I know better than anyone that the construction industry has a bad reputation. As a gay man, every time I say I work as a builder, it brings surprise and questions about how I deal with the work culture.
The answer to this question is complicated. When I worked on a construction site in New Zealand and experienced occasional widespread homophobia and racism, I reported it to site managers. I was taken to a meeting room, sat down, and told that if I was upset with the issues I was having, I should consider leaving the industry.
I was told that the problem was so ingrained that there was nothing to be done. So there you have it, out of 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.
Back in the UK and working in construction in Bristol, I was sadly not surprised to hear homophobic comments on the sites. It’s an intimidating environment as a queer person, to the point where I don’t feel comfortable coming out to my colleagues.
This is reflected in a 2015 study where only 14% of employees said they would be open about their sexuality on site. I’ve been out on construction sites before and encountered awkward silences before people quickly moved the conversation along.
This points to a larger problem in the industry: it’s dominated by a male culture that is, at times, plagued with toxicity. Comments like “We’re not sissies, are we?” when talking about being afraid of heights while walking around scaffolding, or “Where’s your boyfriend?”, “*Insert name* is gay”, without my co-workers knowing I’m gay.
I constantly hear homosexuality used as a punchline, as something to be laughed at or disgusted with.
Systemic mental health issues
Suicide rates among construction workers 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, people’s words reveal how deep the roots of discrimination run.
Depression and anxiety are now more prevalent in the industry than physical issues like muscle fatigue. The entire site will consistently go after different people, like bullying on the playground yet again. Because everyone assumes you’re straight, they’ll speak freely, objectifying women in a completely demeaning way and encouraging each other.
It will take years, if not decades, to change the working culture of the construction industry. As I was told when I reported the issue, these people have been saying the same things since elementary 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 on the impacts of discrimination. I’m a great worker, but every time I hear a discriminatory comment I get a full body reaction. It’s a mixture of sadness and frustration that people still think like that.
It would be extremely beneficial to have a queer construction worker traveling from site to site and providing information and education on casual homophobia, racism or misogyny.
Ways to create better workplaces
At one site I worked on, I was onboarded alongside a woman. She was told that if anyone was causing her grief, she should report it to the site manager’s staff. It was a great procedure and showed that women were protected on this site. I think all it takes is to include an introduction where you are told if you face discrimination in terms of gender, race or sexuality, that you should report it.
It’s a tiny gesture, but even mentioning the possibility that you might be gay helps invoke the idea that this is 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 article about everyone who works in the construction industry. It would be a low blow to suggest that everyone is an ugly caricature of discrimination. I have met incredibly empathetic and emotional people on construction sites.
I think a lot of the problem stems from a lack of education and ignorance rather than purely malicious intent. It’s a deep-rooted problem that cuts across generations. This represents a lack of exposure to people of all genders, sexualities and ethnic minorities.
I don’t believe this is the fault of the individual or even the company. Rather, it is an industry-wide failure to be responsible for employee education. It’s by generating conversations like this that we can help the industry move forward.
Change must happen. I often think of others 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 a struggling LGBT+ worker in the industry, organizations like Building Equality act as a great resource and help lead change in the industry. By encouraging those in leadership positions to take action and educate their employees, we can move towards a healthier and happier construction industry.