Skip to content
ICE Community blog

Pinkwashing: what is it and how does it show up in civil engineering?

26 June 2023

ICE staff and members break down how to truly support LGBTQ+ staff and steer clear of PR stunts.

Pinkwashing: what is it and how does it show up in civil engineering?
With in-person Pride events returning, companies and networks are likely expected to re-establish their presence. Image credit: Shutterstock

Every June, we celebrate the global phenomenon that is Pride month.

It’s a chance to take stock of the progress that the LGBTQ+ community has made.

During this month, many companies and organisations become ‘LGBTQ+-friendly’ by walking in parades, donning rainbow flags and photoshopping the colours into their logos.

Come 1 July, too often, the flag comes down, the logo goes back to normal and we’re back to business as usual – with announcements of support for LGBTQ+ people left at just that, announcements.

This is known as ‘pinkwashing’, a way to show interest in LGBTQ+ rights while distracting from other issues, like a lack of policies and processes to make a workplace truly inclusive.

Politicians do this too, holding LGBTQ+ events while simultaneously trying to strip rights away from them.

Many companies support these politicians financially and in other ways, while advertising as LGBTQ+-friendly.

At work, including engineering companies, pinkwashing can have consequences on employees’ health and safety, and affect recruitment, inclusivity and teamwork.

Why do companies pinkwash?

ICE member and senior rail planner at Arup, Julian Phatarfod, explains:

“It’s very easy for an organisation to jump on social bandwagons for either direct commercial gain (eg. marketing for the increase in sales revenue) or for the reputational risk of not doing something (eg. because it looks good / it’ll look bad if we don’t).

“We’ve seen it happen for a range of causes, campaigns or initiative, and it’s happened with Pride and LGBTQ+ inclusion with the use of rainbow branding elements.”

The pink pound

The ‘pink pound’ was a phrase that appeared in the Guardian in 1984 to describe the purchasing power (and thus competition over) of the LGBTQ+ community. Companies began to advertise with this target in mind.

In 1986, Absolut Vodka made an advert that included Keith Haring’s artwork, an openly gay AIDS activist.

This subtle nod was noticed by LGBTQ+ people who understood the message – that it was an LGBTQ+-friendly company.

In 2019, the pink pound was valued at US$3.7 trillion globally. In the UK specifically, it’s estimated to be worth £6 billion per year.

This has resulted in increasingly overt advertising for the pink pound in the UK and across the western part of the world. It’s fair to say that the increased acceptance of LGBTQ+ community has helped the economy grow.

Many companies have great intentions to show LGBTQ+ people that they care for them (and their money).

It can be uplifting to feel reaffirmed that you’re buying from companies that care for you or seeing that representation and understanding that being LGBTQ+ is normal and celebrated.

This is a great investment in wider society.

However, does this translate through companies?

In 2023, the US recorded that there were only four LGBTQ+ CEOs in the Fortune 500.

There are currently zero publicly out LGBTQ+ CEOs in the FTSE 100 in the UK.

The ‘pink pound’ doesn’t seem to translate to business hierarchy, only consumers.

Pinkwashing in civil engineering

Civil engineering isn’t marketed like consumer products – so how is it that pinkwashing still runs through the industry?

As the profession seeks to fill its skills shortage, it’s aiming to widen the pool from which it recruits engineers.

With a lack of visible role models for the LGBTQ+ community in civil engineering, many companies might fly the Progress Pride flag and engage with Pride activities to attract LGBTQ+ talent.

But without putting in the work needed to provide a supportive and inclusive environment, retention of LGBTQ+ staff is at risk.

As Julian says: “It’s very important for an organisation to show its allyship to the LGBTQ+ community visibly and vocally, with senior leadership being clear that they commit to being inclusive.

“What we need to do is ensure that this allyship is not performative, and that it’s not only about the optics while the policies, processes and systems which make a workplace inclusive are forgotten about.”

“Rainbow logos are great, but what we really want to see is a thriving LGBT+ workforce at all levels of the organisation.”

Jyoti Sehdev, ICE member and equality, diversity and inclusion lead at Costain

Feeling welcomed – a matter of health and safety

Real inclusivity in the workplace isn’t a nice to have. It’s a necessity.

Sharing aspects of your personal or family life with colleagues helps to feel connected to your work teams.

But when routine topics become controversial or inappropriate just because they’re mentioned by an LGBTQ+ colleague, then the environment can’t be said to be truly welcoming.

Having to compartmentalise your life for the comfort of other colleagues can be stressful, tiring and affect your performance at work.

As much as many would like to say that the personal and professional shouldn’t mix – it very often does.

Therefore, companies that claim to be LGBTQ+ allies must be ready to back their staff when they bring their whole, authentic selves to work.

Need for LGBTQ+ staff protection

Engineering is a global profession.

Being LGBTQ+ is still criminalised in 64 countries, many where multinational engineering companies have a presence.

This can place LGBTQ+ engineers in a difficult position. They must consider whether to take the career opportunity in one of these countries, and if they do, wonder if their company will protect them.

A good guide for executives might be that, if your legal or marketing teams suggest not to highlight LGBTQ+ allyship in one of these countries or regions, then you’ll likely need policy protections in place for staff in those areas.

Executives should also consider countries where being LGBTQ+ may not be illegal, but where employees may still face discrimination.

In the US, in the state of Florida, a recent bill passed which allows doctors to refuse medical treatment to LGBTQ+ patients on conscience grounds.

What does that mean for the corporate healthcare schemes of companies with engineers in Florida? What backups do these companies need to have in place?

In Texas and Florida, gender-affirming treatment for minors is being banned. Access to healthcare is also becoming more complicated for adult transgender patients.

What protections will companies need to put in place for employees that are transgender or have transgender children in these states?

Growing awareness of pinkwashing

Organisations have been scrutinised more and more to ensure that their LGBTQ+ support is more than surface deep, and not just a PR exercise.

Companies and institutions that are genuinely inclusive have nothing to worry about and should be willing to take the challenge head on.

The LGBTQ+ community is quick to note which organisations step back from Pride representation after being challenged negatively.

Businesses and organisations may face bad faith challenges on their inclusivity policies.

Those that want to benefit from thriving, healthy staff, and a much wider talent pool, must have the courage to stand by their LGBTQ+ staff.

How can companies avoid pinkwashing?

To make sure LGBTQ+ allyship goes beyond the surface, policies and processes need to be in place to foster an inclusive culture.

Jyoti provides examples of some of these policies:

  • LGBT+ inclusive policies such as parental leave policies which don’t have gendered roles, adoption leave which matches parental benefits and trans-inclusive healthcare schemes
  • Data-evidenced decision-making to ensure there are no barriers to progression for LGBT+ folk, specifically marginalised groups within the community
  • A sponsored LGBT+ network with its own budget and time resource
  • Trans-inclusive spaces
  • The display and understanding of the Progress Pride Flag and the impact on marginalised groups with the LGBT+ community

Julian emphasises the importance of LGBTQ+ networks:

“This is where the role of an employee resource group (ERG) like an LGBTQ+ network becomes most important, as it consists of people who have the lived experience of being LGBTQ+ and as a network can hold their organisation to account.”

The Covid-19 pandemic saw a fall in LGBTQ+ networks’ activity and company engagement.

Now that in-person Pride events are returning, companies and networks are likely expected to re-establish their presence. Perhaps new organisations may take part!

But beyond that, businesses need to make sure that they understand the lived experience of their employees and that they’re creating an environment where they can bring their whole selves to work.

“We need a two-way street of communications and engagement between central organisational functions, and the people ‘on the ground’ in the business (with all different kinds of lived experiences) to make sure that the workplace indeed makes them feel included,” Julian adds.

This would give rainbow-related branding, social media or marketing real credibility and a real sense of Pride.

Want to learn more about being an ally?

The ICE will be hosting a Toolbox Talk with Building Equality supporting allyship of the LGBTQ+ community within the industry.

The webinar is free to attend, taking place at 1pm on 28 June.

Book now
  • Duncan Kenyon, public affairs manager at ICE