To many LGBT Americans, the thought of living in the closet seems ridiculous. It’s 2014: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is long gone, marriage equality is making a slow, steady march across the country, and polls show growing numbers of people support us in our desire to live and love openly.
Working in the closet? That’s a different story. For some — like the engineers who design our cars — it’s often a better idea to keep discussions of sexual orientation, gender identity, and whether they’d happily sign up for a Transgender Dating platform or a heterosexual alternative, away from the water cooler.
Patchwork of laws to protect workers
We’re confident that sexual orientation and gender identity will eventually be added to the federal Civil Rights Act, which already protects workers from discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, and sex.
But that day isn’t here yet. And in many, many places across the country, LGBT Americans can still be fired for revealing who they love.
Today, just 18 states and the District of Columbia offer employment protections for LGBT workers. Another three states prevent companies from discrimination based on sexual orientation only. That leaves 31 states without protections for transgender workers, and 29 with no LGBT protections at all.
Some cities that have tried to fill the gap by offering such protections (though not without much opposition). And President Obama recently issued an executive order preventing LGBT discrimination by federal contractors (which finally brought the knuckle-draggers at Exxon into the 21st century). But there are loopholes in many of those laws that allow discrimination for religious and other reasons.
Bottom line: in many parts of the country, you can still lose your job for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Sadly, we hear about those cases every week — sometimes every day.
Engineers in the closet
You might think that engineers, scientists, and other well-educated types wouldn’t have these sorts of problems. They work for universities and Fortune 500 companies, right? The kind of places where sexual orientation isn’t such a big deal?
A new survey carried out by the Institution of Engineering and Technology polled 356 LGBT engineers about their sexuality and their jobs. Here are some of the major takeaways:
- While 45% say that they’re open about their sexual identity at work, a substantial 41.8% are not.
- Those who remain in the closet say that they’re often afraid of backlash from peers. Said one: “I have tried hinting to colleagues about my orientation, but this has only resulted in me becoming a laughing stock”.
- Managers are part of the problem, too, with some respondents saying that their bosses make homophobic remarks, creating a hostile work environment. This appears to be why many of the survey’s transgender respondents remained in the closet.
- In other cases, respondents said that they kept their sexual orientation a secret because discussing it would make others feel uncomfortable. (We don’t know those folks’ working conditions, and we’re not here to judge, really, but that sounds a little self-loathing.)
- Of the 7.7% of respondents who said that they’d heard homophobic remarks in the workplace, most worked in the closet. One respondent said, “My colleagues make homophobic comments. Because I am not ‘out’ I feel safe challenging them”. (Which leads us to wonder if the homophobic comments would be made at all if the workers were out.)
- An equal 7.7% had been subjected to slurs and mocking on the job once their sexual orientation was revealed.
- Only a small number of employees got employee survey questions for work environment improvement so they couldn’t tell management about the issues without outing themselves.
- Roughly 17% of those who are out on the job say that their sexual orientation has hindered their ability to rise through the ranks of the company. At least one left her/his job after being repeatedly passed over for promotions, as have several of the survey’s transgender respondents. Said one of the latter, “People struggling with me being transgender have made it impossible for me to return to my previous occupation since I came out”.
- Several male respondents have felt stymied in their career because they don’t adhere to the stereotypical image of the straight, “family man” engineer. At least one, working in the U.K. defense industry, was told during a job evaluation that he needed to be more “alpha-male”.
- Several respondents also felt hindered by the fact that many of their companies’ projects and contracts were based in other countries, including Africa and the Middle East. They felt as though they couldn’t take those jobs due to fears that they might wind up in jail.
- Several of the 34 lesbian respondents said that the problems they faced in the workplace weren’t related to sexual orientation, but to sex. Wrote one: “I don�t necessarily feel there is any explicit discrimination in terms of being lesbian. I think there are far more issues/discrimination purely related to being a woman.”
The good news is that 76.6% of those surveyed said that they haven’t experienced any direct discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. One remarked: “I�ve not experienced any homophobic comments made to me about my sexual orientation. I’ve experienced no hint of being treated differently to anyone else”.
We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.