Pictured: Brittany Bennett, Executive Director of ESW, at the 2017 ESW Annual Conference. Brittany is one of the many queer members of ESW.
ESW is proud of its inclusive and diverse culture, but in the field of engineering at large, the representation with respect to sexual orientation is still quite skewed, despite apparent recent advances. In celebration of the recently concluded Pride Month, we at ESW wanted to share perspectives from some of our LGBT+ members, as young professionals in their field. We put together some questions for them and we’ve shared some of their answers here (different answers separated by blank lines) :
Has being LGBT+ affected your professional choices?
When applying and interviewing for my PhD, I definitely made an active choice to avoid certain advisors and universities who I found to hold less open mindsets, and found myself more tempted by those who not only showed no animosity but also actively showed acceptance for LGBTQ individuals.
Not much. If an organization is more inclusive or they encourage LGBT or people of color to apply, it's more like an extra "plus" than a requirement. Even if they didn't have an explicit statement, it wouldn't affect how I apply or work for different organizations. However, I do tend to avoid faith based organizations, but not because I think they're anti-LGBT, but just that I don't align with their morals and values.
How do you scope out a friendly workplace?
So far I don't feel like I've had very much agency in terms of which jobs I end up with. However, the places where I've felt most comfortable with are ones I'd volunteered for before, so I had some prior knowledge of the work culture.
I tend to speak to the people, but I don't bring up LGBTQ issues directly. I find that many non-LGBTQ people view themselves allies, but take a more passive role, resulting in potential discriminatory or disquieting behaviors that they don't even realize that they do. This means that if I bring up the issue directly, their answer may not be representative of how friendly they would actually be. Instead, I get a sense of who they are as a person and their views and values on broader issues and trust my gut based on experience. The most direct method I may do is refer to past or present partners by their pronouns with intent of seeing how someone reacts.
Are there any relevant workplace experiences (good or bad) that you'd like to share?
Even now I have some co-workers who openly mock people for being gay. I think "gay" is probably just a stand-in insult without much underlying homophobia, but I've made a habit of telling people off for using it.
Great organizations tend to be very supportive and don't judge your background. They might acknowledge it, but they don't go out of their way to prove they're an advocate or make jokes about it. It's kinda like working with ESW. I don't have a specific engineering background, but I'm not judged for not being an engineer. It's that mutual respect and the work you put out that makes a difference not your character. More up-tight organizations tend to be more hush-hush. Advocates in a hostile workplace tend to be sympathetic, but may attribute your character as a symptom to a work issue like an aggressive boss leading to false cause and causation. It tends to make you more self-aware that you're different than you should be.
How have you handled / would you handle unsupportive co-workers?
The fact that I have no sexual preference has not come up in conversation, and I wouldn't really trust that information with my co-workers anyhow.
By not mentioning you're LGBT+ to anyone. Even if it comes up in conversation like, "Oh, hey are you going to the holiday party? Are you bringing anyone like your girlfriend?" I tend to just say no, I'm going by myself or not at all. I don't tend to intermingle my work and personal life. If it does get out, it's hard to avoid other co-workers as if they've found out a dirty secret. Eventually, it'll pass, but for that one co-worker, you'll always get that gaze from them when working on a project. It's unavoidable, but I keep it strictly business and mutual.
When have you felt most welcome in the engineering space?
Generally, I find spaces that are already quite diverse - significant numbers of women, people of color, religious practitioners, etc - create the most welcome spaces for LGBTQ individuals, as groups that are able to accommodate openly visible diversity have the self-awareness to know how to be welcoming to groups whose characteristics are invisible.
When I entered college and met some amazing colleagues. Professors tend to be more liberal in their views. Some might be more conservative, but it's never really brought up in the classroom unless you're writing an argumentative paper on same-sex marriage. Joining engineering clubs are where you tend to find the most accepting people since there's typically more outgoing people involved.
What is your perception of LGBT+ representation in engineering fields? Has that perception changed over time?
I feel like I get more disappointed by the year. I can only speak for the two engineering jobs I've had, but there is very little diversity of people or of thought. The good news is the world is going to get a lot more LGBT+ entrepreneurs.
LGBTQ representation in engineering - or STEM in general - seems to be quite under-discussed. There seems to be a pervasiveness in STEM in general that it doesn't matter who you are, but what you are able to do, so all personal characteristics fall out of the discussion. However, this ignores the fact that one of the most important qualities for anyone in STEM, especially in engineering as the interface between academia and industrial application, is empathy. I feel that more people are willing to come out, but that is a result of a shift in general opinion to LGBTQ individuals and not to anything specific to engineering. If anything, I feel that representation in STEM is lagging behind many other fields, as there is this uncertainty resulting from the aforementioned belief that it is one's work and not one's identity that should define them - which, both in my experience and in psychology literature - creates the most stressful and least welcome environments.
It's gotten better over the past decade, however, LGBT representation in the STEM field in general is still invisible. In the past 3 years, universities have started to offer resources to LGBT members. Departments have created lists of pro-LGBT or "out" faculty that are open to talking with students and increasing visibility. Out of the myriad of arts and humanities, health, and social sciences, engineering pales in comparison on that list. Professionally, I haven't met any gay engineers, but I've had limited exposure and experience. Underrepresentation is a big problem in the STEM fields. Sexual orientation and identities are not as obvious as being a minority or woman. Another issue is that STEM fields are more practice than theory. This technical objective culture contradicts a personal subjective mindset as seen in the humanities field. This culture can be a turn-off for young LGBT people entering the industry further fueling the rise of underrepresentation and closeted individuals.
Do you have any thoughts or messages for other LGBT+ professionals in your field?
I feel that the only way to improve the state of affairs is to be open. It does not need to be grandiose, but openness from one person helps those who are uncertain, and helps non-LGBTQ coworkers realize that we exist in spaces and ways that they may not expect.
Find an organization that had an explicit welcoming policy. Every business must have an inclusive policy that doesn't discriminate, so don't rely on policy to keep you safe. Scope it out. Even if a workplace seems conservative, it's not necessarily a con as long as it doesn't become a problem or discriminatory. Even older organizations that have been around for over a hundred years like Mott MacDonald are much more progressive than say a small business that's only been around for 10 years. There's great resources out there like Great Places to Work that lay out each company's policies and Anon surveys. Take advantage of them and be cautious.