When the Associated General Contractors of California unveiled a new partnership and initiative to help grow LGBTQ-owned construction companies earlier this month, a small number of its association firms pushed back, threatening to pull their membership.
“When we put it out there, we got hate mail from the construction community saying, ‘Stay in your lane,’” said Peter Tateishi, AGC California’s CEO. “We were told not to fall into spouting 'liberal propaganda.'”
Tateishi noted that in general, the organization has received overwhelming support for the initiative. But for those contractors who shunned the move, Tateishi said he has an unequivocal response.
“From our perspective, if we no longer align with you, then you shouldn’t be part of AGC of California,” Tateishi said. “This is the direction our board says we’re going in, and this is the culture that the industry is adopting and moving toward. If you don’t support that, this may not be your best home anymore.”
Tateishi’s words would be striking in any industry. But in construction, with its tough guy image, machismo culture on the jobsite and generally conservative politics, they’re downright defiant.
They also show how far construction has come as well as where it’s headed, during a period in the country where an openly gay official has been nominated for a Cabinet position and President Joe Biden has lifted the ban on transgendered individuals openly serving in the military.
A seat at the table
According to the California Public Utilities Commission, there are 465 certified LGBT business enterprises in its supplier clearinghouse database. The designation is similar to a minority business enterprise, used to widen inclusion of minority firms on government contracts.
Tateishi said his group partnered with BuildOUT California, an alliance of LGBTQ firms in AEC, in part to promote inclusion in large construction projects in California, and as a way to keep the industry relevant and vital.
“If we are not leading and driving the conversation on change and being better on how our culture must evolve, then the industry doesn’t have a future,” Tateishi said. “If you can’t see yourself represented here, you’re not going to pursue a career in this industry.”
The initiative is aimed at helping LGBTQ firms, which are often smaller companies, get a seat at the table, while providing resources to enable them to have equal footing with larger firms on jobs. For example, the partnership will provide relevant training to help LGBTQ construction companies bid and compete on major projects.
“Many LGBTQ firms haven’t had to prep to go into a large jobsite like San Francisco’s Chase Center, or Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, or a giant highway or dam project like up in Oroville,” Tateishi said. “This technical assistance and training will help them get their books in order and get their business side lined up so they can absolutely meet the prequalification to get on those jobsites.”
BuildOUT California, a consortium of construction executives that was launched in 2020 in the wake of the protests and social reckoning that emerged after George Floyd’s death in police custody, includes members from Turner Construction Co., Gilbane Building Co., Kitchell and Jacobs, among others.
“We were propelled to step forward and begin this journey because, let's be honest, the construction industry isn’t known for being welcoming to LGBTQ businesses,” said Paul Pendergast, BuildOUT California’s founder and president. “A lot of LGBTQ people are still very fearful that if they do step forward, they might lose clients or projects, or they might not get called up to be on the team.”
Indeed, according to a recent analysis by small business research firm AdvisorSmith, the role of construction manager is the 10th least diverse high paying profession nationally, with 91% of construction managers being White, and 90% male.
But for Sandra Escalante, CEO of Richmond, California-based Laner Electric Supply and a BuildOUT California founder, the potential pushback openly gay contractors face in the industry goes beyond just losing contracts.
“Someone sitting at that table could be so homophobic that they’re willing to kill or injure someone because of it,” Escalante said. “Even in California, there are still some guys out there that it might rub them the wrong way to find out their boss is gay.”
Construction has been plagued by racism and acts of hatred for decades, with a slew of nooses and other hate symbols showing up on construction sites throughout North America in 2020. Nationally, hate crimes have been growing, and were at their highest level in a decade in 2019, according to the FBI. Of those, 16.7%, or 1,195, were targeted at individuals due to their sexual orientation.
In Escalante’s 30 years of experience in construction, she says more commonly, though, she’s been overlooked at large project meetings, mistaken as an assistant, rather than a business owner.
“I’m small, I’m brown, I’m a woman and I can’t hide the fact that I’m a lesbian,” Escalante said. “So when I show up for those meetings, people look at me and go, ‘Why is the admin here?’” Her hope is that the partnership will enable other LGBTQ-owned businesses to openly operate and win business in the trades.
While an LGBTQ initiative in construction in California many not be surprising, the question for contractors on a national level is whether similar initiatives would be accepted in more conservative states.
From a business perspective, no contractor anywhere in the country can afford to have an exclusionary attitude, said Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs at the Associated General Contractors of America, the umbrella organization of which AGC of California is a member chapter.
“More than 50% of the industry is still having a hard time finding qualified labor,” Turmail said. “The last thing we need to do is fight that battle with one hand tied behind our back by not addressing significant percentages of the United States workforce.”
In 2020, AGC of America launched its Culture of CARE initiative to promote inclusivity in construction. Presently, 441 firms have committed to its inclusivity pledge providing a workplace that’s free from harassment, hazing and bullying. That number is up from 380 firms in October 2020.
Turmail said that while Culture of CARE is aimed at inclusion of all groups in construction, the initiative is also developing additional, more targeted programs.
“We certainly are working on measures to address more specific LGBTQ issues,” Turmail said.