Exclusive: A new pan-industry survey of the experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual employees reveals an ‘outdated’ approach to diversity. Rakesh Ramchurn reports
Homophobia is rife in construction, with more than 80 per cent of gay men and women in some parts of the industry encountering homophobic comments in the workplace.
Just 14 per cent of gay employees said they would be open about their sexuality on site, with less than half of all gay employees saying they would trust their line managers to handle sexual orientation issues.
Shockingly only one in ten would recommend the construction industry as a great place to work for gay men and women.
These are some of the findings of the first industry-wide survey into attitudes towards sexuality, launched by the Architects’ Journal working with sister titles New Civil Engineer and Construction News.
The survey follows the AJ’s ground-breaking 2013 study of the experiences of gay architects, which revealed that half had encountered homophobia in the workplace. Evidence from that investigation indicated even bigger problems in the wider industry, leading the AJ to launch this year’s survey.
Altogether, almost 1,000 respondents from across the industry took part in the poll, 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.
Once again no company from the built environment sector appears on Stonewall’s annual Workplace Equality Index, a list of the UK’s 100 leading firms for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality. The 2015 index includes several law and financial services firms, 10 emergency services, energy companies and – for the first time – all of the armed forces.
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: ‘But for most industries things have moved forward. The [construction] sector must realise that [the current] approach is outdated and that diversity does not operate in separate compartments.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.’
Harry Rich, chief executive of the RIBA, said he was ‘disappointed’ with the findings of this survey, adding that there was ‘much more to be done to change attitudes within [architecture] and most certainly across the wider construction industry.’
Rich added: ‘In particular, the difficulties experienced by LGBT colleagues when visiting construction sites shows the importance of the whole industry working together. There must be collective responsibility at all levels and in every part of the country to confront the issues and deliver a solution that prioritises equality.’
Out in the workplace
On average, 60 per cent of gay respondents said they felt comfortable being open about their sexual orientations with immediate colleagues. However, this figure varies widely across the industry, ranging from more than 70 per cent in architectural practice to just 27 per cent of those working for contractors.
Of those who didn’t feel comfortable being open about their sexuality, some felt that it could impact badly on relations with colleagues and career opportunities, with a third believing that their orientations may create barriers to career progression.
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… the industry is only starting to promote gender diversity.’
The number of gay employees who feel comfortable being open about their sexuality falls to 27 per cent when at client meetings and industry events, and falls even further on construction sites.
While many gay employees prefer to keep their orientations private, 59 per cent said that they would feel happier and more comfortable if they could be more open at work. Research from Stonewall confirms that gay employees are more productive with higher levels of job satisfaction when they feel they can be open about sexuality in the workplace.
One in four gay employees in the construction industry has personally experienced offensive comments about their sexuality in the last 12 months. More than 60 per cent have heard offensive or inappropriate comments in the workplace, and over half have heard the word ‘gay’ used as an insult.
One respondent said: ‘Homophobia is pandemic within the wider construction industry’, while a gay engineer commented: ‘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’s a shame to feel threatened or at risk of persecution for being what I am.’
Another gay respondent, this time in contracting said: ‘I am considering leaving the industry. I just feel as if I don’t fit in and am so uncomfortable in my work. It’s a shame as I have a lot to offer… A more inclusive industry would make my life much happier.’
‘Homophobia is still considered harmless banter’
In contrast to the experiences of gay employees, less than half of straight employees reported hearing homophobic comments or the word ‘gay’ used as a pejorative in the workplace. The difference between results for gay and straight respondents suggests that heterosexual employees are less likely to notice homophobic comments, and possibly that what many consider ‘harmless’ or inoffensive is having a bigger effect on sexual minorities.
One respondent said: ‘While racism and to a degree sexism are now seen as unacceptable, homophobia is still considered “harmless” banter,’ while another said: ‘I feel that LGBT issues is one area where people feel comfortable poking fun.’
Working on construction sites
Data drawn from the survey confirms that sexual minorities feel least comfortable on construction sites. While 60 per cent of gay employees say they feel comfortable being open about their sexual orientations with immediate colleagues, this falls to just 14 per cent on site.
And while 63 per cent of gay employees across the industry reported hearing homophobic comments in the workplace in the past 12 months, this jumps to 85 per cent in contracting which is more associated with work on site.
‘Attitudes on site are about 15 years behind attitudes in the office,’ said one respondent, while another said: ‘I find the office environment completely different to the environment on site. Inclusivity is encouraged in the office, whereas onsite the bigotry is palpable.’
One gay engineer spoke of how he ‘went back into the closet’ while on secondment to site, adding ‘in my thirties this is not how I should be forced to live’. Another gay employee said: ‘I would consider coming out as gay to some close colleagues in my team, but would not feel comfortable coming out to a wider group of people in the company. I certainly would not be open about my sexuality if I ever work as a contractor on a construction site.’
‘Homophobic language is used on an almost daily basis,’ said one respondent working in the contracting sector. ‘Construction is a hyper masculine environment. Any deviation away from acceptable norms of behaviour is perceived as a weakness.’
Insufficient data is available to make generalisations about the experiences of transgender employees. However, some anecdotal evidence was provided which sheds some light on difficulties in the industry for trans men and women.
Homophobia can often be used as a proxy for transphobia, and with over 60 per cent of gay employees hearing offensive comments or behaviour across the industry, it is likely that trans people have encountered similar levels of transphobia. In fact, as society has moved closer towards accepting gay men and women – due to decades of campaigning and higher visibility in the media, a lack of understanding of trans issues and transphobia is likely to be even higher.
One respondent said: ‘This is not an industry for gay people, but for transgender people in particular it is highly unsafe.’
For transgender people the industry is highly unsafe
Another respondent said: ‘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 common use of transphobic comments was confirmed by one employee working for a contracting firm who said: ‘There is lots of transphobia, with mocking of “bearded ladies” and the use of the slur “tranny”, together with policing of non gender-typical behaviour,’ while a respondent working in architectural practice confirmed that ‘jokes about trans people are not uncommon’.
Apart from offensive or inappropriate comments, a lack of understanding of trans issues can often lead to poor management decisions.
‘I have a transgender colleague working in a conservative Muslim country,’ said one respondent. ‘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. It’s not an issue for me, but it is an issue for our client and for the nationals of the country.’
Management and the profession
While 67 per cent of gay respondents feel their line managers are comfortable with gay employees, less than half feel they would be good at handling issues relating to sexual orientation.
For larger companies this often means sending employees to work abroad, and just a third of gay employees believe their managers understand their concerns about working in countries with poor records on LGBT rights.
One in five gay employees would not feel comfortable disclosing sexuality on a confidential work-related form, and just over half said they felt comfortable reporting homophobic behaviour to managers, a worrying figure considering the levels of homophobia reported in the industry.
In terms of the wider profession, only one in five gay employees said they saw support for sexual minorities in the industry, and 86 per cent wanted to see the industry do more to support gay employees.
One respondent said that industry bodies should take the lead: ‘Promotion and guidance from leading institutions such as the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) on LGBT issues would be a good start. My company places a lot of emphasis on becoming chartered and on affiliation with the professional institutions so they have a lot of influence on the industry.’
Others spoke of the need for more support networks and events to raise awareness. ‘I used to work for local government and I was amazed by the resources provided to LGBT staff, including a support network and [specialised] events,’ said one respondent.
‘It’s something we are unlikely to get in a private business as the time would not be considered productive and drives down the team’s utilisation.’
Several respondents spoke of the importance having gay role models in the industry. Visibility appears to be a problem in the profession, with only half of gay employees having openly gay colleagues. Just 29 per cent said that they saw openly gay employees at senior levels of their profession, and half said they were discouraged by the lack of sexual minority visibility in the profession.
‘The industry has no lead figures from an LGBT background who can share experiences, promote positive attitudes towards sexuality and inspire those joining the industry,’ said one respondent, while another commented: ‘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.’
How does architecture compare to the rest of the industry?
More than 70 per cent of gay architects say they feel comfortable being open about their sexual orientations in the workplace, much higher than the industry average. However, this falls to just above 50 per cent for gay architects working outside London.
The difference between life in London and outside the capital was also clear in responses to questions about experiences of homophobia in the workplace. While only half of all gay architects in London have heard homophobic comments at work over the last year (low, compared to the industry average of 63 per cent see above), this rises to 86 per cent in the North West and 89 per cent in Scotland. And while one in five gay architects in London has personally experienced direct, offensive comments relating to their sexual orientations in the workplace, this also rises in the North West and Scotland to more than 40 per cent.
As with most of the industry, visits to construction sites proved to be the most challenging in terms of attitudes to sexuality. The proportion of gay architects who feel comfortable being open about their sexual orientations falls to just 12 per cent on site visits.
Higher visibility of LGBT role models was regularly mentioned as key to raising awareness of sexual minority issues, with just a third saying they saw openly gay role models at senior levels in the industry. Just one in five gay architects said they saw support from senior colleagues in the profession, and 86 per cent said they wanted to see more support from senior employees.
A full report into what the results of the survey means for architecture will be published later this week