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The case for cultural diversity

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In the first of a two-part series, we present the argument for encouraging women and ethnic groups into the profession

Two phrases frequently bandied about in equal opportunities are 'positive discrimination' and 'institutional racism'. Positive discrimination is the act of setting aside quotas for people from different ethnic groups, and is illegal in the UK.But positive action is encouraged, such as supporting children from minority ethnic groups to take up a career that they normally would not consider, such as architecture, or highlighting the work of architects from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is truly about creating equality of opportunities for all.

The Stephen Lawrence inquiry revealed mainstream 'institutional' racism. In this scenario 'institutional' refers to a set of actions or arrangements that are used repeatedly so that they become formalised.While a single school of architecture would not be an institution, the way architectural education is delivered would be. When we refer to institutional racism or discrimination, we are referring to the accepted ways of doing things that can create disadvantage for certain groups of people. Combating institutional discrimination is a way of ensuring fairness to all. At present, for example, architectural education would benefit from addressing gender and cultural issues, as only 34 per cent of its students are female and only 12 per cent are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

UKarchitecture figures compare badly with other professions and industries and even with other countries. For example in Malaysia, which is a predominantly Islamic country and where one would expect women to be lagging behind men, half its practising architects are women and the present head of the Malaysian Institute of Architects is female. Egypt, Turkey, Spain, Ireland, India, along with most other European and American countries have better figures than UK. So what has gone wrong in the UK? Women architects in the UKcite the lack of childcare and promotion opportunities and it is true that women who have the major share of child care are not supported with practices such as flexible working, creche facilities and financial support. Other professions such as medicine, law and banking are largely able to incorporate these within their practices.

For example, in one of the UK's largest architectural practices, which considers itself women-friendly, half the year-out students are female, women constitute about one quarter of the architects, but there are no women directors.Women suffer from redundancies, especially those who have returned from a career break.

Those from minority ethnic groups suffer double discrimination, as with other targeted groups on the basis of disability or sexuality.

Win-win There are many benefits to be gained from considering and implementing equal opportunities for architects. First, staff loyalty brings financial and long-term benefits to a practice. It has been estimated that it costs £20,000 to recruit and train a new member of staff. By looking after the mental and physical health of staff, absenteeism is reduced and so are court cases. The practice scores as a good employer by both prospective employees and clients.

Women architects can bring additional strengths as good negotiators and managers. Positive action and equal opportunities mean choosing the best person for the job.

Larger architectural offices need and can afford to provide childcare facilities, flexible working and training for people returning to work after a break. This can apply equally to men and women. Just over 60 per cent of architectural practices employ fewer than 10 staff but even they could accommodate flexible working, job sharing, and training. For female architects with partners working in architecture or related professions, some kind of job sharing can be achieved easily.

The process of promotion needs to be made transparent. Offering job security, settled job locations and encouraging application from women are actions that can be taken by all practices.

As far as the institution is concerned, positive action needs to be taken to encourage people from minority ethnic groups to enter architecture. At present the profession operates as if architects and clients from black and minority ethnic groups (who make up more than 6 per cent of UK population ) did not exist.

Mentoring schemes and job shadowing aimed at young girls and those from ethnic minority background will encourage more to enter the profession.Highlighting the work of those already in the industry and providing role models - within practice and education - could be significant in attracting a diverse group of people.

And architecture would be richer for the addition of diverse cultures into the design process. This does not mean superficial things such as the addition of domes and spires, but looking deeper into the process of design to celebrate, respect and promote the diversity that exists within the profession.

Sumita Sinha is the chairperson of Architects for Change. Tel 020 7603 5995.

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