Thursday, August 18, 2011

How a Support Group for Gays in Aviation Took Flight

Photo by Dennis Drenner Evan Futterman started GALA to support industry members who identify as gay and lesbian.

Graphic by Justin Reynolds An ENR Special Feature. Related Links: Main Story: Where a New Inclusiveness Is Changing the Face of the Construction Industry Minorities Lament their Low Numbers in Engineering and Construction How a Support Group for Gays in Aviation Took Flight Korean-Americans Build Cultural Inroads in U.S. Construction Chinese-Americans Find Themselves Bridging the Gap Between the U.S. and China An Ecuadorian Immigrant and AGC Iowa Create a Multicultural Curriculum for Jobsite Communication

For years, he says, he hid his identity. Today, however, he runs his own consultancy, has a dozen clients and feels free to introduce his partner publicly without fear of losing business.

In 2009, he started Gays and Lesbians in Aviation (GALA), a support group under the auspices of the American Association of Airport Executives and the Airports Council International. "I believe that a part of human dignity is respecting and caring for each other just as [we] are and not imposing our own values on [others]," says Thella Bowens, chief operating officer of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and a high-level member of both associations.

Although many LGBTs in the engineering and construction world report overall positive experiences, they also have faced homophobia. "Engineering is a broad field, and support for LGBT equality varies widely both in terms of formal policy and in terms of workplace culture," wrote Donna M. Riley in a 2008 scholarly article for the journal Leadership and Management in Engineering. Engineering sectors, "particularly those close to … defense and construction, tend to be more conservative, fostering more of a 'don't ask, don't tell' culture," she wrote.

But researchers note that such a culture results in less productive workers and, ultimately, a less productive company. "Closeted workers suffer anxiety about how colleagues and managers might judge them and expend enormous effort concealing their orientation, which leaves them less energy for actual work," researchers wrote in this month's Harvard Business Review.

Rochelle Diamond, chair of the group Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, says she was once outed and laid off. "If I get married in a state that allows it, what happens if I get sent to another state? What if my employer sends me to a country where I could be arrested and killed for who I am?"

GLBTs in the industry are not looking to flaunt their identities. "What we don't want is special treatment," says Futterman. "We just want fair treatment."

Elaine Roberts, chief operating officer at the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, thanked her partner during a speech at an American Association of Airport Executives conference in 2007. "I'm not secretive about her, but I don't talk a lot about it," she says.

But many remain closeted, especially outside major cities. An aviation manager in the Midwest says he lost a job abruptly over his sexual identity. In his current job, he reports to a director who is older and conservative; he's worried about being accepted as out. "It doesn't take five or six people to let you go."

He adds: "Nobody wakes up and chooses to be gay. It doesn't define me completely, but I wish it wouldn't be a career detriment."

City governments are widely inclusive, notes Ginger Evans, senior vice president,Parsons Corp."Companies who want to connect with cities in a meaningful way will follow their lead."