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Former BP CEO Lord Browne refers to it as living in the ‘glass closet’. He is referring to lesbian, gay and bisexual people who don’t ‘come out’ at work, but instead hide their sexual orientation from colleagues for fear of discrimination or bullying.

Browne never revealed his sexual orientation for the 38 years he worked at BP for exactly these reasons. "It was immediately obvious to me that it was unacceptable to be gay in business and most definitely the oil business," he has said. Is his a common story?

The lack of conversation about lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people, not just in business, but in the oil and gas and engineering industries, makes it very hard to tell. There are currently no available statistics on LGB people in any of these industries, and the relevant unions can provide very little, if any, information about the experience of their LGB members.

One insight comes from a survey conducted by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) published in June. It found that one in three gay engineers hide their sexuality and that 35% of the 356 respondents said they had not come out at work compared to 45 % who had.

Eight per cent reported discrimination, while 18% felt it created barriers to career progression.

Peter Purton, who covers disability and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights at TUC, said he found it interesting to observe from the IET survey that the experience of gay or bisexual engineers seems to be similar to other sectors, and it’s not a wholly positive experience.

With women making up just four percent of the total UK oil and gas workforce, attracting engineers from the female talent pool is a complex goal.

He refers to a report that summarises the findings of a national study into the workplace experiences of LGBT employees called the ‘Ups and Downs of LGBT’ Work Place Experiences‘. The report, which doesn’t cover the oil and gas industry, found one in five respondents were closeted and that LGBTs were more than twice as likely to be bullied and discriminated against than heterosexual employees.

Purton says he has not come across an LGBT trade unionist who works in the engineering or oil and gas sectors.

The Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index 2014, which scores companies points based on their LGBT equality policies, shows a glaring lack of LGBT equality policy from the oil and gas and engineering industries. Only one oil company received a 100% score – Chevron – and no companies in the engineering and construction category received a perfect score. Exxon Mobil deserves a special mention for its – 25 rating. This can be compared to the law and banking and finance sectors which had 81 and 36 companies with a 100% score respectively.

Keeping in the closet

Reading the comments on an article about the IET survey in The Engineer published on the 23rd of July it is clear how many people in these industries feel that talking about their sexuality isn’t a possibility with one citing "openly intolerant colleagues". Some people even expressed the belief that "work is work," and "not a social healing centre," as one commenter put it, suggesting sexual orientation shouldn’t be discussed at all.

US-based Dr Joshua C Collins of the College of Education and Health Professionals at the University of Arkansas, who has done research on homosexuality in masculinised industries, says it is not only straight people who feel talk about sexual orientation isn’t a ‘work appropriate’ topic but that many LGB people also feel this way.

Collins says: "to any person who feels this way, straight and gender-conforming or LGBT, I would ask: ‘Does the same expectation of silence about personal life exist for heterosexual employees?’ Many times, it does not."

Consciously hiding ones true self can have a negative effect on the workforce.

"Frequently, those who choose not to disclose may report that they are satisfied with their jobs but that they feel like they are not being authentic at work," says Collins.

Browne believes being open about ones sexual orientation can lead to improved efficiency. He told Bloomberg that when "people can be themselves, they’re not using half their brain trying to figure out how to be something they’re not." He added that studies show they can be 30% more productive.

Browne has said hiding his sexuality made him ‘unhappy’ and that in the end, it didn’t work.

Take action for progress

What can be done to change this pattern and open up these particularly masculine industries so LGBT people feel able to be themselves?

Perhaps looking to other industries and their successful campaigns would be a start. Gap, for example, launched Gap Gay Employees, Allies & Resources (GEAR) in 2006 to encourage an inclusive and supportive environment for LGBT people and their supporters. IBM has 43 LGBT diversity network groups around the world promoting LGBT equality and encouraging executives to come out.

"It was immediately obvious to me that it was unacceptable to be gay in business and most definitely the oil business."

Other companies have openly shown their support for LGBT equality issues in the media. In 2012 Google launched a campaign called Legalize Love to support LGBT rights, and both Gap and Apple showed public support for the scrapping of the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, which denies things such as Social Security benefits to same-sex couples legally married. Apple even donated money to the campaign.

Browne in the past has said simply: "It comes down to a simple maxim – don’t do anything that excludes people."

Heather Williams, policy and research manager at the Lesbian and Gay Foundation offers some other advice: "Surveys such as that carried out by the IET is a good first step at understanding the issues LGB people face, but they need to be followed-up by concerted action from the companies to address discrimination and promote acceptance.

"Equality and diversity training for staff, and celebrating days such as International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia can be great ways to raise awareness among staff and start conversations going."

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