Architects call for more role sexual and gender minority role models following the AJ’s 2016 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender survey. Ella Braidwood reports
Almost half (48 per cent) of gay and transgender architects are discouraged by the scarcity of openly out colleagues, according to the AJ’s 2016 annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) survey.
And three-quarters of LGBT+ architects said they would like to see more support for gender and sexual minority employees, including recognition of the issues affecting them, from within the profession.
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell says the survey figures ‘blow the whistle on the architecture closet’. He adds: ‘They are disturbing findings for an educated, supposedly liberal arts profession that has always had a substantial LGBT membership.’
Some 1,400 people, including more than 250 LGBT+ architects, responded to the survey, conducted by the AJ and sister titles Construction News and New Civil Engineer, and covering the architecture, construction, engineering and property sectors.
‘The survey results highlight the lack of LGBT+ visibility in the profession,’ says Lisa Sumner, an architect at Williams Lester and a transgender woman. ‘Before coming out to my director I looked for other architects who had successfully transitioned in practice, something to show me that my transition would not be disastrous. I found none. As far as I knew, I was on my own.
‘Just knowing others have been through the same things can make them easier to cope with.’
So what exactly does this year’s survey tell us about the present state of acceptance of LGBT+ minorities in practices? How does architecture compare with the wider construction and property industry? And what do people feel should be done to improve the situation?
Nearly a fifth of respondents said they felt they had to conceal their gender or sexuality at work
Nearly a fifth (19 per cent) of LGBT+ architects who responded to the survey said they felt they had to conceal their gender or sexuality at work, a shocking figure and only slightly below the industry average of 25 per cent.
Discrimination in the workplace was also highlighted in the findings, with two fifths of respondents reporting they had heard homophobic or transphobic comments in the workplace in the past year.
One transgender architect who contacted the AJ said they felt they had lost their job after five months as a result of transphobia in the workplace.
Four in 10 respondents said there were no visibly LGBT+ colleagues in senior positions in their companies, while nearly one in four (24 per cent) said that being in a gender or sexual minority created barriers to career progression in the industry – an improvement on last year’s figure of 32 per cent.
Danni Kerr, a transgender architect and RIBA Role Model, says: ‘How organisations treat their transgender members and employees is a real test. Ask yourselves: would you send a transgender person to represent your organisation at a business-critical event?’
For RIBA president Jane Duncan, improving the situation for LGBT+ architects across the industry is a matter of actively putting in the effort.
There is still much more to be done and it is our collective responsibility to acknowledge the issues
‘There is still much more to be done and it is our collective responsibility to acknowledge the issues and actively make a difference,’ she says. ‘All architects and construction professionals, in every part of the country, need to be proactive in tackling this issue, celebrate diversity and encourage equality.’
The AJ’s survey showed significant regional variations in its findings, with a more positive experience by and large reported by LGBT+ architects based in London. In the North-West and East, 38 per cent of respondents said that being LGBT+ created barriers to career progression, compared with just 16 per cent in London.
Likewise, while 31 per cent of respondents based outside London said they saw openly LGBT+ senior employees, this figure was more than half (54 per cent) for those respondents working in the capital.
Tom Guy, a partner at Guy Piper Architects, says: ‘While doing my year out in a small office of a large practice in Birmingham I didn’t come out to my colleagues. Had there been an LGBT role model within the firm I probably would have had the confidence.’
He adds: ‘After my Part 2, I worked for Nicholas Hare Architects, where there were senior LGBT staff, and I was just myself from the start; the practice is diverse and accepting. There was definitely a difference being in London.’
Turning to the wider industry, architecture generally is doing better than the rest of the construction and property sector, the survey suggests. Nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of LGBT+ architect respondents said they felt the wider industry was not inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.
And although one in four LGBT+ architects said they would not would feel comfortable attending professional or social events within the industry with a same-sex partner, nearly half (47 per cent) of respondents were uncomfortable being out at client or industry events – and nearly two thirds (63 per cent) were uncomfortable being ‘out’ at construction sites.
It’s very hard to put your point across when you can see the contractor is itching to call you a fag
One respondent wrote: ‘Being called a “poof”, “fag”, “homo” … you name it – in the office it doesn’t happen so much, but on construction sites it’s a big issue. It’s very hard to put your point across when you can see the contractor is itching to call you a fag.’
Fionn Stevenson, head of the School of Architecture at Sheffield University, says: ‘The persistent macho building-site mentality is a key challenge not just for LGBT+ but also for women architects. If we can change that culture we will have really changed something.’
However, architects are on site less frequently than the survey’s other respondents from the construction sector and many reported no problems whatsoever with discrimination, a point made also by Architecture Foundation director and AJ critic-at-large Ellis Woodman. He says: ‘My own experience as a gay man who has been associated with the profession for 25 years as a student, architect and journalist is that I have never encountered any explicit homophobia.
‘Admittedly, when I was working as an architect I never advertised my sexuality on a building site. But there are still plenty of environments, from the classroom to the changing room, where I make a similar call.’
But for those who regularly visit construction sites, the ‘laddish’ culture appears to have remained a big problem, and many LGBT+ respondents reported struggling with being open about their gender or sexuality on visits.
‘Working in a large architectural practice I do feel that my sexuality is accepted by the practice,’ wrote one respondent. ‘However, I work on a large London site for much of my working day, and here I feel the attitude is completely different. There is still a schoolboy mentality towards sexuality, and I would not feel comfortable outing myself to colleagues on site.’
A truly inclusive architecture profession, however, remains a work in progress. Indeed no architecture practice – nor any firm in the wider construction industry – made it onto charity Stonewall’s 2016 Workplace Equality Index, a list of the best 100 employers for LGBT+ people.
So what should happen now to make architecture a more welcoming and inclusive environment for LGBT+ people? Leading figures contacted by the AJ agreed that more role models were vital.
These responses emphasise the need for architects in senior positions being more open about their sexual orientation
Dieter Bentley-Gockmann, director at EPR Architects, says: ‘These responses emphasise the need for, and benefit of, LGBT+ architects in senior positions being more open about their sexual orientation and acting as role models to help dispel the misconceptions held by some clients and contractors about what it means to be an LGBT+ architect.’
And Gem Barton, course leader for interior architecture at Brighton University, says: ‘We need more diverse role models in general – in who we see winning the awards, who we see sitting on panel debates, who we see representing our industries on the TV … and who we see teaching and leading the future of the profession.’
For Stevenson, architectural education is a crucial part of this and can play ‘a key role in promoting LGBT+ equality’.
She says: ‘As someone who is out as a head of school, I try to set an example to our students here in the University of Sheffield, many of whom come from countries which are less tolerant of LGBT+ lifestyles.’
Thankfully, there have been concrete steps taken to improve the visibility of gender and sexual minorities within architecture in recent months.
Adding to the RIBA’s own Role Model campaign, Guy Piper Architects partner Tom Guy this year founded a new network to support architects in the gay community, called Architecture LGBT+. Another positive move was taken when Historic England chose to document the LGBT+ history associated with a number of listed sites and buildings, including Oscar Wilde’s former home in London’s Tite Street.
The hope is now that others in practice and architectural education will work to ensure that all colleagues are comfortable in their own skin – whether they are gay, straight, bisexual, transgender or otherwise. As the AJ’s survey underlines, having role models is key to harnessing the creativity of LGBT+ architects, allowing them to flourish – out and proud – in their jobs.
Julia Feix, director at Feix Merlin
It’s really sad to see that people don’t feel confident about bringing their partner to an industry event or that they feel being LGBT+ creates career barriers.
I really am not surprised about the results when it comes to the construction industry and the reluctance to be ‘out’ at site meetings – even I sometimes make an informed choice not to be ‘out’ on site.
But it’s very disappointing to see the response in relation to the design world – we should fair much better than that.
I think visibility is the key here; the promotion of LGBT+ role models in the industry is of utmost importance. We need to create an environment in which people feel liberated and happy. Creativity does not thrive in an oppressed mind.
We as a practice are 100 per cent gay at director level and we’d be more than happy to help improve the LGBT+ image of the industry.
Andrew Cadey, director, Proctor and Matthews
While the statistics from this year’s survey are encouraging in many areas, it is clear that as an industry we still have some work to do to ensure that LGBT+ architects feel equal at work and, frankly, comfortable in their skin as people.
Clearly, a smaller percentage feeling that their sexuality is a barrier to career progression versus last year is a good thing. But still nearly a quarter of those surveyed are feeling held back at work. We need to be ready to address this so our talent and contribution isn’t lost at all levels.
I’m not alone in wanting to encourage all LGBT+ architects to feel happy and comfortable in who they are, however difficult that might feel right now. Ours is a respected profession and I know our profession is absolutely able to build the positive role models for the next generation of architects, who are just making their first steps in the industry today.
Nicholas Santarelli, associate, Levitt Bernstein
The figures outline quite interesting – if not wholly predictable – dichotomies facing LGBT architects; namely how the construction side of the industry lags behind the creative side. But whether it’s a real or perceived difference is difficult to determine. I would echo these results, that generally LGBT professionals do not feel comfortable making their sexuality known to clients or on a site. Perhaps this just reflects our position in society as a whole, however construction continues to be an industry dominated by straight men. Until there is better representation from all minorities – or majorities in the case of women – then the industry will be slow to change. Role models and leadership from above, coupled with a hard-line stance on any bullying or discrimination may be a way of tackling this disconnect, but the normalisation of non-traditional relationships within society is the most important step in achieving parity.
James Soane, director, Project Orange
Personally I can’t remember having experienced any discrimination in the workplace or on a building site; which is not to say it doesn’t happen. The ongoing debate around gender equality is about a wider sense of responsibility and respect, seeing the intersectionality of all types of discrimination as signifiers of the same problem.
Karl Renner, director, Clarke Renner Architects
The survey’s findings illustrate that more that people self-censor which results in the same degree of cringing that anti-gay bullying might afford.
My own experience, over nearly 40 years in practice, is that there’s never been any issue about taking a boyfriend to office, or even corporate events, and I’ve never had to disguise anything. On site, nobody has ever raised the subject, nor has there ever been any muttering, so I’ve never had to get on my high horse.
As I remarked to [founder of Architecture LGBT+] Tom Guy: ‘People always find it amusing when I observe that we hear about young gay architects worrying about how to come out to the directors, whereas in our company the three gay directors (and one associate) have to come out to the staff!’
However, when we do come out to them, I’d always make it absolutely plain that we are a professional outfit and not a dating agency. I’m not a great one for positive discrimination any more than negative; I’d always want the best, most able person for the job, whoever they are.
Neil Kiernan, associate director, Assael Architecture
I have worked in for Assael a total of 13 years and have never felt any of the negative points below relevant to myself. At Assael I feel as if I am treated equally to my heterosexual or LGBT+ peers. My sexuality is a part of my biological makeup, it makes me no better or no worse an architect.
’The way to even start to resolve most of the issues is in education’
The way to even start to resolve most of the issues is in education. All sides of the communities - heterosexual, LGBT+ and further - need to communicate with each other so awareness is raised. Positive role models are vital to this being successful. Events such as Out in Architecture and the Pride Breakfast at the RIBA; to which Jane Duncan has been instrumental, along with Taylor Wessing’s Freehold evenings are great initiators in raising awareness as well as being social gatherings to meet and discuss these issues with likeminded individuals.
Sexuality and gender topics should never be about blame, but about a vision towards equality and acceptance in the future, both in Architecture and in our global lives.