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Fighting phobia: How industry leaders are starting to stand up for LGBT

Damning survey shows work still to be done, but top contractors are recognising not only the need to stamp out intolerance but also the potential business benefits.

It was about 13 years ago that Ray Bulloch decided he’d had enough. The multi-skilled tradesman was working at the time for a large contracting firm on a housing maintenance contract.

After hearing a colleague making abusive remarks about a gay client and threatening to damage the property, he confronted his colleague and told him he himself was gay.

“I subsequently told the company they could stick their homophobia and walked out.”

For more than two decades he’d kept his sexuality under wraps while blocking out the offensive banter that surfaced regularly on site.

Encouraged by his partner, he set up the UK’s first openly gay building company and has never looked back.

“The only problem is finding tradespeople who will work with me, for fear of being stigmatised as being gay, that’s been quite a struggle”

Ray Bulloch, R&G LGBT Builders

Based in east London, R&G LGBT Builders provides domestic building work to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, working around the country.

His order book is constantly full. “The only problem is finding tradespeople who will work with me, for fear of being stigmatised as being gay, that’s been quite a struggle,” he says.

Though society’s attitudes to homosexuality have improved, homophobic attitudes are still all too prevalent in construction, as highlighted in a survey by Construction News, New Civil Engineer and Architects Journal earlier this year.

It found that more than 60 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual staff said they had heard offensive or inappropriate language at work – rising to 85 per cent of those on construction sites.

Damming figures

The survey, the first of its kind to ask about attitudes to sexuality across the sector, found that only 7 per cent of employees would recommend their industry as a great place to work for lesbian, gay or bisexual people.

“Yesterday I was in a meeting and someone was given a cup emblazoned on it ‘the only gay in the office’. I can’t believe that someone would think it’s funny.”

Anonymous respondent to survey

One engineer responding anonymously in the survey said that “homophobia is pandemic within the wider construction industry”, while a building contractor said “homophobic language is endemic and used almost on a daily basis”.

For many, the main problem is the widespread banter and homophobic jokes – and not just on site. “Yesterday I was in a meeting and someone was given a cup emblazoned on it ‘the only gay in the office’,” says one LGBT contracting professional.

“Clearly it was given to them as a joke – but I can’t believe that someone would have a cup like that and think it’s funny.”

Construction clearly has its work cut out in overhauling this culture, but the more positive news is that there is a growing awareness and determination among an increasing number of firms to do so.

Enlightened firms understand that if they are to attract more diverse employees, the last thing they should be doing is alienating a significant section of the population.

These firms include Amec Foster Wheeler, Arup, Balfour Beatty and Lendlease, all of which marched together wearing hard hats at this year’s London Pride event last summer.

Allies to the cause

A number of new networks supporting LGBT people and issues are being set up in the sector.

Neil Bentley is CEO of OUTstanding, a not-for-profit professional network for LGBT executives and ‘ally colleagues’ (supportive leaders who are putting sexual equality top of their agendas).

He says: “The construction industry has some real challenges and the survey ought to serve as a massive wake-up call to leaders in the sector.

“There are a lot of LGBT people in construction, so it’s about motivating those people and making construction attractive to others.”

Dr Bentley believes construction is ready for change. “We have been working with Balfour Beatty and British Land – and I know both the Skanska and Carillion CEOs want to do more.”

His view is echoed by Matteo Lissana, client account manager at Stonewall for property, construction, energy and engineering, and his predecessor Chris Edwards, now CSR and diversity manager at law firm Travers Smith.

Both say they have seen notable change, even in the past year.

Twenty companies from property and the built environment are signed up to Stonewall’s corporate diversity champions programme, and three of these are contractors: Balfour Beatty, Lendlease and United House, with more in the pipeline, according to Mr Lissana.

Workplace equality index

But despite encouraging signs, no built environment company has yet appeared in Stonewall’s annual Workplace Equality Index, a list of the UK’s 100 leading firms for LGBT equality – though Lendlease has stated its aim of becoming the first UK construction firm to make the list.

Similarly, OUTstanding’s lists of top 100 leaders, top 30 future leaders and top 30 allies currently have a limited representation from people in the built environment.

Matthew Flood, the former general counsel at Balfour Beatty Services division and now global general counsel at Ingeus, makes it into the top 100 list at 49, while Balfour Beatty senior planning manager Christina Riley is one of 30 people named on the future leaders index.

“It can be harder being a woman sometimes in construction than being bisexual”

Sharon Slinger, Carillion

Lendlease regional head of health and safety Martin Coyd is also acknowledged for his work as in promoting sexual equality in the workplace, making it onto OUTstanding’s list of top 30 ally executives.

Increasingly, public sector companies are looking to construction to demonstrate they are adopting a diverse culture.

But construction has been slower to improve its LGBT attitudes compared with some clients, argues Carillion senior QS Sharon Slinger, who is helping the company set up a new network.

She says that she’s never personally experienced prejudices about her sexuality and that “it can be harder being a woman sometimes in construction than being bisexual”.

More difficult for men?

“I think it’s also harder for men being gay to be open about it than it is for a woman,” she adds.

Ms Slinger says it’s common for people who don’t want to come out to play the pronoun game. “For example, when talking about their partners, they don’t use ‘he’ or ‘she’ because they don’t feel comfortable being open about their sexuality at work – but that can be an essential part of getting to know your team.”

OUTstanding’s Dr Bentley says it’s crucial that construction firms talk about sexuality more openly.

“For firms to start having a conversation, the best thing is for chief executives to invite those who are known to be LGBT in their companies to a meeting – and ask them how comfortable they feel at work.

“Research shows that people are 31 per cent more productive if they can be themselves at work”

Neil Bentley, OUTstanding

“It’s also essential to find role models – those who identify as being LGBT or allies – who are willing to talk about their experiences, either with their families or what it’s like for them in the workplace.

“Research shows that people are 31 per cent more productive if they can be themselves at work. This is a challenge for talent, for better productivity, about the growth of the sector and the economy – that’s a powerful positive driver for change.”

The Lendlease network

Lendlease, one of the first in the sector to start such a conversation, set up an LGBT network 18 months ago. Mr Coyd says: “When I took over the role there were a number of networks, but nothing around LGBT. 

“At our first meeting 27 people turned up, and since then we’ve gone from strength to strength. The group meets once a month offering mutual support as well as feeding in ideas to the company’s diversity policy.”

Mr Coyd, who is not gay himself, set up the LGBT Employee Resource Group with HR business partner Gary Coetzee, who is its co-chair.

Both say it’s essential for the group to have both LGBT and allies. The network often draws staff in who perhaps are struggling to deal with siblings who are gay, or have children who are gay, and find it helps to talk to others about their experiences.

“The complexity involved in LGBT issues is substantial: four groups come under the banner but each is totally different”

Gary Coetzee, Lendlease

All those involved in setting up networks in construction firms say businesses cannot force the issue; growth has to be organic.

“Just because you’re setting up a network doesn’t mean that everyone who is LGBT will want to be open about their sexuality,” Mr Coetzee says.

“It can be quite exhausting coming out as gay. If you’re a woman, or ethnic minority, or someone who suffers prejudice because of something about the way they look, then people can see that – you don’t have to tell them.

“But not if you’re gay or lesbian – you might have to come out dozens of times and some people just don’t want that emotional exhaustion.”

Credible figureheads

Finding figureheads who are prepared to help the cause can be a challenge, Mr Coetzee adds. “I know one contracting firm that wants to set up an LGBT network but can’t find anyone ready yet to champion it.

“I think to have credibility, it does need a role model who identifies with LGBT. The complexity involved in LGBT issues is substantial: four groups come under the banner but each is totally different.”

In Australia, where the company’s global HQ is located, Lendlease is ranked eighth (fourth consecutive year in the top 10, gold tier for LGBTI workplace inclusion) in the Australian Workplace Equality Index and is determined to make the same strides in the UK.

One new idea is for the top 100 leaders across Lendlease in the UK, from the CEO down, to feature on site posters declaring themselves LGBT allies.

This follows the start of the site campaign in March when the company teamed up with Stonewall to issue 1,000 multi-coloured laces to its UK building sites, encouraging workers to use the laces in support of an inclusive and diverse workforce.

It has followed this up with toolbox talks and the importance of equality. Sites included Kings Gate and the Zig Zag Building, as well as Lendlease’s Elephant & Castle regeneration project.

Site vs office culture

But there is common acknowledgement across contractors that changing cultures in head offices is likely to be an easier operation than on sites, where 99 per cent of the workforce is still male and a more macho culture exists, even if individually people working there are not homophobic themselves. 

“We have not created some sort of utopia – I still hear homophobic language on site,” Mr Coyd says.

“People are acknowledging the capacity to be different – and an organisation that taps into that will be more powerful”

Gary Coetzee, Lendlease

“But what we’re saying is that we’re not going to tolerate that. At our Kings Gate site we had a few cases of unpleasant graffiti, but so many more people have said, ‘Well done’. The younger generation is much more tolerant.”

Mr Coetzee adds: “The historical nature of the industry plays to a macho male environment, but we have to break down those stereotypes if we are to be more successful as an industry.

“Today’s way of thinking is that you can’t work to your full potential if you spend half your energy hiding who you are. The ethos of good management is for people to be happy and to be themselves.

“I think that is changing within the industry generally – people are acknowledging the capacity to be different – and an organisation that taps into that and brings people in who are different to them – be it gender, religion or sexuality – will be more powerful.”

Offsite network to support and champion LGBT issues in sector

Offsite is a new LGBT construction and infrastructure network that emerged out of an already successful group called Freehold, whose members are more from the property sector and which had become over-subscribed.

Offsite, originally set up by Matthew Flood, then at Balfour Beatty, launched its first meeting in July.

The group is being hosted by Pinsent Masons, which has a reputation for being a top employer for promoting equality and diversity.

Members of the steering group include Arcadis, Arup, Balfour Beatty, Gerald Eve, IFDO, Ingeus, Lendlease, Pinsent Masons, Reynolds Porter Chamber and Stonewall.

The aim of the group is to enable LGBT people in the sector to come together through social networking in a safe environment, and to have a campaigning aspect that encourages better diversity within the sector.

There are also plans to expand by holding events in Manchester and Scotland.

 

Readers' comments (1)

  • Christina Riley

    One thing to add is that "LGB" is about sexual orientation and the "T" is about gender identity. Both have their challenges in coming out to family , friends and in the work place.

    It is important to educate people that being transgender is nothing to do with sexuality.

    This is a common mistake made by many , and one that needs to made in the construction industry.

    Many people assume that being transgender makes you gay. Often this is not the case.

    There are also many non binary genders as well as people that are born intersex , and this is one issue where more education is required across all sectors of society including the construction industry.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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