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‘Homophobia, sexism and racism are rife in the construction industry. It’s time for change.’

Andy Leake has experienced homophobia first-hand and is calling for more support for queer people, women and those from ethnic minorities in construction.

Voices

I know better than anyone that the construction industry has a bad reputation. As a gay man, whenever I say I’m working as a builder it’s met with surprise and questions about how I cope with the work culture.

The answer to that question is a complicated one. When I worked at a construction site in New Zealand and experienced widespread casual homophobia and racism, I reported it to the site managers. I was pulled into a meeting room, sat down, and told that if I was upset by the issues I was experiencing, I should consider leaving the industry.

I was told the issue was so deep-rooted there was nothing that could be done. So there it was, from the horse’s mouth: this was a work environment I didn’t belong in, and on top of that I couldn’t be offered the protection or support I needed.

I’m a great worker, but every time I hear a discriminatory comment I have a full body reaction. It’s a mixture of sadness and frustration that people still think like this.

Moving back to the UK and working in construction in Bristol, I was sadly unsurprised to hear casually homophobic comments around the sites. It’s an intimidating environment to be in as a queer person, to the point where I don’t feel comfortable coming out to my colleagues.

This is reflected in research from 2015 where only 14% of employees said they’d be open about their sexuality on site. I have come out on work sites before, and was just met with uncomfortable silences before people quickly moved the conversation on. 

This indicates a wider issue in the industry: it’s dominated by a masculine culture that is, at times, rife with toxicity. Comments like, “We’re not sissies, are we?” when talking about being scared of heights walking round scaffolding, or “Where’s your boyfriend?”, “*Insert name* is gay,” without my coworkers knowing I’m gay.

I consistently hear homosexuality used as a punchline, as something to be laughed at or be disgusted by.

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Systemic mental health issues

Construction worker suicide rates are three times higher than the national average. It’s a shocking statistic that reflects a toxic work culture. In an environment where everyone is constantly roasting each other, which could be seen as harmless fun, the things people are saying reveal how deeply the roots of discrimination run.

Depression and anxiety are now more prevalent in the industry than physical issues like muscle strain. The whole site will consistently pick on people who are different, like playground bullying all over again. Because everyone assumes you’re straight, they will talk freely, objectifying women in a completely degrading way and egging each other on. 

It’s going to take years, even decades to alter the work culture of the construction industry. As I was told when I reported the issue, these people have been saying the same things since primary school. They tell the same homophobic, misogynistic and racist ‘jokes’ that they had in the playground.

I think sites would really benefit from those in a pastoral role holding meetings to educate workers about the impacts of discrimination. I’m a great worker, but every time I hear a discriminatory comment I have a full body reaction. It’s a mixture of sadness and frustration that people still think like this.

It would be hugely beneficial to have a queer construction worker travelling around site-to-site and providing insight and education on casual homophobia, racism or misogyny. 

Ways to build better workplaces

On a site I worked on, I was on-boarded alongside a woman. She was told if anyone gave her any grief, she should report it to the site manager staff. This was a great procedure and showed that women were protected on that site. I think all it takes is to include an introduction where you’re told if you face any discrimination in terms of gender, race or sexuality, that you should report it.

It’s a miniscule gesture, but even mentioning the possibility that you could be gay helps to invoke the idea it’s a safe space, a work environment where you can exist as a queer person. 

I want to be clear that I don’t want this to be a hate piece on everyone working in the construction industry. It would be a cheap shot to suggest everyone is an awful caricature of discrimination. I’ve met some incredibly empathetic and emotional people on building sites. 

I think a lot of the issue comes from a lack of education and ignorance rather than purely malicious intent. It’s a deep-rooted issue that permeates through the generations. It represents a lack of exposure to people from across the gender, sexuality and ethnic minority spectrum.

I don’t believe it is the individual’s or even the company’s fault. Rather it’s an industry-wide failure to be responsible for educating employees. It’s through generating conversations like this that we can help the industry progress. 

Change needs to happen. I often think of other people in my situation, facing a hostile work environment without feeling they have the support or pastoral care they need. It’s a dangerous cocktail in an industry with a disproportionately high suicide rate and poor mental health.

If you are an LGBT+ worker struggling in the industry, organisations like Building Equality act as a great resource and are helping to lead change in the industry. Through encouraging those working in management positions to take action and educate their employees, we can move towards a healthier, happier construction industry.

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