In 1936, British architect Sir Raymond McGrath built a mansion in the Surrey countryside. The Round House at St Ann’s Court is a modernist masterpiece, with curved walls and extensive windows to let in plenty of light. But what makes it really special is a distinctive architectural feature.
The mansion was built for garden designer Sir Christopher Tunnard and his partner, Gerald Schlesinger. The couple wanted to live together, but faced the risk of persecution under the homophobic criminal laws of the time.
Architect McGrath created a false wall, that could be used to split the master bedroom into two when guests visited, to create the impression of two bachelor housemates rather than a couple. This helped the partners to live together with greater comfort and confidence.
This is one example of the history of the LGBT+ community in construction. Today, there are projects like Pride of Place, designed to recognise and celebrate places of LGBT+ heritage. But sadly, the contributions of this community to the built environment are often overlooked – or simply unknown.
The challenge of creating a more representative, inclusive construction industry remains to this day. As we mark LGBT+ History Month in the UK this February, it’s a reminder that in construction there’s much work still to be done – and we’re all responsible for doing it.
It’s vital that the construction industry is representative and inclusive. Our sector plays a unique role in shaping society, by delivering the buildings and infrastructure that we all use every day. With the government making construction central to its post-pandemic plans, we have the opportunity to ensure that spaces and facilities serve everyone’s needs – and that includes the LGBT+ community.
This encompasses all kinds of measures, such as supporting gender neutral bathrooms, which can help to overcome challenges for transgender people – as well as improving access for cisgender people. It’s only with a diverse industry that we can make these investments work for everyone in society.
Individual construction companies are increasingly recognising the value of creating a diverse and inclusive workforce. Of course, this makes business, as well as ethical, sense. All of the evidence suggests that supporting greater diversity helps companies increase innovation – and improve their financial performance.
At a time of skills shortages, construction simply can’t afford to miss out on the great talent of LGBT+ employees. Add to that the fact that employees of all backgrounds and orientations want to work for inclusive companies – and the benefits of an inclusive industry are obvious.
Unfortunately however, the LGBT+ community are still significantly underrepresented in the construction industry – and many face substantial challenges at work. According to the Construction Leadership Council, of 24,000 construction employees surveyed, just 1% identified as bisexual, 0.8% as gay men and 0.2% as lesbian – compared to the 97.9% identifying as heterosexual.
Employees can routinely face discrimination from colleagues or clients. For example, 39% of LGBT+ architects surveyed had heard homophobic or transphobic slurs used as insults in the workplace over the previous 12 months.
This can make it much harder for LGBT+ people to bring their full selves to work. The Royal Academy of Engineering found that 55% of lesbian engineers, 48% of gay engineers and 53% of bisexual engineers feel ‘I can be open about my sexual orientation’ – compared to 90% of heterosexual engineers.
This is unacceptable – and can have a massive impact on performance. Right now, pressures on LGBT+ staff in engineering alone are estimated to cost the industry £11.2 billion a year in lost productivity. Much more has to be done – and we can each take action, as individuals, organisations and an industry.
Networks are a powerful way to bring LGBT+ colleagues together in an organisation. Employees can share their views, experiences and concerns, as well as liaising with leadership teams to support inclusive policies within the organisation.
Senior staff can provide mentorship to younger employees. Meanwhile, LGBT+ role models can help to showcase the opportunities available, both for people already in the industry and younger students and candidates.
Growing numbers of organisations have their own LGBT+ networks, such as Archway at Network Rail. But there are also cross-industry groups, such as Building Equality, an alliance across the construction industry with over 40 regularly participating organisations. If you’re looking to set up or grow your network, this is a great resource.
Creating a more inclusive workplace is the responsibility of every employee – but it can take significant culture change. Providing mandatory training on issues like inclusivity and unconscious bias can help to raise awareness of the challenges that LGBT+ people experience – and outline the behaviours expected from everyone in the business.
Encouraging LGBT+ allies – supportive colleagues who aren’t from the community themselves – can also influence positive change. Networks and employers can provide training on how to be an effective ally, to ensure that this is an effective and meaningful programme.
As in every area of the construction industry, owners can play a key role in driving a more inclusive sector. From the earliest stages of a project, owners can shape the inclusivity of assets through design specifications – working closely with the LGBT+ community where needed. There is also an opportunity for owners to use procurement to demand good inclusive practice from suppliers.
Construction should – and can – be a fantastic sector for everyone to work in. But we still have a long way to go. With many LGBT+ networks reporting a fall in activity during COVID-19, it’s vital that we revitalise our efforts to celebrate LGBT+ construction and create a better workplace for everyone. There are steps that we can all take to help construction realise its full potential as a diverse, dynamic and inclusive industry.
Want to learn more about LGBT+ construction and supporting inclusive workplaces?