Increasing diversity in engineering is about more than getting more women into the profession. It is about bringing a variety of backgrounds and experiences together to innovate the best possible solutions for society’s problems. Diversity includes gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity, heritage, age, and ability.
We know representation matters. June is Pride month and as an ally I want to use this platform to amplify voices of the LGBTQ community in engineering. To accomplish this, I interviewed four friends in engineering from university and at work; their voices are shown in italics throughout the article.
Being the engineer that I am, I started with some good old internet research to see what the numbers say about LGBTQ in STEM.
Data for LGBTQ in Engineering
- LGBTQ students are nearly 10% less likely to be retained in STEM fields than their heterosexual peers.
- A 2013 survey of STEM workers found that more than 40% of LGBTQ identified respondents working in STEM fields are not out to their colleagues (Queer in STEM).
- Queer in STEM also found that survey participants who worked in STEM fields with better representation of women were more likely to be out to their colleagues. This suggests a broader phenomenon of gendered culture in STEM workplaces — in fields with fewer women, the climate may be less comfortable for anyone who fails to conform to a straight male gender presentation.
The research findings were echoed in the experiences of my friends in the LGBT community.
SB: I do think that LGBTQ folks do share a lot of common ground with ‘eng girls’ in breaking stereotypes and in representing relative minorities within the engineering field. It’s in part due to the fact that it has been a largely male dominated field for generations but something that I like to think is changing for the better. I think this is true of youth today in general, aided by support of social issues empowering women, LGBTQ groups etc.
I interviewed some rainbow friends about their experiences being out in the engineering community and in the workplace. I hope their stories shed light on what allies and workplaces can do to continue to support the LGBTQ community and ways we can improve.
ED: Being out in engineering requires tact, patience, and an understanding of the environment to which you are placed in. You must always first and foremost take confidence in who you are, what you believe in, and the inherent right to be yourself irrespective of what anyone may perceive or conceive about who you are. As a member of the greater STEM community, it is gravely important to embody who you are as a person with what you are able to contribute to society. It is our responsibility to extend what it means to be LGBTQ and an engineer, a scientist, a mathematician, or a technician such that we can change the cultural landscape and inherent expectation of future generations.
How to be a good ally in the workplace
1. Use ungendered pronouns or words like partner if you are getting to know someone
Be conscientious of partner and personal pronouns by avoiding assumptive language/conversation/topics on a person’s sexuality/gender/expression.
LP: Small things like asking about my partner or if I have a “boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever” really does go a long way. The workplace is still very heteronormative, so anytime someone uses non-gendered terms when asking about partners it makes me feel way more accepted and comfortable.
SB: As for inclusivity… good old respect goes a long way. Not making assumptions (“so do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend” / “are you bringing your girlfriend/boyfriend to __” can be an awkward one to have to answer. I personally find “partner” a bit weird, but at the same time have no better alternatives. I do find more and more people (straight or otherwise) use it for their significant other, which if nothing else to me shows that they are being open / inclusive and is always appreciated.
2. Do you have any LGBTQ workers at your company?
Diversify your hiring pool and hire people who are different from you. Interviewers can mention policies and culture that are inclusive to everyone who interviews.
KH: If a company is in any way unaccepting of the fact that I am a member of the LGBTQ community, I do not want to work for them. It is as simple as that. And I want to know as soon as possible, which means that during the initial interview, the most important thing for me is making sure to slip in either boldly or conspicuously a mention of something that reveals my sexuality. I watch carefully gage my interviewer’s reaction to ensure that I am walking into a safe work place where I will be free to be who I am. If I don’t feel accepted and able to be myself, they are never going to get my best work anyway.
LB: It takes me time to decide how to be out at work. I would not bring it up in an interview, because at the end of the day it’s not relevant to the job. Within the first couple of months, I will tell people that I’m gay – I’ll say “my girlfriend” in conversation or talk about date night with my girlfriend so that people get the point. Eventually people will pick it up. If you’re confident and comfortable with yourself, people will generally follow suit. As far as I know, I am the only openly gay person in my company of 180+ people.
3. Does your company have a LGBTQ group? Does your company provide diversity training for managers (or all employees)?
Knowing there is a group of like-minded or just open minded people can go a long way to making people feel included and cared for, this translates into productivity and motivation on the job!
LP: I would definitely say it was tough being a gay woman in engineering school and now in the work place. Being in software there are already so few females, so the chances of meeting another gay woman to share experiences with at work is very slim. When I did start work and found out that my company had a LGTBQ group it definitely made me feel more comfortable though.
LB: In my entire career, I have worked with 1 other gay woman in a job. It’s rare to find other gay people in STEM, so having a workplace that is inclusive goes a long way. I don’t have to work with other gay people in order to feel included. I just need to know that I have people around me who are supportive and won’t criticize me when I talk about my girl.
Universities now have their own chapters of EngiQueers Canada which is a national non-profit dedicated to promoting and advocating for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ students (and allies) in engineering schools across Canada. The EngiQueers group was founded by Vanessa Raponi in 2013 at MacMaster University but quickly grew into a national association with chapters at 31 Canadian universities across the country!
KH: Being a small part of the beginnings of EngiQueers Canada has meant more to me than I can begin to express. National recognition for LGBTQ in engineering is such a huge step forward for diversity in the field. I am so excited to see how EngiQueers Canada grows over the years, and to continue being a part of that community by being involved in the organization. One of my favourite memories from my time with the Western EngiQueers was during one of our first events. We were painting a large flag with our symbol and the discussion turned from one of our executive member’s horrible experience working at Taco Bell as a transgender male, to calculus. I had never in my life discussed those two topics, with such passion, with the same group of people. It was so freeing. We just had so much in common, so much shared experience, and without the club, we would never have met.
4. Encourage an open and inclusive environment from interview to Christmas Party
LB: Coming out isn’t one event, it’s a series of decisions on who to trust and depend on the circumstance I am in. Personally, at university and with long term employers I chose to be out from day one. Building long term relationships requires honesty and trust; having someone (colleague or manager) find out later that you haven’t been fully “truthful” may hinder relationships. I was less likely to come out to short term employers during my co-op terms because I was concerned being out might affect my chances at returning for another work term. With clients it is equally difficult – as a gay person you are always walking the line between being honest and open & protecting yourself and your career.
Allies can help make people feel welcome to bring their partners to corporate events (don’t forget to make sure the invitations use ungendered words like partner or guest). Generally, be approachable and open minded on a variety of subjects, and create space for people to express themselves freely.
5. JUST ASK
This one is obvious but being asked and listened to is so empowering: ask if there is anything you can do to make them feel more comfortable to be themselves, ask about their personal experiences, ask how excited they are for Pride! Just ask!
LB: Just be cool. It’s 2018. Gay marriage was legalized in Canada in 2005. This isn’t anything new. Even if your new friend at work is the first gay person you’ve ever met, be cool about it. There’s nothing wrong with being gay. There’s nothing wrong with being yourself.
I would like to thank everyone I interviewed for this article: Laura Perry, Kris Hall, Eric Doerr, Lindsay Bowman, and SB. We are learning and growing more every day because of your willingness to share your experiences.
Want other awesome resources? Check out the sites below for more information.
Elaine is an environmental engineer (in training) at a civil engineering consulting firm in the Greater Toronto Area. Her job is mostly figuring out if poop is going to flood your basement and she works with different levels of government to prevent (sh)it from happening. Outside of engineering, Elaine spends her weekends tap dancing and enjoying artsy activities that balance out her engineering life.