A fall in the number of architects who are ‘out’ at work suggests the battle for equality is far from won. Richard Waite reports
The ‘disheartening’ results of the AJ’s latest annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) survey reflect a worrying growth of intolerance in wider society, according to architects and leading diversity experts. The data collected from nearly 250 LGBT+ architects shows a surprising and disturbing drop in the proportion of qualified professionals and students identifying as LGBT+ who have come out in the workplace.
In 2016 – the last time the AJ ran the questionnaire – 80 per cent of LGBT+ respondents said they were ‘out’ in their practice. But that figure has now fallen to 73 per cent. Outside London the percentage is even lower with just 62 per cent of LGBT+ respondents from the regions saying they are open about their sexuality or gender in the office.
There has also been a slight increase in the proportion of LGBT+ architects who say they have heard homophobic and/or transphobic slurs being used as insults in the workplace – 39 per cent compared with 37 per cent in 2016.
‘We have become a less tolerant society recently,’ warns Lisa Sumner, an associate director at Williams Lester and a transgender woman. Statistics show increased levels of hate crime and homophobia following the Brexit vote. The media is also more open in attacking LGBT rights, with opinion pieces openly saying what was unacceptable a couple of years ago, particularly against trans rights. All this is discouraging for anyone contemplating coming out at work.’
EPR director Dieter Bentley-Gockmann agrees: ‘It is extremely disappointing to learn that, despite the efforts being made across the industry to raise awareness of the ethical and economic benefits of improving diversity and inclusion in the construction industry, this is not making a difference to the working conditions and day-to-day experiences of many of our LGBT+ architects.’
He adds: ‘I fear the social antagonism that arose in the wake of Brexit, which is being exacerbated by the “Trump effect” and divisive commentators on social media, may be having an impact in the workplace. As a result it appears that LGBT+ architects are less willing or confident to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.’
Nearly 1,100 people responded to the pan-industry survey which was run in collaboration with the AJ’s sister titles New Civil Engineer and Construction News.
While there have been some improvements for engineers and contractors since 2016, those working in architecture have witnessed pitifully little change.
Nearly a fifth (18 per cent) of LGBT+ architects who responded to the survey said they still felt they had to conceal their gender or sexuality at work. This marks only a minor dip of one percentage point from 2016.
And the comparison between being out in the office and out on site remains stark.
Nearly two thirds (62.5 per cent) of LGBT+ architects said they were uncomfortable being ‘out’ at construction sites. While this is a marginal drop from the 64 per cent in the previous survey, it is also unexpectedly higher than the cross-industry average of 59 per cent – ie including engineers and contractors.
Career prospects and role models
There has also been a worrying rise in the number of LGBT+ architects who feel being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender has created barriers to career progression – now at 30 per cent compared with 24 per cent in 2016. In addition, two fifths of architect respondents said there were no visibly LGBT+ colleagues in senior positions in their companies – a figure that balloons to more than half outside London. The figures are almost identical to 2016.
Bentley-Gockmann adds: ‘I’d encourage all LGBT+ professionals in senior and leadership positions to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity. I’d also like to see more LBGT+ allies visibly supporting their LGBT+ colleagues by challenging “banter” and outdated behaviours that may be excluding or undermining LGBT+ architects in the workplace, be that in the studio, on-site or at industry networking events.’
Tom Guy of Guy Piper Architects is founder of National Student Pride and the Architecture LGBT+ network. He believes there need to be more role models in every sector of the profession to encourage ‘those struggling to come out to be themselves’.
He adds: ’62 per cent of [LGBT+] graduates across all industries go back into the closet when they start out in their careers – something I myself did during my Part 1 placement.
‘Not being out and yourself at work undoubtedly has mental-health impacts, which in turn will have an impact on productivity, with happy staff performing the best. LGBT+ role models across the industry will empower and encourage not only graduates but LGBT+ architects throughout the profession.’
Twenty per cent of architects responding to the survey thought that being LGBT+ and working in the construction industry had resulted in a negative impact on their mental health. As one respondent said: ‘Working life can be very stressful when you feel you can’t be yourself and are always having to hold something back.’
Chris Edwards, founding board member of LGBT+ property professional networking group Freehold, claims the ‘very disheartening‘ results highlight that the struggle for true equality is far from over.
‘The RIBA has already made excellent strides in championing diversity and inclusion,’ he says. ‘But the findings confirm that there is much more work to be done to ensure its members, and the wider profession, are able to be themselves at work, and live their authentic lives confident in their own identity.’
Campbell Cadey director Andrew Cadey adds: ‘While positive messages do filter through social media … individuals at all levels should actively and collectively lead by example. We need to up the ante here. Surely the aim is to foster change in our profession’s collective attitude.’
And while there remain architects (nearly half of those responding) unable to answer the question ‘which LGBT+ member of the profession do you most admire and why?’ then clearly work still needs to be done.
Out and proud: John Ashton, pH+ Architects
Where was your first job and where are you now?
My first architectural job was at a small practice in Basingstoke before going to university. I am currently an associate at pH+ Architects, and technical tutor at Oxford Brookes.
What inspired you to go into architecture?
I grew up on a new housing estate in the 1990s and became curious about the uniformity of modern houses. Learning just how few architects were involved in the design process inspired me to study architecture.
Name an incident where you think being open about your sexuality/gender has hindered your career?
There hasn’t been one particular incident, perhaps because I have become skilled at dodging questions about whether I have a girlfriend, wife, children, favourite football team etc, to avoid having to come out again and again. I feel that this can sometimes be a barrier to developing professional relationships.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
Do less covering up and not be so concerned about people’s reactions.
What could be done to make the architecture profession more diverse?
Rather than just tolerating diversity, businesses should do more to celebrate the diversity of their staff externally. Being visible at events such as Pride, having a specific LGBT+ employee policy which understands the support that LGBT+ employees may require but won’t ask for, or even just making a point of showing interest. It would help people with quieter voices feel like the business has got their back.
What advice would you give to anyone else from the LGBT+ community who is about to start a career in architecture?
This profession is a great arena for meeting a variety of people. Be visible about who you are, and let your work speak for itself.
Who is your role model or mentor?
Denise Scott Brown. We had a brief email exchange when I was a student, and I was struck by her generosity and humility.
Gem Barton, course leader for interior architecture at Brighton University
The AJ is to be commended for undertaking a further survey of results, what is disappointing however is that the LGBT landscape is constantly changing and this isn’t being reflected anywhere.
The majority of architectural publications are actively seeking data for analysis but when it comes to actively publishing articles and content about queer space and theory, on buildings of LGBT+ heritage, of issues facing a growing proportion of readers and of interest to many many more - our community is left lacking, once again. Data is good - but action is better.
Danni Kerr, a transgender architect and RIBA Role Model
It is distressing to learn that there is an increase in negative experiences reported by LGBT architects. It maybe that individuals feel more able to speak out or feel that it is important to do so. Certainly, it shows that LGBT inclusivity is an issue we must continue to address.
This feature was published in the Education issue – click here to buy a copy