Foundations for equality
Experts in the construction industry discuss how the construction sector can promote inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ community
It is 50 years since the Stonewall riots in New York, USA, sparked the international Pride movement. That is 50 years since people stood against the hatred, prejudice and violence they faced on a daily basis. Over that time a lot has changed, at least on the surface, but there is still so much to do before true equality is achieved.
In a survey conducted by Construction News in 2017, 28% of LGBTQ+ respondents said they had experienced offensive or inappropriate comments about their gender or sexuality at work and 59% of people had heard the word ‘gay’ being used as an insult in the workplace. Further, a staggering 54% of LGBTQ+ respondents said they did not feel comfortable being open about either their gender or sexuality on-site.
The construction industry has made progress towards building a more inclusive and equal industry but it is clear that homophobia and transphobia are still issues within the sector. This, coupled with the perception of the industry being male-dominated, can hamper the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community. However, there is a lot businesses can do to help tackle these issues and, crucially, there are many reasons why they should.
Knowledge sharing is key to helping change the culture of any workplace. People are more likely to accept something once they understand it. WSP Senior Global Marketing Manager and national chair of Building Equality, Jo Hennessey, said, ‘Diversity and inclusion need to be built into training on a par with health, safety and wellbeing on our sites, through the use of LGBT+ Toolbox Talks and awareness campaigns to tackle the issue.’ Posters, literature and training sessions are all helpful when it comes to changing outdated views and promoting inclusivity. In addition, the CITB has developed the Be FaIR framework to ‘give employers a structured way to develop and embed fairness, inclusion and respect (FIR) in their company’.
A change in the culture surrounding inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ community needs to start at the top. Businesses are beginning to appoint role models or LGBTQ+ champions at a senior level who can show commitment to creating a cultural change towards a more diverse and inclusive workplace and workforce. Civic Engineers Bid Proposal Manager and chair of Building Equality Manchester, Luke Ives, told Womble Bond Dickinson, ‘We have few LGBTQ+, BAME or female role models in the construction industry, and even fewer at board-level. But this is changing and we are beginning to see real focus on equality, diversity and inclusion, in order to attract and retain the diverse skills and experiences we need in our industry. Through Building Equality we are seeing LGBT+ champions, at all levels, across construction, which is a positive step for the industry by providing real-life visibility and reflection, for others to aspire to.’
‘Hateful language is still a big issue on our UK construction sites. While to some it may seem like harmless banter, seeing graffiti or hearing homophobic, biphobic or transphobic language on site can have a negative impact on our workforce, whether they identify as LGBTQ+ or not,’ said Hennessey. It is important to be mindful of the language we use and remind employees and colleagues of this. Insensitive words or phases can make people feel uncomfortable and isolated and it makes it harder for them to be their authentic selves.
Employees should have access to and be aware of counselling or support services offered by their employers. Peer support is also important and an increasing number of businesses are setting up internal LGBTQ+ employee networks to encourage people to share experiences and to support one another. Arup Senior Civil Structural Engineer, Alex Morris, told WBD, ’10 years ago, a senior leader invited me to support my company in establishing its LGBTQ+ staff network. I declined on the basis that I had never had any issues relating to my sexuality in the workplace and felt that the network was unnecessary. Later, when I eventually got involved, I learned that not everyone has the same positive experience and that there is a world of opportunity to be unlocked through the recognition and celebration of everyone’s diverse make-up.’
Employees should be encouraged to speak up when they feel that they have been mistreated, and be reassured that unacceptable behaviour will be taken seriously and dealt with properly. Furthermore, employees should be supported to call out anyone who is using inappropriate or offensive language towards another or to report such behaviour. ‘When I reported hateful graffiti on site earlier this year, it was dealt with swiftly and with extreme professionalism by the firm in charge who reinforced a zero-tolerance approach to such behaviour to their entire workforce,’ Hennessey said.
Embed and repeat
It is essential that employers continue to promote the support, training and inspiration above in order to embed a lasting change in the culture of their business, not just to tick the diversity and inclusion box.
Better for business
It is well documented that the ever-growing skills shortage is a very real threat to the construction sector. The 2017 Annual Population Survey published by the Office for National Statistics estimated that in 2017, 2% of the population identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, which equated to around 1.1 million people. A further 0.6% - roughly 330,000 people - identified as neither these nor heterosexual. The LGBTQ+ community, therefore, presents a huge talent pool the construction industry could engage with in order to encourage more people into the sector.
Promoting better mental health is essential. When people feel they cannot be their true selves it is bound to take a toll on their mental health. Challenges around mental health are already a significant problem in the construction sector, according to past research by WBD. ‘My life changed with the launch of my company’s LGBT+ & Allies Network in 2014. For the first time in my life, I found a safe space to be myself. I am happier, more productive and the very best version of me, and that is thanks to the industry I work in, Kier Senior Planner and vice-chair of the Kier LGBT+ & Allies Network, Christina Riley said.
By embracing LGBTQ+ employees, businesses are seen as great places to work, not only by the LGBTQ+ community but by allies and the wider heterosexual community. This can help attract people to join businesses and the sector more generally. Employees are more likely to remain in a job than move to a competitor when they feel happy, safe and able to be themselves. They are also generally more productive when they are able to focus their energy on work rather than trying to fit in. ‘Our LGBTQ+ staff network, and the events it organises, play a fantastic role in bringing together incredibly diverse groups of people and giving them exciting things to talk about. These make us stronger as an organisation, improving collaborative performance and driving higher levels of innovation,’ said Morris.
The construction industry has taken some steps forward but there is still a long way to go. Ultimately, construction companies have the opportunity to embrace and benefit from the skills and talents of a diverse workforce which reflects the communities in which construction projects are taking place every day.
Sarah Wales is Solicitor Construction and Engineering, Fiona Graham is Managing Associate Commercial Property Litigation, and Curtis Fox is Trainee solicitor Corporate Finance at Womble Bond Dickinson.