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LGBT: Workers consider quitting construction industry over homophobia

CN’s annual LGBT survey shows a sector that needs to do much more to attract a diverse workforce and improve public perceptions.

Being told that all gay men should be euthanised. Your boss telling you that bisexual people don’t exist. Considering leaving the industry due to the degree of homophobia at work.

These incidents sound as if they are from decades ago, but these are just a few examples of experiences that LGBT employees in the construction industry have had in the workplace this year.

Last year, Construction News revealed that only 7 per cent of LGBT workers would recommend the industry to prospective colleagues.

It led to demands from industry leaders that the construction sector undergo a cultural shift in attitudes.

This year, we opened the survey again to see whether progress has been made. However, the results make for worrying reading.

A step backwards

Feeling unable to be open about sexuality on construction sites is a widespread issue that LGBT employees in the industry face – and one that is not improving.

Seventy-one per cent felt they could not be open about their sexuality on a site, compared with around 69 per cent last year. 

“Homophobia at work is so prevalent it has sometimes been hard to be open about my own sexuality and identity while on site,” Guy Piper Architects co-founder and National Student Pride co-founder Tom Guy tells CN.

“It’s a much more ‘laddie’ and macho culture. What would help is if construction firms had more education on LGBT issues. This education would then start to trickle down into construction sites and as that starts to happen, things will be a lot more open.”

But perhaps most worryingly, many LGBT workers felt their sexuality at work also hindered their career development. Around 51 per cent said their sexuality prevented them from progressing their careers in the industry – a 9 percentage point rise since last year.

LGBT membership organisation OUTstanding’s CEO and founder Suki Sandhu says it is crucial for diversity to be seen as an asset rather than a barrier to advancing within the industry.

“A typical construction site today includes workers from all walks of life,” he says. “Our differences allow us unique perspectives that encourage creativity and innovation. Instead of being seen as hindrances that hold us back, they should be widely celebrated.”

“There is a significant skills gap and the industry is realising it is missing out on a whole pool of talent in the LGBT community”

Harvey Francis, Skanska

It is clear the industry needs to take bigger steps forward in encouraging diversity – something that also makes good business sense.

Recent research from global consultancy firm McKinsey revealed that diverse businesses outperform their competitors by up to 35 per cent.

The industry is facing major challenges around capacity, so re-evaluating its approach to LGBT workers could be an innovative solution to tackling this problem – something contractors such as Skanska are starting to tap into.

“There is a significant skills gap within the industry in all vocations and the industry is realising it is missing out on a whole pool of talent in the LGBT community, as well as from other groups,” says Skanska executive vice-president Harvey Francis.

“We need to work together to change the culture and perception of the industry. Through the LGBT in construction working group – comprising Skanska and 11 other construction industry companies – we have started to tackle the issue together.”

Skanska, along with firms including Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Lendlease and Laing O’Rourke, have joined an LGBT construction working group with the aim of improving support for their LGBT colleagues.

Homophobia in the workplace

Homophobia in the workplace was a frequently cited issue once again in this year’s survey results. One respondent, who identified as a gay man, said he had felt driven out of the industry due to the nature of the construction working environment.

“I am considering leaving the industry due to the constant and persistent abuse: everything from little comments (like being told ‘they get everywhere’) to sometimes blatant homophobic rants,” he said.

Seventy-one per cent of LGBT respondents said they had heard the word ‘gay’ being used as an insult in the workplace at least two or three times in the past 12 months, compared with 81 per cent last year. By comparison, only 54 per cent of heterosexual respondents had heard the word ‘gay’ being used as an insult.

My experience:

Bovis Homes COO Keith Carnegie on why he feels an obligation to “be more visible that I might want to be” as a gay man in a senior construction role.

WSP PB senior marketing manager Jo Henessey is one of the founders of the firm’s LGBT network, Vibe, and described the survey results as “very worrying”.

“Clearly there is a lot more that companies need to do to create the right environment for LGBT staff but also to educate senior and middle managers on how to create and maintain inclusive cultures in their teams,” she says. “It’s a big problem in the industry that we cannot hide from and it’s time more firms took action to address this, whether in the office or on site.”

An uncomfortable environment

It is widely agreed among contractors that the construction industry has an image problem and this is something that LGBT rights charity Stonewall says is having a big impact on workers.

“As other contractors introduce support networks the industry as a whole will become more inclusive”

Sharon Slinger, Carillion

“The construction industry is a very tough place for LGBT people to be,” says Stonewall head of global workplace programmes Sarah Foster, in response to the survey results.

“The traditionally ‘macho’ culture within the industry compounds these issues, and a higher-than-average proportion of LGBT people hide their identity at work compared with other sectors. LGBT employees face significant barriers to progression, from bullying and harassment in the workplace to isolation and lack of support from management.”

While this culture persists, it is hard for LGBT workers to feel they can be open about their sexuality or gender.

Around 63 per cent said they did not feel comfortable being open about their sexuality or gender at client meetings and industry events and 45 per cent would feel uncomfortable bringing a same-sex partner to a professional or social industry event.

Although these figures have improved since last year, they still make for a worrying insight into the exclusivity of the industry.

Sharon Slinger, Carillion’s senior project quantity surveyor and co-chair of the firm’s LGBT network, says creating LGBT networks is an important step forward to establishing inclusivity for LGBT workers.

“We launched Connect earlier this year and have already received feedback from our LGBT colleagues about the difference it has made to them.” she says. “Hopefully as other contractors introduce similar support networks, the industry as a whole will become more inclusive so people will feel comfortable being open about their sexuality and gender identity.”

Looking forward

Despite the good work being done by some organisations, the survey suggests minimal progress has been made in improving attitudes towards LGBT workers and paints a poor picture of the working environment they face in construction.

Although 18 per cent of LGBT workers would recommend the construction industry to prospective LGBT workers – an 11 percentage point increase from last year – the results suggest the industry has taken a step backwards in other ways, such as discomfort over sexuality or gender on sites and perceptions that sexuality hinders careers.

How did the regions do?

  • 82 per cent of LGBT respondents from the South / South-east felt uncomfortable about visiting sites, compared with 100 per cent last year.
  • 67 per cent of LGBT respondents from the North-west felt that being LGBT hindered career progression, compared with 50 per cent from last year.
  • 50 per cent of respondents from the South-west feel they have to conceal their sexuality or gender at work.
  • 100 per cent of survey respondents from Scotland said they felt uncomfortable being open about their sexuality on construction sites.

Nevertheless, there are case studies which show that the industry is capable of real change.

Balfour Beatty senior planner Christina Riley, who came out as transgender to her company, says the firm helped her through six months of transitioning, putting plans in place to support her when she went back into work and making sure Ms Riley’s colleagues on site knew about her transition.

“When you come out it takes all that stress and worry away and you can focus on doing your job”

Christina Riley, Balfour Beatty

“Having an LGBT network really helps,” she says. “Balfour Beatty had one and I had a safe space to come out. The problem of coming out is the fear of how people are going to react. It’s that fear that holds you back.

“The industry needs to step up and senior leadership needs to recognise that there are a certain amount of employees who are LGBT. Some of those people will be worrying about coming out, what their colleagues will say, transitioning and whether their jobs or careers will be affected. But when you come out it takes all that stress and worry away and you can focus on doing your job.”

Cases such as Ms Riley’s show promise for the industry, and companies like Balfour Beatty, Carillion and Skanska are making progress in improving the lives of LGBT workers.

“We need more people like Ms Riley to drive forward progress,” says Guy Piper Architects’ Mr Guy. “While results have slightly improved, these figures are still difficult to read.”

The industry still has a long way to go to bring its attitudes to LGBT workers into the 21st century. Perhaps there is a greater role to be played by LGBT workers’ colleagues in standing up to what are perceived as hostile working environments on site.

Improving attitudes will require a significant change, which Mr Guy says “needs to happen faster” – a sentiment the construction industry needs to hear loud and clear.

About the survey

Construction News, in partnership with sister titles Architects’ Journal and New Civil Engineer, conducted an exclusive industry-wide survey into attitudes towards LGBT employees.

The survey was open from 15 August to 26 September and was filled out by 1,403 people working in the built environment industry.

A total of 186 people from the contractor and QS sector responded to the survey, and it is those construction-specific responses we report on and analyse in this article. Of those respondents, 43 identified as LGBT. No chief executives or chairs filled out the survey.

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