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
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.
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
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.’
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
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’
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.’
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.’
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
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.
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.’