Many gay engineers still fear ‘coming out’ at work

Paul Boughton

Nearly half of gay and lesbian engineers hide their sexuality from their work colleagues, according to a survey for the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) magazine.

The survey shows that 41.8 per cent say they are not open at work about their sexuality, compared to just over 45 per cent who say they are.

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 are was not relevant to their job role and they did not want to make others feel uncomfortable.

Only 7.7 per cent of respondents said they had experienced homophobic comments in the workplace, which may signal a changing, more tolerant industry, but the overwhelming majority of these engineers were those who weren’t open about their sexuality: “My colleagues make homophobic comments. Because I am not ‘out’ I feel safe challenging them,” said one respondent.

Some female respondents felt they were being discriminated against at work for being female as well as gay.

But it is not just social functions or office chit-chat that many LGBT engineers feel excluded from. Around 17 per cent feel that their sexuality has created a barrier to their career progression. 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."

The glass ceiling

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

Home and away

Engineering is a global industry and, as a result, engineers in certain sectors such as oil and gas are able to undertake contracts to work on projects abroad. Many engineers feel homophobic law in regions such as Africa or the Middle East prevents them from undertaking these projects and hinders their career choices. One says: “My company has a lot of overseas opportunities; some of these are in countries where I wouldn’t be comfortable being a gay person. This barrier to taking opportunities could potentially hinder my career progression.”

Gender diversity

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. 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 have 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?”

Some have even had to leave the engineering profession altogether due to negative reactions at work: “People struggling with me being transgender have made it impossible for me to return to my previous occupation since I came out,” comments one respondent.

Direct discrimination

Only 7.7 per cent of respondents felt they had been discriminated against work, and were subjected to ‘slurs’, ‘mocking’ and ‘homophobia’, with some questioning whether they had picked the right career.

Despite respondents’ fears that their sexuality could hinder their career progression, 76.6 per cent have not experienced direct homophobic or gender discrimination from their peers. “I’ve not experienced any homophobic comments made to me about my sexual orientation,” says one. “I’ve experienced no hint of being treated differently to anyone else.”

A total of 356 engineers took part in the IET LGBT diversity survey in June 2014. They were asked to answer a series of questions relating to their openness about their sexuality in the workplace, whether they felt their sexuality was a barrier to career development, discrimination they’d experienced in the workplace and the sector and region in which they worked. Out of the 50 respondents who answered ‘other’ to our question regarding sexuality, 20 answered heterosexual. Unfortunately this fraction skewed the results by a minimal amount, which is normal during an open, online survey.