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Third of gay engineers hide sexuality from colleagues

One in three gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) engineers hide their orientation from their colleagues, new research suggests.

The survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found around 34 per cent of the 356 respondents had not come out at work compared to 45 per cent who had, but that 46 per cent wanted to be more open about who they were. 

While less than eight per cent of respondents reported discrimination by colleagues because of their sexuality, almost 18 per cent felt it had created barriers to career progression.

Reasons for keeping their sexuality secret included the fear of backlash from colleagues: ‘I have tried hinting to colleagues about my orientation, but this has only resulted in me becoming a laughing stock,’ said one respondent.

Others felt that senior management would not approve of their sexuality: ‘You do sometimes hear homophobic remarks by senior managers. This does not send a reassuring message.’

However, some felt that being open about who they were was not relevant to their job role and they did not want to make others feel uncomfortable.

/q/k/d/IET_LGBT_survey_graphic_1.jpg

Source: IET

The new survey paints a mixed picture for sexual minority engineers that differs somewhat from other professions. For example, a survey by the Architects’ Journal found far more respondents (74 per cent) were comfortable being out at work but 20 per cent reported experiencing offensive comments.

IET president Barry Brooks told The Engineer that the survey was an early snapshot of life for LGBT engineers. ‘One could conclude there isn’t a big problem but I suspect when the debate becomes more open then people will hear more about it,’ he said.

He added that examining the issue would be important to employers who wanted to address recruitment issues. ‘This is just one of the symptons our profession. We’re not pulling in youngsters of today … We need good publicity across the board,’ he said. ‘There’s a realisation they’re going to need to find people of all sorts to fill the jobs.’

The experience of LGBT engineers has come into focus recently following activities by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the release of a book by former Academy president Lord Browne, who argues that a culture where LGBT people don’t feel they can come out at work can hamper productivity.

Academy diversity manager Jenny Young said: “[These] findings show that engineering still has a long way to travel but greater acknowledgement and discussion of the issues and barriers can only be a good thing…

’Earlier this year, the Academy held an event on LGBT in engineering as part of our STEM diversity programme. As stated by one of our speakers at the event, there is a big difference between tolerance and acceptance. Acceptance must become engineering’s aim.’

Individual difficulties

Although the survey’s figures don’t suggest the engineering profession has an endemic problem when it comes to LGBT employees, and some respondents happily reported no negative experiences at work, other individual comments did reveal examples of difficulties people can face.

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,’ said one respondent.

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,’ said one respondent.

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 felt they have lost their jobs due to discrimination at managerial level.

Other people highlighted the difficulties of being LGBT in an industry that often required work abroad.My company has a lot of overseas opportunities; some of these are in countries where I wouldn’t be comfortable being a gay person,’ said one respondent. ‘This barrier to taking opportunities could potentially hinder my career progression.’

/v/d/w/IET_LGBT_survey_graphic_2.jpg

Source: IET

Some of the 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,’ said one. ‘I think there are far more issues/discrimination purely related to being a woman.’

Of the 17 transgender participants in the survey, many felt it was ‘not appropriate to be out’, regarding their transsexuality.

Many had 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?’


Readers' comments (18)

  • Why are you "The Engineer" bringing this into the discussion? What in the world is what a person does in their bedroom have to do with engineering?! Really!? What a slow news day? This was one of the few online communities where you don't have to have this thrown in your face yet again. Do me a favor and stick with engineering acumen and leave peoples bedrooms to themselves!

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  • Actually the Institution of Engineering and Technology brought this into discussion by conducting the survey. We're just reporting on it, as we do any many surveys related to engineering employment. Nothing to do with bedrooms - it's all about whether people are happy at work.

  • Ted,

    I seriously don't want to know what you do in the bedroom. Equally I don't want you speculating about what I do, either.

    The issue has nothing to do with sexual activity whatsoever. It's one of personal identity and open expression, no different to dealing with accepting people from different backgrounds, be they gay, female, or of a different ethnicity.

    If you're not able to accept people have an identities that differs in any way from your own, can I ask how you manage to work with anyone harmoniously?

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  • Good, I don't want to know what people do at home, it is how they perform in the workplace that counts in the workplace.

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  • "Good, I don't want to know what people do at home, it is how they perform in the workplace that counts in the workplace."

    Misses the point completely. So do you have a work place where any discussion of personal matters is strictly forbidden? Otherwise, allowing a work place that is openly or implicitly hostile (or just plain old fashioned rude and unwelcoming) to some segment of the population will cause people from that segment a great deal of stress and to under-perform at work.

    Equally, with attitudes like that you just wouldn't get a job at my company, regardless of how good an engineer you are.

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  • If anyone is thinking of posting a 'what has this got to do with engineering' comment please don't. I am gay, its not my defining character trait but it is part of me and being able to be open about it is important to me and, I'm sure, to others too. The only time I have ever been made to feel uncomfortable about my sexuality is when I've read such unhelpful comments.

    So if someone's sexuality really, really doesn't matter to you, well that's great but please don't feel the need to comment negatively because this does mean something to someone. Thank you

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  • Well, just reading some of the comments on here tells you all you need to know about how minorities are treated within engineering.
    Personally I like the Dorothy Parker quote "Hetrosexuality isn't 'normal', it's just common".

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  • Replying to David 2:31pm
    Sexuality is not important to me either. Free speech is very important, so I support anyone who chooses to say 'what has sexuality got to do with engineering'. I work in and hopefully contribute to an open working culture, but I would not judge anyone who chose not to talk about their sexuality - it is their choice, their business. I therefore don't think it pertinent to consider that a negative, it is just personal choice. What is the alternative - encourage LGBT people to talk about their sexuality, because someone else thinks they should? No.
    Lets stick to engineering please.

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  • The article mentions the distinction between tolerance and acceptance. Ted, I'm afraid your comments barely count as 'Tolerance'. Have you spoken to any gay people recently? You will probably find that they are not interested in telling you about what they do in the bedroom. But they may want to tell you about their lives, their partner, their holidays or their friends without being guarded, or using neutral pronouns, or pretending to do 'straight things'. It's the 21st Century and time to accept that some people live differently. Discrimination of all types varies by industry, and it is entirely appropriate and timely that The Engineer has raised this, in the same way that the TV and Film industry is currently trying to address sexism.

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  • Where I work there is at least one gay - but one of the other employees is right wing religious and clearly makes it known that to him homosexuality is wrong. Company rules say that he shouldn't even talk about this subject - but he does. Doesn't make for a healthy work place.

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  • "Alpha male"? Is it one of the qualifications or skills included in the job description for the defence industry management positions? How is it stated: a guy who still needs to strut around to find a mate?

    That alone is a good reason for The Engineer to continue to raise the issue of discrimination in the engineering profession, including against the LGBT community, and the loss of talent caused by it.

    Engineering is like any other profession, part of the life of human beings, sexual human beings. It is a human right to be able to express freely, without prejudice or discrimination, your sexuality and to be happy.

    In the workplace, this does not apply to discussing about sex, (which I assume nobody does, so why associate it immediately with our LGBT colleagues?) but discussing about their lives, as Phil and David commented. It means that our LGBT colleagues can dress-up as they want, have the mannerisms that they prefer, can find a partner at work, will invite us to their weddings or any other major events in their lives, in general be themselves and have the same rights like everybody else. And be appreciated and promoted based on "non-alpha male" criteria: the particular engineering and managerial skills that will make that workplace and our whole profession better.

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