I have had a very positive experience for the past ten years that I have been involved in engineering. Whilst studying at university, I did not have any problems. Indeed, I was lucky that during my first term in halls, I vividly remember turning on TV and seeing Cherie Blair celebrating the passage of the Civil Partnership Act 2005. Living and working in a country where I am legally backed and protected by law, and my relationship is recognised by law gave me even more confidence to be openly out.
Engineering does suffer from the stereotype of the predominantly male workforce which it contains, and with this it can mean it is difficult to be open in the workplace. Other sectors such as banking and law have established LGBT diversity networks. When I was studying Chemical Engineering at Imperial College, there was a lot of LGBT specific networking and support available from businesses in these sectors for internship and job applicants.
Where were the LGBT engineering groups? They did not exist. And, to my mind, they still do not adequately exist. The Royal Academy of Engineering held a landmark event entitled “Data Driven Diversity: The Facts About LGBT in Engineering” in May 2014. This event was pivotal to me, because it was the first time I had seen “LGBT” and “Engineering” in the same sentence. Lord John Browne, the gay former BP CEO, released his book “The Glass Closet” which I consider a must-read for any LGBT employee within engineering.
After finishing my PhD at Imperial, I started my professional career as a Process Safety Engineer which focuses on preventing major accident hazards (fires, explosions, accidental chemical releases etc.) on oil and gas production installations, both onshore and offshore. I have worked in consultancies as well as the engineering contracting sector. I have never had any direct problems working as a gay engineer. People judge you based on the quality of the work you deliver. However,you are constantly coming out at work whenever you meet new colleagues, engage in polite conversation with new clients, or attend a networking function at your professional institute.
Whenever the conversation moves on to your personal life, there is the “pronoun game”. Do you say “she” if you are a gay male? Do you say “husband” if you are married, or keep the term “partner”? This is a mind-juggle a lot of gay individuals will identify with. On principle, I refuse to play this game, as I see it as being dishonest and doing myself a disservice. I would say this is a core focus of anxiety for LGBT employees, and a barrier to being open in the workplace.
I have always found that by being open and bringing your whole-self to work it gives you the capacity for creativity and dedicating your whole-self to your job, with no energy wasted on worrying about people’s perceptions of you. I see the corporate diversity culture spectrum as being Tolerance – Acceptance – Celebrating. Different organisations are at different stages and this will vary across geographies too.
An open and honest, networked culture is where (I think) people feel comfortable. Why would I want to work in an organisation where I am simply “tolerated”? Each year I take my husband to our corporate Christmas Ball and my colleagues make him feel very welcome. I prefer to be in a company with a corporate environment where your work colleagues can become your friends, and it is an environment which I believe to be common across engineering firms.
There is a skills gap within the engineering sector, and many young students and children need to be inspired to consider the profession in the future. Lack of diversity should not be a reason to have an attrition rate of existing talent exiting the profession, and neither should it be a reason to miss attracting the future talent.
So…consider Engineering! Whether it’s chemical (the best – I’m biased), mechanical, electrical, civil etc. there are plenty of opportunities within this sector. If you are considering an apprenticeship then go for it! You can work across a multitude of different industries, it’s relatively well-paid and you get to travel the world. And, most importantly, being a gay engineer is fantastic!