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Is architecture really LGBT friendly?

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Our industry-wide survey revealed architecture fared better than engineering and contracting for LGBT equality. But what does this really mean for sexual minorities in the profession? Rakesh Ramchurn reports

Published earlier this week, the results of the AJ’s industry-wide investigation into attitudes towards sexuality uncovered many of the problems faced by sexual minorities in construction.

While some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals complained of poor management decisions and a lack of LGBT role models, the survey also showed homophobia  and transphobia remained rife, with up to 85 per cent of all gay respondents in some parts of the industry encountering homophobia in the workplace in the last 12 months.

Occupying the creative side of the industry, architecture is often dismissed as a ‘gay profession’ where sexual minority employees supposedly thrive, but how diverse is the profession? Is architecture really LGBT-friendly?

In the studio

More than 70 per cent of gay architects said they felt comfortable being open about their sexual orientations with immediate colleagues, a proportion second only to the property sector when compared to the rest of the industry. However, this fell to an average of just 52 per cent when only the practices based outside London were considered.

‘The fact that not a single one of my 150 colleagues is out is a sign that the other gays in my organisation are uncomfortable,’ said one respondent, and research from LGBT rights charity Stonewall shows that gay employees are more productive and have higher levels of job satisfaction when they can be open about their sexual orientations. More than half of all gay architects who took part in the survey confirmed they would be happier if they could be more open about sexuality in the workplace.

Although 73 per cent of gay architects feel that their managers are comfortable working with gay employees, only half said they felt their managers were good at dealing with sexual orientation issues, and two thirds felt their managers did not understand their concerns with working in countries with poor records on LGBT rights.

A third of gay architects felt that their sexual orientations created barriers in the workplace, and this lack of trust was mirrored in the fact that only two thirds of gay employees said they felt confident reporting inappropriate behaviour to their managers, with a similar number saying they felt confident disclosing their sexuality on a confidential work-related form.

LGB industry-wide survey August 2015 - do architects feel comfortable being out?

Homophobia and transphobia

‘There is still an unspoken discomfort with gay males in the workplace,’ commented one respondent, while a gay woman architect said: ‘Men generally make lewd comments about me and [other] female gay colleagues.’

Almost 60 per cent of all gay architects have heard offensive comments relating to sexuality in the workplace in the last 12 months, and half have heard the word ‘gay’ used as an insult. These figures are just below the averages for the entire industry, suggesting architecture may not be as gay-friendly as many suggest.

‘It’s an alpha male industry, even straight women have professional identification issues,’ said one respondent, a view which was confirmed by one straight male respondent: ‘I chose the industry to have a more straight, no-nonsense work environment. Homosexuals, for the most part, don’t bother me. [But] in my opinion, homosexuals who choose to work in the built environment should accept this attitude.’

Transphobia often goes hand in hand with homophobia. ‘Jokes about trans people are not uncommon,’ said one architect, while a trans respondent commented: ‘People who are not even gay are often subject to homophobia, comments such as “you must be gay then”. I’m trans and I have not been able to stand up for myself and what I am.’

The experiences of LGBT architects differs widely according to region. London proved to be best for gay architects, but half still reported hearing offensive comments in the workplace.

On the other end of the scale, close to 90 per cent of gay architects in both Scotland and the North West have encountered homophobic comments at work in the last 12 months. This figure matches that seen in the contracting sector, which came out worst for LGBT rights across the whole industry, although the severity of the offensive behaviour may differ widely.

Overall, 28 per cent of gay architects reported personal direct experience of offensive comments relating to their sexual orientations in the workplace, a figure which also rises significantly in Scotland and the North West to more than 40 per cent.

Although there is insufficient data to make generalisations about the experiences of gay architects in Northern Ireland, anecdotal evidence provided by respondents suggests that sexual minority employees encounter very conservative attitudes in the workplace.

Dieter Gockmann, director of EPR Architects and a member of the RIBA’s equality and diversity forum, Architects for Change, said: ‘Architects lucky enough to work in small practices based in Clerkenwell or Camden, where it is easier to be open about your sexual orientation, can forget that life is not necessarily so straightforward for LGBT architects  working outside central London.’

He added: ‘I know from experience that if you are a young LGBT architect starting work in practice in an area where it isn’t easy to come out, it can be very isolating.’

On visits to construction sites

Most gay architects said they were least comfortable with site visits. Although 72 per cent of gay architects said they were comfortable being open about their sexual orientations with immediate colleagues, this fell drastically to 29 per cent when visiting clients and at industry events, and to just 12 per cent when on site visits.

‘The biggest challenge is attending construction sites and dealing with contractors who very often use the term “gay” as an insult and in a derogatory fashion,’ said one respondent, while another said: ‘There is still a macho and somewhat homophobic attitude within larger client and construction organisations.’

The difference in culture between the practice studio and site visits is confirmed by the fact that, although 51 per cent of gay architects say the profession is inclusive of LGBT employees, this falls to just 13 per cent who believe the same of the wider construction industry.

Matteo Lissana, client account manager for the built environment sector at Stonewall, said: ‘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 pressured to blend in. Construction sites are also typically associated with “banter” – jokes that are often deemed harmless by those who make them, but that can have an effect on the individual or group they refer to.’

He added: ‘LGBT colleagues might often feel isolated or targeted with this kind of language. This can lead to them not being able to be open about who they are. It can lead to not trusting colleagues, lower job satisfaction and lower achievement levels within the organisation.’

A need for LGBT role models

More than 40 per cent of gay architects reported having no openly gay colleagues. Just a third said they saw openly gay employees at senior levels in the profession, and a similar number said they felt discouraged in their careers by the lack of senior gay employees.

Many respondents spoke of the poor visibility of sexual minority employees in the industry, and said that more visible LGBT role models would help to raise awareness of sexual orientation issues while encouraging junior staff.

‘Architecture and construction is still strongly gender biased and, despite being a liberal creative profession, appears to lack role models for gay men and women,’ said one respondent, while another said the profession needed to ‘encourage more openly-LGBT professionals to see themselves as role models, particularly those that are in senior and leadership positions, to demonstrate that sexual orientation is not a barrier to success in the construction industry.’

Just one in five gay architects said they saw support from senior colleagues in industry, and 86 per cent said they wanted to see more support from senior employees.

‘By simply being visible in an organisation, LGBT role models can illuminate the career path of more junior gay, bisexual and trans people who may not feel confident being who they are’ said Lissana. ‘The visibility of senior LGBT employees could help to change the face of the industry.’

In this report, ‘gay’ has been used to refer to respondents who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. It does not cover trans men and women, as sexuality and gender are widely different issues. The acronym LGBT is used where people make reference to the wider grouping of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. Insufficient data was available to make generalisations about the experiences of trans men and women, but where possible we have used anecdotal evidence provided in the survey to highlight problems the wider trans community may be experiencing.


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Readers' comments (1)

  • I guess this a cue for the leaders of professional practices and construction firms to show real qualities of leadership (and too few are equipped to do that) and create and sustain decent places in which professionals and crafts people are able to work happily and at their best. Perhaps it should be a breach of a professional and trade code to exhibit intolerance or insulting behaviour in the workplace? It most probably is.

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