By Scott Blair
For years, construction workers have faced the risk of being ostracized, bullied or fired over their sexual orientation or gender identity. After a lengthy job search in 2008, Jackie Richter, who was transitioning from male to female at the time, says a concrete contractor who wanted to hire her said, “You’ve got the experience, you’ve got the knowledge, and you’d be a great part of our team … but leave your girl clothes home and come as a man.”
The same year, a successful architect, who wishes to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisals, said he was fired when the owners of his company monitored his texts and found out he was gay.
More recently, Guillermo Díaz-Fañas experienced microaggressions at a previous employer due to his perceived mannerisms, even though he wasn’t out as a gay man at the time. Things escalated to the point where unfounded rumors spread among his colleagues that he had AIDS, based solely on the suspicion of his sexual orientation. When he raised concerns to one of his supervisors, nothing happened. “That’s when I understood that it was the leaders who had the problem with me,” he says.
Today, all three have overcome these negative experiences and work to show how inclusivity benefits the industry. Richter owns two successful construction companies in the Chicago area. The architect started his own practice and Díaz-Fañas founded Queer Advocacy and Knowledge Exchange (Qu-AKE), one of the first construction industry groups in the U.S. for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) workers. He also moved to a more inclusive workplace, at WSP, where he thrives as an award-winning senior technical principal.
Despite advances, LGBTQ+ employees can still be legally fired or discriminated against in 29 states. At the federal level, the Equality Act, passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year to add LGBTQ+ protections to existing civil rights laws, faces an uphill battle in the Senate.
As a result of this inactivity, a growing number of firms are taking action to stamp out workplace discrimination and prevent the loss of valuable talent by strengthening their diversity and inclusiveness policies, actively recruiting and retaining LGBTQ+ employees and speaking out to educate others in the industry.
“It is our responsibility to have diversity in mind when hiring, promoting and advancing the careers of all people at Turner, and this extends to our LGBTQ+ colleagues,” says Peter J. Davoren, the firm’s president and CEO. “Turner’s commitment to diversity and inclusion has brought many advantages and an increase in long-term success for our people and the company. The most significant impacts have been on the culture of our organization and connectivity among our people.”
For the past four years, Turner has received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Corporate Equity Index, which rates companies on their nondiscrimination policies, equitable benefits, support for an inclusive culture and corporate social responsibility.
This year, Black & Veatch, Overland Park, Kan., also achieved a perfect score. “It’s really the right thing to do to treat people equally and recognize that we all have different perspectives,” says Steve Edwards, CEO. “We need to appreciate those differences and find ways to draw strengths from that rather than find ways to pull [people] apart.”
While the firm has had an internal LGBTQ+ employee resource group for several years, this year Black & Veatch took additional steps to bolster inclusivity, such as strengthening equality in health care benefits and pledging to include LGBT-owned businesses in its supplier network. “Diversity and inclusion lead to better results,” Edwards says. “Strong collaboration where people recognize different perspectives that are being shared openly and transparently among everyone always leads to better decisions and outcomes.”
Signing The Pledge
Edwards, along with the CEOs of dozens of construction firms including Mortenson, JE Dunn, Autodesk, Performance Contracting Co. and Burns and McDonnell, have signed the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge. The 800+ signatories focus on cultivating workplaces that support open dialogue for difficult conversations about diversity and inclusion, creating a hub for companies to share best practices, implementing unconscious bias training and sharing strategic D&I plans with their boards.
In its 2018 report Delivering Through Diversity, McKinsey & Co. showed that companies in the top quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity (including LGBTQ+) on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability, indicating that inclusivity “of highly diverse individuals can be a key differentiator among companies,” the report says.
Lee Jourdan, Chevron’s Chief Diversity Officer, says that recruiting from the LGBTQ+ community is “not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do, and creates a competitive advantage for us” over less inclusive companies. “That’s a pool of talent that [others] are not getting that we are,” he adds. Plus, employees at more inclusive firms “see they’re able to bring their authentic selves to work because other people are doing that, and that’s how you’re going to get the most out of everybody. It has an add-on multiplier effect that companies are not going to be able to get if they don’t open their aperture to everyone out there.”
Chevron’s Pride Network, formed more than two decades ago, now has 1,600 members in 15 chapters on six continents and serves as the cornerstone for a dozen other diverse employee networks incorporating nearly half of the company’s 45,000 employees.
Yet determining how many employees are part of the LGBTQ community can be difficult. In a 2018 HRC survey of 804 LGBTQ workers and 811 straight respondents across all industries, 46% of LGBTQ workers remain closeted at work, and half of the non-LGBTQ workers reported that there were no “out” employees at their firm. Further, the findings report that 59% of non-LGBTQ workers think that it is unprofessional to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace.
“The construction industry still is fraught with lots of folks that do not accept other people,” says Davoren. “But if we are the leaders and catalysts, and we use active caring in the process, eventually cultures change. We are seeing impacts of those changes by the employees that we hire and the employees that are working with us who say we’re heading in the right direction.”
Prospective employees take notice of these values, factoring a company’s inclusiveness as a deciding factor when entering the job market. While finishing his masters degree, John-James (JJ) Tesoriero interned at a construction company where he wasn’t comfortable being openly gay. As a result, “I felt my performance and team dynamic suffered,” he says. “When I received a job offer from Gilbane in 2018, I made a point to ask about their efforts to promote LGBTQ+ inclusion.” The firm had just started an LGBTQ+ employee resource group, and it encouraged Tesoriero to help facilitate the ERG’s growth.
Today, project engineer Tesoriero not only chairs the company’s New York City Pride ERG, but also “proudly displays a picture of my boyfriend on my desk and wears a rainbow hard hat sticker on construction sites.” He’s also taken on an additional role as a sustainability council representative. “I am experiencing firsthand how a company’s thoughtful policies can contribute to individuals realizing their full potential,” he says.
Research in the 2018 HRC study shows that of LGBTQ+ employees working in an unwelcoming environment, 31% were unhappy or depressed at work, 25% felt distracted from work and 20% of study participants looked for another job.
“Happy and contented employees are more engaged and more productive,” says Peter Gracey, an engineer with Bechtel and co-founder of the firm’s new BProud business resource group. “If you’re going to expend energy in hiding parts of yourself, that’s useful energy that could be devoted to other things.”
In addition, diverse teams tend to be more productive and benefit from people with different backgrounds and viewpoints, he says. “If you want to encourage people from different backgrounds to come into your organization, you need to be able to demonstrate that you’ve got that welcoming, inclusive environment. Otherwise you’re not going to recruit from all areas of society.”
Worst Kind of Conversation
Despite changing attitudes in the front office, LGBTQ+ workers at construction jobsites still face significant challenges. Mykka Ellis, who joined the Ironworkers Union as a trans woman in 2016, says she got a lot of support when they would send her out to jobsites. “My union was very firm on my gender, who I was and how I was to be treated,” she says. Once on site though, some of the other tradeworkers were shocked to see a trans woman ironworker. “Trans women are perceived and pressured to be hyper feminine, and I am working in a hyper masculine trade,” Ellis says. While many of the questions and comments could be chalked up to curiosity, she says “the worst kind of conversation I’ve had would be people just straight up coming up to me and asking me, ‘What do you have down there?’ ”
When Mercedes Greene first entered the trades in New York City more than a decade ago, she first experienced being treated differently as a woman. Then, when male workers learned she was a lesbian, a few would refuse to work with her. “You have to remember what construction was and where it is now. There’s a big difference. But you have a lot of old-school guys who still run work, and they don’t understand the theory of [inclusiveness].” She’s now a project laborer foreman running an inclusive crew with Turner, which she says “leads the industry” in acceptance of women and LGBTQ+ individuals.
Both Ellis and Greene have since proven themselves as hard workers who excel at their jobs. But in an effort to make entering the trades less traumatic for future prospects, industry groups have initiated programs to make worksites more inclusive. For example, the Ironworkers Union’s Be That One Guy training program encourages all workers to speak out if they observe any type of bullying, harassment or homophobia. If a worker’s “head isn’t in the game” due to harassment, “that can have deadly consequences” to jobsite safety, says Vicki L. O’Leary, the union’s general organizer for diversity.
Ellis, who had been fired from several jobs for being a trans woman and was living in “trans-poverty” prior to joining the union, says “having someone who advocates for you at work completely turned that around.”
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