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Being A Gay Civil Engineer

Being A Gay Civil Engineer

Post Ed: If you want to learn more about LGBT diversity and inclusion within engineering, why not check out InterEngineering?

It’s alright, being a gay civil engineer. In fact, it’s largely a non-issue, with the focus very much on competence and ability in an industry where getting things done is always a priority. Do expect a bit of banter, especially on site- but everyone gets that. Don’t expect there to be many figureheads or much discussion about the topic across the industry. Perhaps the biggest challenge, depending on where your career takes you, will be facing the ethical dilemma of working in and for countries where gay rights are a significant issue (either directly, or passively through international firms).

There we go, I’ve just saved you the trouble of reading 1500 words on the subject…

Embracing Divertingly

Despite the relatively rhetoric implications of joining the scheme, it is, however, a very visible gesture.

Last week Balfour Beatty announced that they had joined the Stonewall Diversity Champion scheme. They’re not the only members of the construction industry to enter the program; in fact I was a bit disappointed when the NCE totally failed to report that Arup, Transport for London and Kier are already members, along with Network Rail and Lend Lease. It should be noted, at this point, that the scheme is targeted at larger corporations, and therefore the relatively low count of subscribers from the civil engineering industry (which is largely formed of small/medium enterprises) is not particularly damming.

Like me, you might not have any idea what Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme is. In fact, when I first read the announcement I was forcibly reminded of the “do we embrace divertingly?” skit from Going Postal. In summary the scheme is one where you pay £2500 a year (complete with £500 of free advertising) for a benchmarking tool and access to a ‘homosexuals-in-the-workplace’ expert who will give you some advice, if you ask for it, on making things better for your LGB (Stonewall dropped the T) employees; there are no entry requirements and seemingly no obligations either.

Whilst the announcement comes at a good time for Balfours, they have had a three-year plan for diversity and inclusion since the start of 2013 (it seems), and last year one of their senior members was recognised by OUTstanding as an LGBT leader. Despite the relatively rhetoric implications of joining the scheme, it is, however, a very visible gesture; and an interesting one at that.

Talking About Myself

Civil engineers as professionals are just far too practically minded to afford bigoted past-times; the attitude yard-stick is measured using performance and competence.

I get to say something about this. Of course, you can too; that’s pretty much the point. If there’s one thing I really hate (and there are thousands) it is when people use a base-commonality to talk on behalf of people under the pretext of representing; especially self-elected community leaders- despite many playground taunts, there isn’t such thing as a Gay Lord. So these opinions are my own, you’ll find people who agree with me, and you’ll find people who don’t; possibly that is the true meaning of diversity, but what do I know?

At this juncture, I’ll share something with you: I would hate to be identified as a gay civil engineer. I would much rather be a civil engineer who is gay- see what I did there? In fact, it is this very reason that, despite writing Being Brunel for nearly two years, I hadn’t said anything on the matter until now; neither did it get a sound-bite in that god-forsaken NCE award profile. Knowing this might help you understand why the thought of the Balfours work-force being given seminars on how to talk to me is enough too make me shudder.

The best I’ve ever had was a bit of polite interest, and the worst; a few badly judged jokes. But I’m old enough, and definitely ugly (if not wise) enough to tell the difference between banter and malicious attacks; although I have perfected the key-skill of laughing off the killing insult: “but you don’t act gay”. In fact, as far as my experience takes me (and maybe I’ve just been lucky), civil engineers as professionals are just far too practically minded to afford bigoted past-times; the attitude yard-stick is measured using performance and competence. Frankly: it’s not who you are, it’s the way that you do it.

Balfour’s announcement is the first time in 14 years that this the NCE has mentioned gay engineers.

Times have changed a lot over the last 25 years. I went to school in an era where a family unit was legally defined as a man and a woman (that’s Section 28 for you kids and the less politically minded), and I’ve recently had to put up with a few years of people who wouldn’t help me up from the street attempting to save my eternal soul by not giving me the right to marry. These days, however, I am reasonably content that there are now legal frameworks in place for companies that do not respect equalities; and thus inclusion based policy is just another expected standard- like getting a hard-hat when you go to site.

What The Industry Said

Perhaps most telling is that Balfour’s new membership doesn’t seem to have caused much comment. This, at least to me, is a good thing, especially when you compare it to the NCE’s letters following a similar discussion in 2000. Frankly, had I not been checking my inbox the move might well have passed me by. This matches my experience of the resigned libertarianism found within the profession that somewhat pragmatically doesn’t care, as long as you get those drawings out before Monday.

The international nature of many engineering firms makes it is difficult to be in the business of mega-structures and not work in countries where LGBT rights are restricted.

This article, the somewhat dulled reaction to the news and the research I’ve done to put it together, however, has caused a somewhat unexpected effect. It came with the realisation that the NCE writes something about women in engineering roughly once a month, whilst Balfour’s announcement is the first time in 14 years that this ICE representing magazine has mentioned the topic.

If there are few senior role models for Women in the construction industry; there are almost none for members of the LGB community (damn I hate that phrase); hell- we don’t even have a group (or at least not one I’ve been invited to!). It’s not even as if there aren’t similar concerns; we’re under represented (especially at a senior level) and there are still aspects of gay adoption not provided for by statutory law; ignoring the fact that a guy taking a break to start a family is something I’ve yet to hear of. But this point is one of envy, rather than an assertion that it need be otherwise.

The Last Minority?

A Wider View

Section 5

By embedding equality and diversity in tendering, contract awards and contract management processes, employers protect themselves from the risk of engaging partner organisations that do not comply with equality legislation. They also avoid exposing their own staff to disc- riminatory working environments.

Section 6

Additional criteria assess how businesses ensure their products are reaching lesbian, gay and bisexual consumers or clients, and how LGB equality fits into their broader corporate responsibility agenda.

To me, the most interesting bit surrounding the diversity champions scheme is found in the benchmarking, which includes two sections (see right) on making sure your targets for diversity impact both suppliers and the market chain: corporate responsibility. Perhaps the sharpest of you may have guessed that the specific behind the generic on my post about the ethics of engineering Sochi was the gay rights issues surrounding the Olympics themselves.

I was particularity interested to note that the Balfour Beatty group (largely through Parsons Brinckerhoff) provide professional services in over half of the countries in the world that would kill me if I lived there. This isn’t anything particularly new, and so far in my career I’ve had the luxury of not encountering the ethical issue myself. However with the international nature of many engineering firms, it is difficult to be in the business of mega-structures and not work in countries where LGBT rights are restricted. Even fellow diversity champion Arup works in the recently anti-gay legislating India and Russia, as well as the death-penalty employing Nigeria.

Traditionally, as an industry, it seems we’ve always been slow to take a stand on the deeper ethical issues that surround the profession. So, whilst it is nice that there are some companies who will happily sign-up to benchmarking their performance towards this somewhat under represented minority within the equality enforcing legal framework of the UK; it would be amazing to think that they will also start to take the next step and apply this dedication to the cause towards their market responsibilities. We can but hope.

So, to summarise:

You can be anything you like, as long as you’re a Civil Engineer.

If you, or anyone else you know, has been affected by the issues mentioned in this article…

But seriously, sardonic I may be, but without empathy- I ain’t. If you’re having trouble or just want to ask a few more questions feel free to drop me an e-mail. Similarly, if you’ve got something to share about the topic; I accept guest posts- even if you completely disagree with me!

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  1. Richard Totty

    I wish to congratulate you on your article in the NCE in March 2015, it was refreshing to read an article that I can directly relate to, and which has given me renewed enthusiasm for the industry I work in.

  2. Well, what can a modest man say to that? Just glad to hear it made a difference- hopefully I’ll bump into you at an InterEngineering event some time.


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