Why engineering must start addressing its sexuality issue

Senior reporter

The lack of evidence about engineers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender demonstrates why industry needs to start thinking more about all its employees.

A person’s sexuality or gender identity shouldn’t be an issue in a workplace in 21st century Britain (or really in any workplace). Yet while the engineering sector frequently engages in self-scrutiny over the working environment it creates for women, virtually no consideration has been given to engineers who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). 

This week saw what will hopefully be the start of a process to address that issue, as the Royal Academy of Engineering convened an event to discuss what engineering firms could do to provide a better environment for their LGBT employees and, crucially, why it was worth their while to do so.

There’s no hard evidence to suggest that LGBT people who work in engineering suffer greater prejudice than those in any other sector. But the problem is there’s virtually no evidence about their experiences at all, so even if there were issues of bullying, harassment or fear, we wouldn’t know about them.

In the most recent Workplace Equality Index compiled by LGB charity Stonewall, less than 0.5 per cent of respondents to the employee survey worked for engineering firms (compared to around 20 per cent of all workers in the country).

Those engineering companies that chose to take part in the index represented just six out of the 319 participating firms, five of them in the energy sector and none of them in the top 100 (although other organisations that employ engineers, such as IBM, several universities and the Army, were more successful).

Other sectors that are often seen to compete for engineering graduates, such as financial and professional services, performed much better in the index. When it comes to ensuring an inclusive working environment and studying potential problems for LGBT employees, it appears engineering is a step behind.

So why does this matter? With anti-discrimination laws, almost (but not entirely) equal legal status for same-sex couples and the greater levels of tolerance towards LGBT people that Britain generally enjoys today, why do engineering firms need to start thinking more about their LGBT staff?

Firstly, people do their best work when they feel comfortable and secure in their workplace. Bullying of any kind is obviously an issue in this sense, but if an employee feels they can’t be honest about who they are, that they cannot discuss important problems, or that they will suffer prejudice if they are open about a major part of their life, it will inevitably affect their relationships with colleagues and likely the quality of their work.

Secondly, at a time when many engineering firms are struggling to recruit and many of the best engineering graduates are choosing to work elsewhere, any issues that may put good engineers off from joining the sector must be addressed. If any engineer wants to go into finance for the money then they will, but if an LGBT person is weighing up different options and they’re worried about how they will be treated in engineering it will likely become a lot less attractive.

And finally, as Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive Philip Greenish put it, it’s just the right thing to do. If we believe that people should be free to be happy in their personal lives, whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity, allowing them to suffer at work as a result is a failure.

Engineering is just at the start of addressing this issue, but some firms are already forging ahead and working out how they can not only ensure the welfare of their LGBT staff but also how this can directly improve their business.

Representatives from BP and Arup told the Royal Academy of Engineering audience how their efforts to create LGBT networks and support groups, to get senior management to demonstrate their commitment to LGBT staff welfare and even making sure all staff use appropriate language had made a difference. BP had also found it could use the enthusiasm of its LGBT groups, now renamed “business resource groups” to help its recruitment efforts.

The attempt to create an environment where staff felt comfortable enough to discuss LGBT issues internally was particularly important for the two companies as they operated in numerous countries where homosexuality or transgenderism was either not culturally tolerated or illegal, and where LGBT staff may risk prejudice by working there.

BP, in particular, was quick to admit it didn’t have all the answers and that it was still developing its approach. The only worrying thing about the presentation was BP’s failure to mention probably the most famous LGBT person in engineering, its former chief executive Lord Browne, whose career at the company came to an end when he lied in court about aspects of his personal life.

Though BP would undoubtedly say the company has moved on since Lord Browne’s era (as indeed the whole country has), his experience should serve as a warning of the potential consequences of forcing someone to hide who they are.

The key message from the evening was that more must now be done to address this issue. The absence of any specific reference to engineers who are transgender (of whom there were several in the audience) is a good indicator of this. The negative stories need to be shared so problems can be identified. And of course, SMEs will have entirely different needs, resources and experiences to the likes of BP and Arup.

Most importantly it’s time for engineering to start talking about this topic and to start educating itself. It’s not enough to say a person’s sexuality or gender identity is their own business and doesn’t need to be discussed at work. People need to feel they can be themselves and that their employer will listen if they have a problem. As Arup engineer Emmeline Tang put it: tolerance is just enduring someone’s existence; it’s not the same as acceptance.

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