September 07, 2015

The lack of women in engineering is a real challenge in the UK, as I have reflected before.

It seems to me that at this moment in this area, the priority is that of representation.

The more women in engineering, the ‘easier’ it will be to address issues of inequality.

Campaigns such as #ILookLikeAnEngineer, Your Life,  #INWED and all the other organisations and efforts across the UK dedicated to raising the profile of women in STEM are doing an exceptional job and will hopefully, effect the cultural change that is much needed in this country.

But when you delve deeper into the area of gender representation and equality, you also have to acknowledge the rest of the protected characteristics that fall under ‘equality and diversity’. I will restrain from commenting on the appropriateness of this list, as I have come to learn of other very real areas of discrimination and/or inequality that occur in academia, for example class and accents, as so eloquently put by my friend and colleague Dr Katie Edwards.

Much has been studied and is being done regarding experiences of women and of racial and ethnic minorities in male- dominated fields such as engineering. However, the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) identifying individuals remain barely touched, as discussed by Cech & Waidzunas - ‘Navigating the Heteronormativity of Engineering’.

What prompted me to reflect about what I consider to be a serious issue was a conversation I recently had with some colleagues. It became evident to me that there was the sense that if we’d not heard of any problems from the LGBT engineering academic and student communities, then it must be because there were none significant enough to put in the list of priorities at this time. And yet, when reflecting about the number of individuals in this minority group that we knew of, we could only name one or two, including myself!

This is not unusual, though. In their ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ article, Bilimoria and Stewart refer to “the invisibility and pressure to cover” amongst science and engineering faculty members at two research universities. Whilst, Cech & Waidzunas’ research concludes that “through coping strategies which can require immense amounts of additional emotional and academic effort, LGB students navigate a chilly and heteronormative engineering climate by “passing” as heterosexual, “covering” or downplaying cultural characteristics associated with LGB identities”.

“Why does it matter?” helpfully, reflectively and respectfully asked one of my colleagues, and I was grateful for her question. It matters for many reasons.

We are not the one characteristic; we are everything that makes us who we are. Our lives in and outside our working/studying environments; our backgrounds; beliefs; abilities; possibilities; barriers; relations; families; accents; hobbies; aspirations; our achievements and ‘failures’.

I cannot be any less Mexican than I can be gay, or any younger (I wish!) than I can be a woman. The intersectionality between my characteristics cannot be ignored. I am very fortunate because I have been, first by circumstance and then by choice, able to be very open about my ‘gayness’.

But what about the other LGBT academic and student engineers? Where are they? Last year the Workplace Equality Index compiled by Stonewall, found than less than 0.5 per cent of respondents to the employee survey worked for engineering firms (compared to around 20 per cent of all workers in the country). These numbers do beg the questions:

Is ‘engineering’ preventing LGBT communities to work/study in the sector, or
Is the LGBT community in the sector uncomfortable or even unable to be ‘out in the work/study place’
Going back to my colleagues’ question, “why does it matter?” why do I care? One business answer is; diversity brings better ideas and better results. Quoting a senior partner at Irwin Mitchell, Jane Wright: “LGBT staff tend to be more resilient, have learnt to adapt, to succeed regardless of their barriers and organisations want them. Not to increase their ‘diversity’ but to increase their pool of innovative and talented staff”.

Sticking with the business answer, LGBT colleagues may be spending considerable amounts of energy avoiding the ‘dreaded’ personal questions; using neutral pronouns; listening to what colleagues’ husbands and wives did during the weekend, their hobbies and plans, whilst you avoid talking about your life, can be very exhausting.

However, most importantly, as the Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive Philip Greenish, said “It’s just the right thing to do. If we believe that people should be free to be happy in their personal lives, whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity, allowing them to suffer at work as a result is a failure.”

So, this is me but NOT all of me, I can promise you that. And today I want you to know that #ILookLikeAnLGBTEngineer and hope you will join me if you do, too.

Stay connected by subscribing to our monthly newsletter and following us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Disclosure: Where Women Work researches and publishes insightful evidence about how its paid member organizations support women's equality.

Share this page:

Join our women's careers community