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LGBT+ survey: Construction’s slow progress laid bare

Rainbow wall bricks flag Pride LGBT diversity

As Construction News reveals the results of its annual LGBT+ survey, have attitudes improved since the previous year or does construction still have a long way to go? 

Fifty thousand people makes for a sizeable workforce.

It is three times the number who have worked on Crossrail since the project began in 2009, and more than twice as many as will be needed to deliver HS2.

According to research released by Public Health England in 2017, around 2.5 per cent of the UK population identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or other.

This means there could be around 50,000 LGBT+ people working in construction.

But the latest Construction News LGBT+ survey covering 2017 has revealed, once again, that large portions of this workforce feel uncomfortable, hindered or ostracised because of their sexuality or gender while working in this industry, though attitudes appear to be slowly improving.

Homophobia still an issue

“It [homophobia] is so commonplace that to challenge each incident would be a full-time job,” one survey respondent says. “In a recent senior leadership meeting, I counted five homophobic comments in a one-and-a-half-hour meeting.”

The latest results indicate that homophobia is still an issue in construction, with 59 per cent of all respondents saying they had overheard ‘gay’ being used as an insult in the workplace. Furthermore, 28 per cent of LGBT+ respondents have had an offensive or inappropriate comment made about their gender or sexuality in the workplace over the past year.

Although sobering, these statistics for 2017 mark a slight improvement from the previous year. In 2016, 33 per cent LGBT+ respondents had experienced an insulting or offensive comment.

“The key thing is to make it as difficult as possible for homophobic comments to be made by having good policies and strong leadership”

Barbara Carlisle, Arcadis

Yet while the sector is moving forward, homophobia continues to be an issue, according to Arcadis equality diversity and inclusion lead Barbara Carlisle. “There are a lot of people working in construction and not everyone wants to change their mindset,” she says. “The key thing is to make it as difficult as possible for homophobic comments to be made by having good policies and strong leadership in place.”

Creating a more tolerant working environment on site is another area where marked improvement has been made. Just over half (54 per cent) of LGBT+ respondents did not feel comfortable being open about their sexuality or gender on site – down from 69 per cent in 2016’s survey.

Considerate Constructors Scheme chief executive Edward Hardy says this marks a “huge improvement”, but says it is still worrying that the majority of LGBT+ workers on site feel uncomfortable disclosing their gender or sexuality.

Creating a culture in which those who have been mistreated feel they can speak up and inappropriate behaviour is dealt with properly is essential, he adds.

“It is important to find out where this behaviour happens, address it, and educate those who have an outdated view,” he says. “In some cases people’s views need to be dragged out of the Dark Ages and for eyes to be opened to a modern, tolerant and respectful society.”

Impact on mental health

Just under a third of all LGBT+ survey respondents said working in construction has had a negative impact on their mental health.

One respondent shed some light on the pressure of keeping part of your identity a secret. “It is very stressful when you feel you can’t be yourself,” they said. “You feel you are always holding something back.”

This constant self-regulation, if you are keeping your sexuality or gender a secret, will inevitably take its toll on your mental health, according to Gowling WLG senior associate Sarah Rock, who is also co-chair of LGBT network Offsite.

It is crucial to be open about yourself in the workplace, she says. “If you are LGBT and you are not out, you are constantly checking what you are saying, which pronouns you are using and what information to leave out in conversation,” she says. “It must be exhausting.”

“If you don’t feel like you have to conceal your sexuality or gender, you can expend all that energy on progressing your career” 

Harvey Francis, Skanska

Channelling the energy LGBT+ people are using to conceal their sexuality or gender in more positive ways will also benefit business, according to Skanska executive vice-president Harvey Francis.

“If you don’t feel like you have to conceal this, you can expend all that energy, thought and attention instead on progressing your career, for example,” he says. “This means better results for business and customers – everyone wins.”

However, there are some in construction and the wider built environment that question why the industry should be concerned about LGBT+.

One respondent, who sits on the board of a small property company, said he wouldn’t know if being LGBT+ has had a negative impact on his mental health as he is “normal” (straight).

He added: “Best advice is to stop shoving your perverted lifestyle down [the throats of] 99 per cent of the British population who are not queers,” and described LGBT issues as “crap”.

These views may represent the minority in this industry. But Mace group finance director Dennis Hone says questions are still being raised over why construction should be bothered about its LGBT+ workforce.

“I’ve heard the arguments that say we should focus on the majority rather than the minority,” he says. “Construction shouldn’t be an alien spaceship that lands with an all-white, male, pale and stale workforce when we are working in diverse, urban areas. We should have a workforce that is representative of the clients and communities we work in.”

He adds that this survey turns the spotlight on LGBT+ issues in construction is helpful in changing attitudes and cultures.

Career worries

Two-thirds of all LGBT+ respondents felt their sexuality or gender created barriers to progressing their career within construction.

With a statistic this high, “something isn’t working” when it comes to creating fair opportunities for all, Ms Carlisle suggests. “You can play lip service and say you have an LGBT network, but when it comes to promotions or leadership courses, the way it’s structured may not give you a fair crack at the whip,” she says, adding that unconscious bias training (educating people to be aware of pre-existing opinions and judgements they may hold about others) could help in tackling this.

Bam Construction human resources director Andrea Singh agrees that the proportion of those feeling held back is disappointing.

Perceived barriers for LGBT+ employees are all too real, she argues. But regardless of whether perception always matches reality, Ms Singh emphasises the importance of tackling the issue. “We have to be doing more,” she says. “Even if the reality is that sexuality or gender is not creating a barrier to career progression, people clearly feel that it is.”

To address this image of construction, Ms Singh says that normalising conversations around LGBT+ by putting it into the mainstream will start to change people’s perceptions and lower this “concerning” statistic.

Moving forward

The latest results show promise in the progress construction is making in creating a more inclusive environment.

“We hope senior figures in construction take these results seriously, and take more positive action to ensure LGBT+ people are supported” 

Lynn Pasterny, Stonewall

Steps forward have been made, particularly by larger construction firms. Over the past 12 months, more contractors have set up their own LGBT+ networks within their business and there were more construction workers than ever before marching for equality at the LGBT+ Pride march in London last July.

Things are improving, according to Gowling WLG’s Ms Rock – but efforts must also be focused on supporting LGBT+ people further down the supply chain.

“There’s an obvious need to provide support for SMEs,” she says. “In smaller businesses, you are much less likely to have an HR department, a diversity and inclusion manager, or an LGBT network set up so you can meet similar people.”

Groups like Offsite – which link LGBT+ people from different businesses together for networking and events – represent one way in which support can be provided, she says.

Although progress has been made, conversations around creating a more tolerant and inclusive industry need to continue, according to Mr Francis. “The stats speak for themselves,” he says. “For example, half of the LGBT construction population do not feel comfortable being open about their gender or sexuality. You have to keep talking about it, and get leaders to talk about it too.”

Stonewall, one of the leading LGBT+ charities in the UK, says there is “still a huge amount of work to do” in construction following CN’s survey results.

“We hope that senior figures in the construction industry take these results seriously, and take more positive action to ensure that LGBT+ people are supported at work,” says Stonewall head of global workplace programmes Lynn Pasterny.

“Do this and the construction industry will be able to fully benefit from the skills and talents of a diverse workforce.”

The LGBT+ survey was completed by 1,045 respondents from Construction News, Architects’ Journal and New Civil Engineer readers

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