The need for support networks

Christina Riley explains how her life improved immeasurably after - with proper support and in a supportive space - she came out in a traditionally male dominated world.

The construction industry can feel like a bastion of traditional male dominance. After 22 years working successfully at a high level in the sector, Chris Riley found his health was suffering. With the support of an LGBT+ network, Chris overcame fear and came out. Christina found her health improve immeasurably. She went to run the LGBT+ Construct Network and encourages people who need them to find allies in the workplace.

Tell us who you are and about your experience

My name is Christina Riley. I am a senior planner in the construction industry, and graduated at the University of the West of England in 1993. After 22 years in construction and engineering I came out in my workplace as transgender. I went through my transition while keeping my job role and career within the same company.

I did a building engineering and management degree while I was in Bristol. This gave me great opportunities due to my course, including an industrial placement in my third year.

In my male gender I spent the first three years being a trainee site engineer working at Oxford University St John's College and then in Coventry converting a grade one listed building into a hotel.

I then worked as an assistant site manager on projects including British Airways World Cargo Centre. I then moved into planning engineering and worked on scheduling and logistics on several retail projects including Lakeside Shopping Centre and several large M & S stores. After completing a period of three years on the Olympic Village I changed companies.

It was in my new role that I found myself able to attend the company's LGBT+ network, and it was at the launch of the network that I came out as transgender. Six months later I would leave work as Chris, and return two weeks later as Christina.

Two years on and I am now co-chair of the LGBT+ network and have had many doors opened through networking with other established groups, as well as helping a number to launch.

Why is this important to you?

This is important to me because for 22 years I couldn't find a safe space to come out as transgender. LGBT+ groups just didn't exist in construction and engineering. And even now there are only a few networks out there among the hundreds of businesses in the sector.

While I contemplated coming out for so long, I found my anxiety building, making me very ill. Coming out cured my anxiety overnight, and so it is important to recognise mental health can be impacted through not having inclusive spaces in the workplace.

Taking part in 'Out in Stem' allows LGBT+ people to raise the visibility in our sector, and if this helps one person to come out and be themselves, then it is worthwhile.

I now run the LGBT+ Construct Network and am the construction representative on the InterEngineering committee. The latter supports and empowers LGBT+ people in engineering. I am also involved in the OffSite Network and National Student Pride.

What challenges have you faced in your career?

The greatest challenge has been overcoming my own fears and my anxiety of being a transgender person in construction - an industry that traditionally is very male dominated. The sector also lacks safe spaces to come out without fear of discrimination. The LGBT+ network gave me the gift to be myself for the first time in my life, after years of secrecy and stress.

How does the profession need to progress / develop?

The profession needs to progress in many ways. Firstly, the talent pool has LGBT+ people wanting to progress their careers in STEM. So, increasing visibility of inclusion for LGBT+ people can only be a good thing.

Secondly, there is a skills shortage, and so we want to attract and retain people of all backgrounds - including LGBT+.

Thirdly, organisations need to pool their resources so that there is an industry-wide strategy of inclusion, creating cultural and real change. This starts with educating children from primary school age that STEM careers are for everyone. And, finally, educating senior leaders, line managers and grass roots workers on LGBT+ issues will help with tackling unconscious bias in the industry.

What one piece of advice would you give to others?

My advice is to seek out an ally to help you to be yourself in the workplace. And if this is proving to be difficult, contact one of the LGBT+ industry networks like InterEngineering, Off Site or OUT in STEM and will find many safe spaces to support you in STEM.