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Race Diversity Survey: is architecture in denial?

Race Diversity Survey Green

Twenty-five years on from Stephen Lawrence’s death, the AJ, in partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, investigates attitudes to race within the profession. Richard Waite reports, with additional data analysis by Bruce Tether

Doreen Lawrence is unequivocal. The mother of Stephen Lawrence, the aspiring architect who died in a racially motivated attack 25 years ago, is ‘deeply concerned’ by the results of the AJ’s first race diversity survey. The findings paint a picture of a profession struggling with unacknowledged racism where architects from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds feel the colour of their skin hinders their career.

Comments provided by the 877 UK-based respondents to the questionnaire – launched in partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust (SLCT) and understood to be the first of its kind in architecture – give a unique insight into the ongoing challenges faced by many non-white architects.

You are always a ‘black’ architect, never an architect

Survey respondent

The survey points to an industry perceived as a predominantly white ‘old boys’ club’ which is largely unwilling to recognise it has a problem. One respondent says: ‘Race is the white elephant in the room that most people choose to ignore.’

Sonia Watson, chief executive of the SLCT, says the results of the survey echo the anecdotal evidence received by the trust but hopes the data will provoke the profession to act.

‘The first step is identification,’ she told the AJ. ‘The survey has provided us with the “current state” analysis. The second step is acceptance, and we cannot afford to ignore the findings. The third step is seeking solutions. The built environment can only thrive with representation from all those who are charged with creating the spaces and places we all share.’ 

Experiences of racism 

Of the nearly 900 UK-based architects, technologists and students who responded to the survey, more than a third identified themselves as coming from a BAME background. Nearly a quarter of these (23.4 per cent) said they thought racism was ‘widespread’ in the architecture profession.  

Diversity survey1

Diversity survey1

Further interrogation of the figures shows the proportion is even higher among black, African and Caribbean respondents, with 30 per cent of this group feeling racism was widespread. However, less than a tenth (9.2 per cent) of white respondents said racism was widely prevalent in architecture. Even so, almost all respondents, of all ethnicities, felt there was racism – at some level – within the profession.

I don’t feel comfortable challenging my colleagues about racist language. They’d think I’m on a crazy political tirade

Survey respondent

A similar proportion of both BAME respondents (56.6 per cent) and white respondents (57.2 per cent) acknowledged there was ‘some’ racism in architecture. 

While RIBA president Ben Derbyshire calls such results ‘not entirely unexpected’ as well as ‘troubling’, Shahed Saleem, director of Makespace Architects and senior research fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture, says they are shocking and ‘reveal a crisis. If 80 per cent of BAME and 66 per cent of white respondents identify racism in architecture, then there is a serious malaise in the profession.’ 

Diversity survey2

Diversity survey2

More specifically, the survey figures show that almost a quarter (24 per cent) of BAME respondents have been victims of racism at their place of work.

That figure rises significantly for those from a Black, African or Caribbean background where 30 per cent reported racially motivated incidents at work. A similar proportion of mixed-race respondents also said they had been victims of racism at work. The figure for Asian respondents was slightly less, at 20 per cent.  

I challenged my colleagues as they dressed up with blackfaces on a work event

Survey respondent

The anecdotal comments from respondents shine a further light on the problems. One says: ‘In a previous workplace I was the victim of direct, open, verbal, sustained racial abuse to the point that I had to leave.’

The survey also asked about experiences outside the studio and the data highlighted problems both on site and with clients. More than one in four (26 per cent) of UK-based BAME respondents said they had felt ‘uncomfortable when visiting construction sites because of people’s reactions to my race’.

Comments by respondents ranged from: ‘I’ve experienced racist comments when consulting with the community on proposed projects. This happens quite regularly, particularly in rural locations’, to ‘I’ve heard a contractor use the N-word’.  

Yet throughout the survey there are notable differences in perception of the industry between BAME and white respondents. As RIBA council member Stephanie Edwards says: ‘The contrast in opinions between different demographics is quite striking. There’s obviously a disparity in perception as to what racism is or what the barriers are.’

Among the anomalies is the frequency of racist language heard by architects at work. More than two in five (41 per cent) of UK-based BAME respondents said they had heard some racist language in their workplace in the past year, while only 20 per cent of UK-based white respondents said they had heard any.

As a black male I’ve felt that in any heated discussion I’m always considered ‘aggressive’, where my other colleagues are called ‘passionate’ and ‘bold’

Survey respondent

Whether inappropriate language and wider race-related problems would be dealt with properly if mentioned to management was also a concern for some. Asked whether their line manager ‘would be comfortable dealing with issues regarding race in the workplace’ a fifth (21 per cent) of UK-based BAME respondents disagreed.

Kieren Majhail, an architect at BDP, says: ‘One of the biggest issues with race diversity in the industry is that the majority do not care about the issue, unless they fall within that category. When I have mentioned it to people, they shrug it off, saying it’s not really a problem compared with gender diversity. White people don’t want to hear about race diversity, because it isn’t something they have to do anything about.’

Career progression

An overriding message from the survey is that BAME architects still feel they have huge hurdles to overcome to reach the profession’s more senior levels. Seven out of 10 UK-based BAME respondents said that being black and/or minority ethnic created barriers to career progression.

Again, this percentage is even higher for those identifying as black, African or Caribbean – with 81 per cent of these respondents (compared with 70 per cent of Asian and 64 per cent of mixed-race respondents) saying being BAME created barriers to career progression. Indeed, only 5 per cent of Black, African and Caribbean respondents disagreed with the statement.

Thomas Aquilina, architectural designer and urban researcher, and alumnus of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, describes the figures as ‘startling’, adding: ‘This inequality needs to be addressed – it must be a call to action.’ 

Diversity survey3

Diversity survey3

Further analysis of the data shows that almost two thirds (65 per cent) of BAME respondents from the UK said they couldn’t see any BAME colleagues at senior levels in their company and a comparable proportion (62 per cent) said they were discouraged by the lack of BAME architects in the profession.

As one respondent explains: ‘There is no support at all for BAME architects. Race is not identified in the workplace so there is the assumption that career progression is equal for a white versus black and minority ethnic person. In reality many invisible barriers exist including workplace culture, lack of role models, poor quality mentoring, fashion and lifestyle culture within the practice.’

Although the ARB has some information, there is still no precise data on the percentage of UK-based architects identifying as BAME. From the available figures it is understood to be about 6 per cent of the profession – half the proportion which makes up the UK’s population.

Many perpetrators of institutional racism may not even realise they are being oppressive and therein lies part of the problem 

Survey respondent

Education statistics from the RIBA show that, for some, career aspirations are blunted even before they reach full-time work. The figures show a 50 per cent drop-off rate from Part 1 to Part 2 for Black British males. 

Ann de Graft-Johnson, senior lecturer at the University of the West of England, comments: ‘It feels to me like we’re having the same conversations I was having in the 1980s. Today the student population is more diverse at least, but that doesn’t seem to be translating into employment and career pathways.’

Given the perception of a glass ceiling and the absence of successful, senior role models – it is perhaps unsurprising that more than a fifth (22 per cent) of UK-based BAME respondents said they wouldn’t recommend architecture as a profession, compared with 15 per cent of white respondents. 

Diversity survey5

Diversity survey5

Possible solutions?

Many of those completing the survey agreed the profession would not become more diverse until it wakes up to the issues. 

One respondent says: ‘The first step is for the industry to recognise that it has a serious problem and accept that it needs to be open-minded about ways in which it might change. Despite surveys like this and warm words, the sector is still solidly in denial; starting from the RIBA down.’

The RIBA, which has recently come under renewed allegations from presidential candidate Elsie Owusu that it is institutionally ‘racist and sexist’, replies that it already has a range of initiatives in place. These include its Practice Role Models programme, mentor training, and its Chartered Practice Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy Guide (see below).



Meanwhile, Saleem believes there needs to be a two-pronged approach to make the profession more diverse. He says: ‘Discrimination in the workplace is obviously a problem and needs to be tackled. There are strategies and legislation with which to address this; the question is how and what should be implemented. That needs to be explored.

‘However, we also need to address the embedded discriminatory nature of architectural culture. Who writes, records, disseminates and describes architecture and who is being reflected in this? We need to diversify what constitutes the subject of architecture so that people from a range of backgrounds can contribute, connect with, see themselves in, and be valued by it.’ 

One positive step already set to happen is the launch by the SLCT of a new diversity charter. The document aims to set out ‘practical, supportive steps to guide individuals, practices and organisations towards embracing and celebrating diversity in the workplace to build an environment which is fit for purpose’.

The comprehensive findings from this survey, planned as an annual investigation of race diversity in the profession, are compelling. The comments describe experiences which may be uncomfortable to hear but cannot be ignored. 

As Doreen Lawrence concludes: ‘It is extremely important to act upon the feedback the survey provides. My son was determined to pursue a career in architecture, so I call upon the industry he loved to change.’


Ike Obanye, director of London-based practice Iketecture and alumnus of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust

Ike obanye

Before I started my own practice, I worked for various architecture companies, both micro and multinational, and I was often the only employee from a BAME background – or one of two. Imagine that. 

Despite colleagues and fellow students struggling to say my name, which was weird because it’s only three letters, I feel very fortunate to have been trained by some exceptional architects and tutors. However, there is a certain power that comes from a sense of belonging – from seeing and being inspired by people that look like you in the classroom, in the office, in the boardroom and on site. 

Racism in architecture and within the UK population has become less overt through the generations. It is now more covert, which is reflected in the low number of BAME people in high-ranking positions. 

But glass ceilings can be broken and it’s up to BAME architects to stand up and contribute to the profession by starting their own practices, creating more opportunities for those aspiring, and simply changing the rules of the game, just like David Adjaye, Asif Khan and the late Zaha Hadid have done. 

Wouldn’t it be great if this list were longer?

As leaders in our industry we have the responsibility to not only reflect the societies we serve but to be the example and stimulus of a better world. 

There is no single solution to remedy racism in architecture but here are three action points:

  1. All BAME people in practice need to become more visible, vocal, and accessible to inspire those in training, those aspiring to enter the profession, and our wider communities.  
  2. Studying architecture is a financial challenge, so programmes providing assistance and mentorship make a difference – as they did for me through The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.
  3. Widening the curriculum to study the architectural history of India, Asia, and Africa (and not just the Western tradition) could alter people’s perceptions. 

These are all ‘baby steps’. But only when we learn to stand together by seeing each other as equals will we be able to walk and rise together, as one people and as one industry. 

Ben Derbyshire, RIBA President 

Ben derbyshire 024 v2 small

These results are not entirely unexpected, but no less troubling for that. There is no place for racism, discrimination or unfair treatment in our profession. I am committed to working with Architects for Change – the RIBA’s advisory group on diversity – and the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust to stamp out racism. 

The RIBA has a range of initiatives in place to tackle discrimination and increase diversity including our Practice Role Models programme, mentor training and our Chartered Practice Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy Guide. The development of the Apprenticeship Standards in architecture, led by a Trailblazer Group of RIBA Chartered Practices, chaired by Foster + Partners and supported by the RIBA, presents a real opportunity to access the much wider talent pool which will be essential to secure the future of the profession. It is also critical that the ARB moves ahead with its routes to prescription review to incorporate more flexible study options. 

But we must do more to diversify the profession so that it more closely reflects the make-up of society at large. In the year in which we commemorate 25 years since the murder of aspiring architect Stephen Lawrence, it would be an indefensible loss to the profession and built environment if talented young black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals are discouraged from choosing architecture as a profession because they fear discrimination or fail to advance in it because they encounter barriers. I call on all architects to work with the RIBA to ensure colleagues from all backgrounds can thrive in an environment free from discrimination. We know there is much work yet to do, and we must do it together.


Readers' comments (8)

  • I'd like to think we (Fluid and Soundings) are a diverse group. Two of five directors (soon to become three of six) are BAME and well over a third of our staff are too. Yet, the fact that we keep having to refer to this, sometimes feels like we are being drawn backwards to discuss something that's pretty irrelevant for us. Its a non-issue. We care about talent, skills and aptitude - and that's it - but the catch 22 here, is we can't just get on as we would like to so long as its a wider issue in the profession. Maybe there should be some form of accreditation for truly diverse businesses - a system of recognition and reward rather than singling out and punishment?
    Steve McAdam

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  • John Kellett

    If there is, and I'm not saying that there is, an issue with a lack of diversity within the profession, could that be outside the professions control if they are not choosing to enter the profession? In 2011 14% of the UK population were of 'ethnic origin', I expect it is a slightly larger percentage in cities now, but less in more suburban and rural areas. If that 14% are not entering the profession then how come the profession is at fault? The fault, along with the lack of women in the profession, lies earlier in their lives than the RIBA can even hope to deal with. We can try but.....

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  • Chris Roche

    The recent allegation of racial discrimination within RIBA is not the first, nor is it likely to be the last. Around 15 years ago on my first day on RIBA Council I remarked on the low representation of BAME members on Council with the intention of provoking a discussion. The then President simply noted my comment and moved the debate on - clearly neither he nor Council were interested in a discussion. 5 years later I found myself obliged to report RIBA London / RIBA Council due to apparent racial discrimination against the then RIBA Chair elect. As with the recent case the RIBA volunteered to appoint a top barrister to investigate the allegations provided a non-disclosure agreement was signed to ensure nothing would ever come out of the investigation. I refused and subsequently resigned from RIBA Council when the then President refused to apologise to me for standing up and doing the right thing in rejecting what appeared to be racial prejudice. It would appear little has changed in the last 10 years, and as a consequence I have resigned from RIBA as I do not want to belong to an institution which is not inclusive, equitable, and transparent. Perhaps if more principled individuals followed my example then things might change more quickly.

    Chris Roche XRIBA / Founder 11.04 Architects

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  • Thanks Chris for telling it like it is.

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  • thanks Chris. People like yourself give hope to the marginalised, that we can actually 'get there' as a society and a profession, even though it may be my grandchildren who will now...maybe. my children (2 boys) certainly wont get any encouragement from me to join profession. even my mum has questioned my career choice recently...im a qualified architect with several years exp! not a good advert for the RIBA tho...

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  • Architecture schools are allowed to discriminate (consciously or unconsciously) because they NEVER a have to justify their marking decisions for project work, which is highly subjective. Students are failed for any lame reason, even just because they are not seen to be suffering enough. Honestly the current education system is so twisted some tutors will everything in their power to ensure some students NEVER become architects. Questioning students are sometimes singled out and punished.

    Marking project work based on a set criteria and setting up an appeals procedure would at least stop tutors so readily abusing their power.

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  • Part of the problem is in the way we categorise people, instead of treating them as human beings. This is reflected in the economic system and the way the political system is effected. I was brought up in three cultures and educated in two, and always tried to get along with everybody. Not so easy in a fundamentally class-ridden country..

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  • It isn't a career thing, it's a human thing

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