of £2,500 companies can receive one-to-one advice from Stonewall specialists and gain access to networking events, forums and literature to help them improve diversity and inclusion for LGBT employees. Balfour Beatty, Arup, Transport for London and Network Rail are all subscribers.
Another area in which employers can step up to the plate is by respecting an employee’s decision to decline a posting to a country where homosexuality is illegal. There are 78 countries where this is the case and many are places where engineers could conceivably be asked to work.
“A potential concern is how supported they would feel by their company when either accepting or declining an offer without being forced to come out or feeling their response would affect later offers,” says Wallace.
To improve visibility for the hidden minority and inform career choices, InterEngineering has launched a website and campaign to collect these types of experiences from LGBT engineers and their straight colleagues.
The “What’s it like?” campaign aims to share these experiences with LGBT people who are thinking about a career in the industry and is actively looking for more contributions.
The inspiration for the campaign came from the response to an article that appeared online.
“In March 2014 the Being Brunel blog published an article which included a discussion on what it’s like to be a gay civil engineer,” says Wallace. “As the site is owned by a committee member, we know that on an average day, three people ask Google what it’s like to be a gay engineer and are directed to this article. How many more LGBT people decide they wouldn’t be welcome in engineering, just because no one else is answering this question?”
Wallace is also working with organisations like the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Chemical Engineers to again, increase visibility of LGBT engineers and to normalise the discussion. “By having a few LGBT events on their calendars, their LGBT members will begin to feel a bit more comfortable,” he says.
“We then want to use these events as a mechanism for accessing companies and telling them how important the issue is and how they can easily make a difference.”