Alec Shelbrooke: Industry counts cost of culture of fear on sexuality

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BRITAIN is a far more liberal and accepting society now than at any other point in its history. I was therefore shocked to read in a recently published engineering journal that a high level of homophobia exists within the industry.

As a heterosexual mechanical engineer, I know many in the sector would be equally as appalled if they realised that their behaviour in the workplace had the potential to be inadvertent homophobic bullying, especially to colleagues who are grappling with the difficult decision of coming out to family, friends and co-workers.

How can such a professional, white collar sector, with people who would never consider themselves to be bullies, continue to have such a widespread problem that is costing it so much?

This week I published the report Engineering Action: Tackling Homophobia in Engineering, co-authored with Dr Mark McBride-Wright of the campaign group InterEngineering.

Our research highlights that 54 per cent of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual (LGBT) employees in engineering were not open about their sexuality in the workplace, therefore remaining “closeted”.

This is in stark contrast to the national average, where only 34 per cent of people who identify as LGBT choose to remain in the closet. We believe the driving force behind this greatly increased figure is a culture of fear among LGBT engineers, as they believe that coming out will put them and their professional career development at risk.

Alarmingly, it is estimated that LGBT people who feel forced to remain “in the closet” may lose up to 30 per cent of their usual productivity in the workplace due to investing more of their energy into hiding their real selves from their colleagues.

This adds up on a sector-wide level as an estimated £11.2bn that fails to materialise within the engineering economy each year due to lack of productivity, a significant figure that can be greatly reduced if the problem is met head on by firms.

This has a knock-on effect on the broader UK economy as well. Engineering employers have the potential to generate an additional £27bn per year from 2022, the equivalent cost of building 1,800 new secondary schools or 110 new hospitals.

If the UK is to benefit economically from this, then we will need to meet a forecasted demand for 257,000 new vacancies in engineering in the same timescale.

The lack of LGBT diversity could jeopardise this aim and push potential engineers towards more inclusive sectors.

It is evident that for many LGBT people the decision to come out in the workplace is not one worth taking as they believe that it will open them up to ridicule and abuse.

There is also a fear that it will hamper their career prospects as the international nature of engineering work means that many also have to struggle with homophobic laws abroad, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.

Ultimately, the real problem surrounding the bullying of LGBT people in the workplace is a more subtle culture that exists in the engineering world, an industry seen to have a stereotypically “macho” culture.

Casual jokes without intent, comments made in passing, or the use of the word “gay” as an insult or to express frustration are all commonly reported. The example of using “gay” as an expression denoting something negative, may be casual banter for some, but for the majority of LGBT people it resonates with childhood bullying.

While there is a compassionate responsibility to eradicate this culture, there is also a strong business case.

Companies stand to lose billions in income through a loss of productivity from its workforce and risk putting people off joining such a rewarding profession.

I don’t believe this is a matter for legislation. Instead there must be an industry-wide uptake of programmes to increase understanding. If the Government and the private sector work together, they can jointly bring about improvements for all employees.

Our report suggests a clear set of goals need to be established and universally adopted to ensure there is a reversal of the outdated attitudes that are preventing acceptance of LGBT people in engineering.

Diversity and inclusion programmes, insertion of LGBT role models, unconscious bias training and reverse mentoring would all help bring about the eradication of homophobia within the engineering industry.

I share the ambitions of many heterosexual and homosexual workers alike, that over the coming years someone’s sexuality will no longer be stigmatised in the workplace – be it in the office or on-site – and people will speak freely about their family lives without fear of prejudice.

Alec Shelbrooke is the Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell.