Is architecture gay-friendly? The AJ polled more than 300 architects to find out. Rakesh Ramchurn reports
EQUALITY: Almost half of gay men and women architecture staff have heard homophobic comments in the workplace in the past year and, while 74 per cent are comfortable being open about their sexual orientations within practice, this falls to just 16 per cent when on site visits.
These are some of the findings of the AJ’s survey of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) architects.
More than 300 people took part in the poll, which explored issues such as how comfortable gay men and women feel being open about their sexual orientations with colleagues.
The survey followed campaign group Stonewall’s criticism of the architecture and construction industries for failing to rank on its 2013 Workplace Equality Index of 100 leading firms. While some questioned the need for the survey, others welcomed it and highlighted the fact that line managers often do not know how to approach diversity issues.
More than 80 per cent of respondents were men (77 per cent gay, 5 per cent bisexual), while 13 per cent of respondents were lesbian, and the final 5 per cent bisexual women. Other findings showed that the lack of visible, openly gay architects at senior levels in the profession (only 19 per cent of respondents were over the age of 40), discouraged LGB professionals, with 17 per cent feeling their sexual orientations might create barriers to career progression.
Out in the workplace
In London, 77 per cent of respondents felt comfortable being out in the practice office, while 9 per cent felt uncomfortable. The number of gay staff who had no problem being ‘out’ in the practice office falls to 67 per cent for those completing the survey outside London, indicating that gay men and women in regional offices feel more reticent about being open with colleagues than those in the capital.
The statistics are worse still in Scotland, where only 54 per cent of gay respondents said they felt comfortable being out in the workplace, and 23 per cent said they did not feel comfortable being open about their sexual orientations with colleagues. (In Northern Ireland too few people took part in the survey to provide meaningful results).
There was a big reduction in how comfortable gay professionals felt outside their practice offices. Just two in five said they felt comfortable being open about their sexuality at external meetings or at industry events.
As one respondent said: ‘Outside the office, the default for most people is that you are straight, and it would be awkward and unnecessary to make the point that you are not, so you tend not to discuss your own life, which restricts your ability to converse and network.’
The number of people who felt comfortable being open about their sexual orientation fell to just 16 per cent when they were on site visits. Many cited the ‘laddish’ culture which prevails on construction sites, where inappropriate or offensive banter is often the norm.
One respondent said: I continue to encounter offensive and inappropriate banter, not from architects but from clients and contractors. It is assumed I am straight. I hear mildly anti-gay comments all the time, and the gay men I know keep it a secret.’
Whereas some respondents said that they didn’t feel the need to be ‘out’ at work, there were others who said they did want to be more open with colleagues. Research by Stonewall confirms that gay employees are more productive when they feel they can be open about their sexuality in the workplace. The AJ’s survey of gay architects showed that almost half said they would be happier and more comfortable at work if they could be more open with colleagues.
Chris Edwards, client manager at Stonewall and formerly an employee at CABE, said: ‘If gay or lesbian employees aren’t open about their sexual orientation at work, they can expend energy trying to hide it – energy that would be far better spent focusing on work.’
He added: ‘Not being able to be yourself at work can lead to feelings of isolation and difficulties in forming meaningful professional relationships and networks which in turn impacts on career development.’
One in five respondents has experienced offensive or inappropriate comments directed at them personally, and almost half said that they had heard offensive or inappropriate comments about sexual orientation in the workplace over the past year. A similar number had also heard the word ‘gay’ being used as an insult in the workplace.
Many respondents said inappropriate comments took place mainly when in client meetings or on site visits, and often it was homophobic banter or gossip made by people unaware they were sitting with an LGB colleague.
One respondent said: ‘I once attended a meeting on behalf of my practice with an important client who sat with the consultant team debating the sexuality of one of the team members. I was the only person in the room who was gay. It was absolutely mortifying and took me back to what it was like in school. It was a difficult situation as, if I had said something, how would it have reflected on the firm? If I had been asked, I would have said I was gay, but instead I had to sit there saying nothing.’
Even though these instances of homophobic comments are not directed at individuals, overhearing such comments can further discourage gay architects from being open about their sexual orientations with colleagues.
One employee described how the negative attitude of his manager discouraged him from being open about his sexuality: ‘From experience of my manager’s reaction to other consultants and clients who are open about their sexuality, I believe my career prospects would be, at best, limited if I were to be open about my sexuality.’
Although most instances of homophobia are suffered by employees, on occasion even managers have been the victims of the homophobic attitudes of their staff. The openly gay director of a small practice spoke about how, on separate occasions, new employees had simply walked out of his practice on discovering he was gay.
Another openly gay manager spoke about how some of his straight male employees believed they had only been chosen because of their looks, while taking on gay employees was met with accusations of favouritism.
Sixteen per cent of those surveyed said they would not feel comfortable reporting inappropriate behaviour relating to sexual orientation to their line managers, while 87 per cent had never heard their colleagues challenge offensive comments within the workplace.
Large practices may have overseas projects which require architects to go abroad for client meetings or for site visits. There are particular sensitivities if gay architects are being sent to countries that have very conservative attitudes to homosexuality.
One respondent told us: ‘I have often wondered what we would do if we had the chance to work in a country where it is illegal or dangerous to be openly gay, or to work for a client who opposed equality for gay people. The situation has never arisen, but I would prioritise the needs of the practice over my own personal beliefs. We need to keep people in their jobs. Would that make me a sell-out?’
Another said: ‘I have heard of concerns that lesbian and gay architects could be subject to blackmail when running a building contract in countries where being gay is unlawful. This includes the Middle East.’
Where gay employees have felt unable to be open about their sexualities in the first place, this can mean accepting a foreign trip when they don’t feel comfortable, or the need to ‘come clean’ about their sexuality when they wouldn’t otherwise do so.
Dieter Gockmann, director of EPR Architects, said: ‘There are lots of cultures and countries where homosexuality is still illegal and is subject to the death penalty. That puts us as architects in a very difficult position, as we may be asking colleagues to work for clients or within jurisdictions where they don’t feel entirely comfortable.’
He added: ‘If you’re working with somebody who is not out, do they risk having to force themselves out, or do they risk their job because they refuse to work somewhere? In a lot of cultures, the social and personal side of things comes before the work, which puts a lot of pressure on us as gay architects. Do you avoid that and jeopardise the job? We need to be very careful and mindful of that at the start.’
Support in the profession
While three quarters of those surveyed felt that their colleagues were comfortable with their sexual orientations, slightly fewer, just over 60 per cent, felt the same about their line managers. Worryingly, more than one in 10 did not feel their line managers were good at managing issues relating to sexual orientation.
The lack of visibility of openly LGB architects in senior positions appears to be having an adverse impact on employees and their perceptions of their own prospects in the profession.
Almost half of respondents said they did not see openly LGB architects at senior levels in the profession, and a third said they were discouraged by the lack of visibility of openly gay architects. Nearly one in five felt their sexual orientation might create barriers to their career progression in the industry.
One respondent said: ‘Where are the role models? I know quite a few high-profile architects who are gay. Very few of them are out and proud about it. Most are discreet.’
The lack of visibility of gay architects often leads to company management being unaware that they may have employees with different needs. Stonewall’s Chris Edwards spoke about contacting large architecture firms to get them to engage with Stonewall’s work, and said: ‘One organization that employs more than 2,000 people responded: “We don’t have any gay staff here; why should we work with Stonewall?”’
Almost three quarters of the gay architecture staff who took part in our survey said they would like to see more support for lesbian and gay architects from within the profession, with some saying more openly gay role models, formal networking or support groups and even diversity-based CPD modules would help to make the profession more inclusive.
Emmeline Tang, senior electrical engineer at Arup, said: ‘There are hardly any visible LGBT role models in the building services industry, let alone architects. For example, there are only four [built environment] organisations in the whole of the UK that are part of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, compared with hundreds in the financial sector. For someone looking to join or work in the industry, it can be rather off-putting. We are losing talent in this respect.’
There remains a big discrepancy between views of architecture and of the wider construction industry. While 20 per cent of respondents said that the architecture profession was not inclusive of gay men and women, 65 per cent said overall the construction industry is not inclusive of lesbian, gay and bisexual employees.
Comments from respondents:
‘I work mainly in London with people who have had a fairly high exposure and experience of working with gay people, so my situation is probably far from typical. I consider myself lucky… and would be much more nervous about being open about my sexuality if I was operating in a less informed environment.’
‘I haven’t had the chance to come out at work yet. I would like to come out to colleagues and feel they would still accept me, I am just waiting for an appropriate time to tell everyone.’
‘There are a few guys in the office that behave in a typically laddish way, and this kind of banter is part of that. I’m sure they don’t have any deep homophobic feelings but this still made me pause that bit too long when I could have corrected their assumptions about my sexuality and come out.’
‘For me there is just no need to be out at work with contractors, clients and the rest of my office. I would be going out of my way to make a statement that is completely unrelated to the work which I do and purposefully draw attention to myself. Why would I need to be out? I don’t hide anything, but being gay is not relevant to the work I do, so why would I go out of my way to announce it?’
‘Many of us gay architects want to think that homophobia is no longer an issue, but I there’s still a strongly masculinist attitude in construction. I am sure our working lives are much better than even a decade ago, though.’
‘I have worked in African countries where being gay is an issue. However, private lives are generally separate from the workplace when working abroad, so not an issue. Or perhaps I understand not to mention my sexuality in countries with such rules.’
‘I am fully aware of the potential difficulties for LGB people working in countries abroad and would not be prepared to take on work in countries with bad LGB rights records or legislation.’
‘The international projects I have worked on have never posed an issue with my sexuality as they were in Europe and North America. However, I’m confident that the office would support me if I expressed reservations about travelling to certain countries.’
‘I would not work in an environment that would be uncomfortable for me, but accept that, for many, there is limited choice.’
‘Unfortunately I feel my sexuality has hindered my career progression.’
‘I still hear from gay colleagues working in larger practices today that casual homophobia continues to be a problem and that full openness is ill-advised.’
‘Early in in my career I raised concerns with my manager about whether I should come out if the conversation went that way with clients or consultants, considering I represent the company. I was told not to worry at all, and was encouraged to do it if I felt comfortable doing so.’
‘My line manager has expressed negative, though not insulting, views on faith grounds.’
‘My boss once challenged one of our consultants after he said something homophobic.’
‘I am not aware of any blatant discrimination, but there seems to be a lack of openly gay people in the profession. But there is a disproportionately large amount of white, straight, male architects. The RIBA seems to think it is “on message” by promoting inclusivity for black architects and women alone.’
‘The industry is very open, at least in my experience. Being gay has been a non-issue.’
‘The architectural profession can be quietly homophobic. Although people can be quite polite and politically correct publically, I still feel there is a predominantly white, middle/upper class view that prevails in architecture that takes a dim view of everything that is not white middle/upper class.’