The United States has come a long way in advancing LGBT rights in the last few years: sixteen states (counting almost-there Illinois and Hawaii) now have full marriage equality laws, the US military repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), and the Supreme Court both ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional and allowed the overturn of California’s Proposition 8. However, while we have federal laws in place against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin, color, and religion, we have historically fallen short in passing federal laws to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees in the workplace. According to a recent poll, most Americans support this legislation, and a surprising 80% of those polled think that such federal workplace discrimination protections are already in place. Despite some states enacting workplace protections for LGBT employees to make up for the lack of federal protections, 29 states still allow workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 34 states lack workplace protection based on gender identity. How does this affect nuclear engineering professionals? A large portion of the US nuclear workforce lives and works in states without this important legislation in place to protect the LGBT minority from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
We are now at a critical juncture. Just last week, the US Senate passed a historic measure to end workplace discrimination, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), in a 64:32 vote. Now, it is up to the House to vote on it. Unfortunately, Speaker John Boehner and many of his fellow Republican Representatives oppose the legislation for reasons that make little sense.
Why is it imperative that we, the nuclear community, speak up about the ENDA issue? The US nuclear workforce (nuclear power and technology companies, vendors, utilities, and national laboratories) is scattered among states where state-level nondiscrimination laws may not exist. Although not comprehensive, current Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that a significant portion of nuclear engineering professionals live and work in states where they are not protected against discrimination in the workplace. Among them, according to a recent Gallup Poll, an average of 3.5% is estimated to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. (Keep in mind that these are self-reported data, and the actual numbers may be much higher in reality.) This means that too many of our friends and colleagues are either not hired, denied a promotion, or go to work every day knowing that they could be fired as a result of someone’s personal judgement about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In the private sector, some corporations craft their own nondiscrimination policies to fill in the gaps presented by the potpourri of state-level nondiscrimination laws. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) ranks US corporations based on its equal treatment of LGBT employees with the Corporate Equality Index (CEI). According to the 2013 CEI report, we can applaud the nuclear-related companies which rank highly on the CEI: Illinois-based Exelon as well as California-based Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric all have perfect scores. (These corporations meet all the rating criteria, which go well beyond the bare minimum of nondiscrimination policies.) Companies such as Entergy, Dominion, Duke Energy, and General Electric are close behind (though they mostly lack transgender-inclusive health insurance coverage). Unfortunately, there are countless more corporations in the nuclear industry that did not make it to the CEI report at all. Some relevant corporations have not responded to repeated invitations to participate in the CEI survey, and are thus unofficially ranked with a very low score (based on public information). A federal nondiscrimination law would at the very least require all LGBT employees to be protected from discrimination in any workplace scenario (with some exemptions such as at religious organizations).
In general, diversity is essential to the health of any workplace. It is important for the nuclear industry to understand that young talent will undoubtedly be attracted and retained more successfully if there is clear advocacy for diversity, which includes support for the LGBT community. Protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from potentially losing their job due to discrimination would be a step in the direction for needed cultural shift in the nuclear workplace. It is fitting to note that the NuclearPride executive committee has received overwhelmingly positive feedback, from both the LGBT nuclear community and its allies, simply for the creation of NuclearPride and its positive contribution to the image of the nuclear community. We, as young professional nuclear engineers, believe that generating excitement for an inclusive and dynamic workplace is essential for the attractiveness of the field and overall morale in the workplace. The more the nuclear industry can make itself a collection of diversity-supportive employers, the more the field will benefit from young talent and grow in the long term.
Nuclear engineers, call your representatives! You have strong arguments in favor of passing ENDA. We are, as a country, without protections for our LGBT workforce, and many of our own colleagues are affected by working in states without this protection. An overwhelming portion of the US population supports expanding already-existing workplace nondiscrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity, and it is time that our representatives in Congress start listen to their constituents. As nuclear engineers and LGBT leaders in your community, we implore you to action to bring the United States of America one step closer toward full equality for all its citizens.