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Why can’t we name more LGBTQ+ civil engineers?

28 February 2023

As LGBT+ History Month comes to an end, we examine why more LGBTQ+ engineers aren't getting recognised at work.

Why can’t we name more LGBTQ+ civil engineers?
There are many reasons why LGBTQ+ people may not come out at work. Image credit: Shutterstock

In 2021, for the first time ever, the UK Census asked the nation about sexuality.

Responses showed that 3.2% of all people surveyed identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or other. A further 262,000 identified as transgender.

However, this number is likely to be underreported.

In another first, as part of LGBTQ+ History Month, the ICE recently put out a LinkedIn post asking our followers to shout out their ‘unsung’ LGBTQ+ hero in civil engineering.

The answer? Three names were given.

Only two were civil engineers. All were white, gay men.

How is this possible?

There are two possibilities to consider.

Firstly, of the 1.76 million English and Welsh citizens who identify as LGBTQ+, only two are civil engineers. They’re potentially the only gay civil engineers in history.

Or, more likely, LGBTQ+ people aren’t celebrated enough or recognised for their accomplishments within the industry.

Why do LGBTQ+ professionals’ feats go unnoticed?

Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that is unique to civil engineering.

It’s simply harder to name famous LGBTQ+ people from our past than it is to name highly accomplished people who were straight.

Given the historical context, it’s hardly surprising that LGBTQ+ people hid this aspect of their identity.

It was only in 1967 that England and Wales decriminalised homosexuality. In 16 US States, including Florida and Texas, there are still laws against homosexual acts, although they have been unenforceable since 2003.

A look at our past

Alan Turing’s treatment at the hands of the UK government is a famous example of how poorly LGBTQ+ people have been treated.

His involvement in breaking the Enigma Code contributed to putting an end to World War II. He was a hero.

That was until he pled guilty to ‘gross indecency’ as a homosexual. He was chemically castrated to avoid prison. He died by suicide shortly after.

alan turing statue bletchley park
An Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park. Image credit: Shutterstock

Under these circumstances, would many LGBTQ+ civil engineers or other professionals have come out in the past? Even if they were famous?

How many unsung LGBTQ+ heroes have we lost to history? How many civil engineers didn’t speak about their ideas or go unrecognised as role models because of the attention their sexuality may have attracted?

It’s not over yet

Today, being LGBTQ+ is still illegal in 69 countries, and same-sex relations have a possible punishment of the death penalty in 11 countries.

And today, although we hear LGBTQ+ people are becoming more equal, this isn’t true worldwide. In 2021, Uganda introduced a five-year prison sentence for same-sex acts.

How many LGBTQ+ civil engineers are still going to go unrecognised?

The bad news

According to Stonewall, 35% of all LGBTQ+ staff hide their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination. This raises to 38% of bisexual people and 26% of trans people.

In total, 18% of LGBTQ+ people say they have been discriminated against in trying to get a job.

In the UK, 64% of LGBTQ+ people have experienced violence or abuse because of their sexual identity.

Sexuality and gender are assumed until otherwise noted. This is unlike other minority groups. If you assume a person is straight, that may not be true.

In this sense, an LGBTQ+ person ‘comes out’ every time they speak to a new colleague, client, person, etc... It can be exhausting.

Faced with exhaustion, judgement, and the possibility of being discriminated against and other issues, there are many reasons why LGBTQ+ people may not come out at work.

people talking around a table
Of all LGBTQ+ staff, 35% hid their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination. Image credit: Shutterstock

The experience of LGBTQ+ engineers

Civil engineering is also a predominantly male, white profession.

Heteronormativity – the normalisation of heterosexual culture – can be hard to combat

And the data on LGBTQ+ persons in engineering is shocking.

The ICE allows its volunteers to declare their sexual identities. In 2015, 0 of 21,873 volunteers said they were not straight.

In 2014, the Institution of Chemical Engineer’s survey found that 0% of volunteers identified as LGBTQ+.

In 2012, 2013, and 2014, Stonewall’s workplace equality index placed 0 engineering firms in their top 25 spots.

Although there are groups like InterEngineering to encourage LGBTQ+ communities at work, there’s a long way to go to making LGBTQ+ people feel more accepted in civil engineering and for the profession to feel more comfortable with LGBTQ+ people.

The better news

There has been progress in recent years in tangential industries.

From Apple’s Tim Cook to Audrey Tang, the inaugural Minister of Digital Affairs of the Republic of China (Taiwan), LGBTQ+ people are making noticeable, important changes in the tech industry.

This could have something to do with the culture and attitude of the tech industry.

It could be that, as an innovative industry that's been repeatedly breaking new ground, heteronormative culture had less chance to set in.

However, the field is predominantly white and male. Let’s celebrate the progress made, but not forget there is a long way to go.

Civil engineering can learn from other industries by bringing LGBTQ+ people into conversations while considering other intersectionalities at the same time.

How can we make a difference?

Civil engineering’s issue with diversity, and its need to attract diverse talent and ideas is well documented.

Until we apply the lessons learned, and change attitudes and practices within the industry, we will continue to face these challenges.

Removing barriers to joining civil engineering firms

women in ppe waving pride flag
Everyone wants to feel respected and valued at work. Image credit: Shutterstock

We need to pay attention to the work of organisations like InterEngineering and set ambitious targets to attract and retain more LGBTQ+ people at all levels.

We must also actively promote LGBTQ+ heroes within engineering.

There’s an expression, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ – young people considering the industry must know that it’s a safe space for LGBTQ+ people.

We need to endorse and fund LGBTQ+ inclusion teams and make LGBTQ+ people a central part of the operation.

And there must be consequences for LGBTQ+ bullying in the workplace. Proper complaint and feedback sessions must be set up to ensure a dialogue takes place.

Workplaces must also work on education to spot intolerance and how to stop it.

Civil engineering companies should reach out to education centres and schools to promote civil engineering as an accepting and welcoming choice for young LGBTQ+ people who have an interest in the profession.

The bottom line

Every person wants to feel heard and respected. That doesn’t change between sexualities and genders. If one LGBTQ+ person feels uncomfortable in an organisation, that is one too many.

Let’s hope that next year, every engineer can name an LGBTQ+ unsung civil engineering hero.

  • Duncan Kenyon, public affairs manager at ICE