Designing a Diverse Future for Architecture

For Hord Coplan Macht’s get-to-know-our-architects series, The Cool Box, subjects are asked to answer a series of standard questions about their lives and careers. When we interviewed Housing/Mixed-Use Studio Architect Melanie Ray, she asked if she could add her own question:

What is one thing you hope to change in the industry?

HCM Architect Melanie Ray serves as a panelist for the Women of Color in Art & Design Symposium at her alma mater, Penn State University. Photo by: Stephanie Swindle Thomas, courtesy of Penn State College of Arts and Architecture

Ray inserted this question for a reason. There are little over 450 registered black women architects in the country, of 113,554 registered architects nationwide (NCARB). While the overall representation of people of color categorized as new record holders (refers to those who have an NCARB account and are pursuing licensure through work experience and examinations) has increased to one in five last year, there is a significant drop off before licensure. The trend has not gone unnoticed, prompting national and local response, including HCM’s own initiative to develop a Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

“A more diverse workplace is a richer workplace. We need a richness of perspective in design work and we need to be thinking about how we as a profession and a firm affect that,” Hord Coplan Macht founder and CEO Lee Coplan said of the formation of the committee.

The committee is tasked with addressing diversity within the workplace, but also has a larger mission: to identify and address the reasons why minority children and teens are not seeking a career in architecture.

“In 1968, Whitney Young addressed the [American Institute of Architects] convention; at that time, only 2 percent of architects were black. Fifty years later -- two percent. It’s a problem,” Coplan said. “It’s not enough to just seek out diversity already in the profession, we have to look further up the pipeline. We need to look at how we can get grade school kids interested in design.”

Once in the field, however, minority students face further barriers. Though ascribed to a multitude of factors, Ray cites two specific prohibitive areas: a lack of mentors in the industry, coupled with the lack of access or knowledge of opportunities to field work and internships.

“When you don’t see representation, it’s intimidating,” Ray said. “We almost need a ‘Hidden Figures’ for architecture. Something that can get more black girls to say, ‘I could do that.’ I want to help young women, specifically women of color, know that they deserve to be here and that their perspective is important.”

Photo by: Stephanie Swindle Thomas, courtesy of Penn State College of Arts and Architecture

Her observations are supported by a comprehensive study conducted by the AIA in 2016 which examined the lack of diversity, perception of lack of diversity, and factors that affect career advancement for minorities, specifically minority women. The study adds to Ray’s list of obstacles for women of color the lack of opportunities for internal advancement, lower pay, poor work/life balance for mothers, and few women--specifically minority women--in leadership roles. The recently-published 2018 Equity in Architecture Survey confirmed little progress in these areas, citing disconcerting findings like, “women with master’s degrees reported lower salaries than men with bachelor’s degrees across all experience levels.”

Masters Degrees Mean Less for Women in Architecture

Source: Architect Magazine, AIASF Equity by Design Releases 2018 Equity in Architecture Survey Findings

“Architecture is a traditionally white, male field. It involves a lot of long hours and there’s a lot of pressure to maintain that commitment. HCM has recently launched a family leave policy that would provide [in addition to what HCM already offers] paid time off for parents for birth, adoption, surrogacy and bonding,” HCM Director of Human Resources Erika Misewich said. “The industry needs to catch up to the times, and we want HCM to be a leader in these efforts. The design profession needs to make it more accessible and accommodating to a range of people.”

Racial & Ethnic Diversity at Early Career Stages

(Source: NCARB) While the percentage of minorities classified as “new record holders’ has increased, the numbers drop off significantly at the certification point.

Working Toward Solutions - A National Movement

How can the industry improve diversity and aid in the success of minorities already within the profession? While conversations about increasing diversity are commonplace in recruitment language and in mission statements, words alone do not attract and sustain diversity. The AIA and organizations like the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) are working towards actionable strategies to develop sustainable and effective solutions.

For example, the 2016 AIA study outlined the following strategies:

• Develop a mentorship program for women in firms.

• Offer credentials for architects who wish to return to the profession after taking an extended leave of absence.

• Provide clear written criteria for promotion.

• Offer industry-funded college scholarships for women interested in studying architecture.

• Attract more women professors to teach in accredited architecture programs.

The AIA also passed a resolution to promote more women of color to leadership positions. Notably not a quota program, the AIA is effectively encouraging its members and member organizations to “identify, recruit and encourage talented minority women to pursue higher levels of leadership.” The intent? To “support the Institute’s commitment to diversity and inclusion by calling for the implementation of a plan to develop a national leadership pipeline of ethnically diverse women candidates for national governance positions.”

Significant lobbying efforts from the AIA and other organizations helped push Congress to pass H.R.2353, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act, which formally recognizes architecture as a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Program. Architecture has always represented the intersection of several specialties, but the formal recognition will open greater funding and increase resources for architecture.

From Policy to Practice – Translating Initiatives to Outcomes

Initiatives and policies implemented by the AIA and other national bodies affect change on a macro level, but significant and lasting improvement requires commitment at the firm and individual level.

“I think a lot of people aren’t actively thinking about it because it’s not affecting them directly. They see women and people of color in the office and think we’re doing better. But that’s not enough, we need to ask ourselves, do we truly go out of our way to recruit, include, promote women and minorities?” Misewich said.

The 2016 AIA study found a significant difference between men and women regarding the perceived representation of women in the industry. Though representation is increasing, it is not equitable, especially in leadership roles for women of all races.

Lack of awareness and acknowledgment of implicit biases present a significant barrier to progression. Two HCMers, Valerie Kirkley and Hilary Zoretic serve as co-chairs for AIA Baltimore’s Equity Committee, which recently hosted a three-part series on implicit bias, a training they hope to bring firmwide.

“We really wanted to focus on actionable strategies for implementation [with the Implicit Bias Training Series]. Things that people could take back to the office and actually use to improve themselves and their firms,” Zoretic said.

Architects are designing spaces to learn, live and care for people of all ages, races, religious affiliations and ability levels. When diversity is reduced to a numbers game, it degrades the impact and importance diverse perspective brings to the design table.

“When you talk about diversity in terms of hitting numbers, it turns meaningless. It turns it into an issue that can be solved by hitting a quota, but that’s not diversity, that’s not inclusion,” said Misewich. “How do we truly integrate people in a way that isn’t so divisive—that doesn’t turn the conversation into ‘us’ versus ‘them’? For starters, we need to act a lot more than we talk.”

It is often handed to the minorities within a group to weigh in and take action on issues of representation, an undo and often unsolicited responsibility.

"We've learned from the Implicit Bias in the Workplace series that we all have the responsibility to address issues of inequity in the profession. Implicit bias training is mainly about awareness, recognizing how unconscious biases may affect your decisions and interactions with others,” said Kirkley.

HCM’s Diversity and Inclusion committee, made up of people from all backgrounds, will be committed to tackling these questions and turning talk into action.

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