Timothy Meyer started a new job last year, soon after he received his master's in electrical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. At work, he doesn't bring up his personal life, because he's afraid of being discriminated against or even fired. Meyer is gay.
These days, engineers and the organizations that employ them may accept the need to diversify the profession in terms of race, gender, religion, and physical abilities, but sexual orientation remains a prickly topic�witness the recent controversy over gay marriage in the U.S. elections. For Meyer, who asked that his real name and his company's name not be mentioned, engineering hasn't provided the warmest welcome. He recalls male classmates in engineering school joking about gays in front of him, oblivious to his sexual orientation. Things might be tougher for gay men in engineering, a profession that is traditionally "white, male, and conservative," Meyer says, because "gay [men] are stereotypically considered feminine and weak and more into artsy stuff."
And yet, according to the Corporate Equality Index for 2004, published by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a Washington, D.C., advocacy organization for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community, attitudes are shifting. The index scores firms based on their treatment of GLBT employees, and almost all high-tech companies in the Fortune 500 were rated "above average." Many high-tech employers, for example, now include gays and lesbians in their diversity efforts.
There's still room for improvement, though. In the HRC index, most of the tech employers that offer benefits to gays (such as health-care coverage for domestic partners) still don't include transgendered individuals in their equal-employment policies. And many smaller companies still don't have basic nondiscrimination policies for sexual orientation.
The fact remains that in the U.S. workplace, as in society, gays and lesbians are not yet recognized as a group that deserves benefits and legal protection. "It is still legal in 36 states to fire employees who are gay," says Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director of HRC's WorkNet, a program that provides up-to-date information on workplace policies and laws throughout the United States. The European Union, by contrast, passed a law in 2000 banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation in all its member states.
For GLBT Engineers, legislation alone isn't enough. They also seek an accepting and tolerant work environment. After software engineer Jane Icenogle [see photo, " Happy at Last"]started working at Lucent Technologies Inc. (then AT&T) in 1982, she spent the first six or seven years of her career "in the closet." Even though she hadn't seen overt discrimination, she didn't tell co-workers she was a lesbian, because she didn't feel that most people were aware of, and comfortable with, gay and lesbian issues.
People today are much more accepting of the GLBT community, Icenogle says. After she came out, she says, her productivity went up, she got promoted, her colleagues found her easier to get along with, and she felt more a part of the team. "I don't think most folks realize how much energy you spend when you're in the closet at work and you're filtering everything you say," she says. "Before I came out, people thought I was antisocial because I didn't talk a lot."
Icenogle is now cochair of Lucent's GLBT support group, where gay employees can raise workplace issues of interest to them. Such employee support groups are sprouting in a lot of large corporations. To ensure that other nongay employees become familiar with GLBT issues, Icenogle suggests that companies include sexual orientation in their diversity training programs, as well as provide workshops and talks on gay issues for all employees and their families and friends.
As social attitudes regarding sexuality change , employers will inevitably have to adapt. "Younger people are more aware of their sexuality, and are coming out more and more," notes Barbara Belmont, treasurer of the National Organization for Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals Inc., a group that works to eliminate discrimination against homosexuals.
Engineering and science students make up about 10 percent of this 200-member organization. "In college, there is more room to spread your wings," Belmont says. When graduates join the workforce, however, they often have to comply with a more conservative culture and deal with a possibly hostile environment. To help students make the transition from school to the workplace, she says, working GLBT engineers should step up their networking and mentoring efforts.
Timothy Meyer, for one, believes attitudes toward gays will continue to improve. Although the small company he works for does not cover sexual orientation in its equality policies, he's encouraged by the fact that it does promote racial diversity. "Knowing that there are all kinds of people at work shows that my employer respects them for who they are and just makes me more comfortable," he says. "I think these things just take time."