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We need our practices to increase the diversity of their senior leaders

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Is the architecture profession becoming more diverse? The latest AJ findings confirm we have some way to go, says Femi Oresanya

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Becoming an architect is not easy, no matter your background or circumstance. However, several barriers to entry and progression sadly remain and this is acutely impacting the diversity of our profession. Attempting to address this disparity is one of seven key workstreams that form the RIBA’s current Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy.

The big challenge as the nation and economy awakens from its lockdown slumber is trying to win new work and return to the ‘new normal’. In times of recession, the architecture profession is the proverbial canary.

The economies of Europe and the USA have been worst-hit by recent events, and the indications are that they are likely to suffer more than most. Redundancies will follow. Practices will need to broaden their search for work, and opportunities will arise in unfamiliar territories. We will need to attract people with the right skill sets, cultural appreciation and backgrounds to succeed and flourish in these new markets.

Yet, as I look around, there is a distinct lack of diversity, most noticeably in senior leadership.

We cannot fully understand, appreciate and design for communities across the world if we do not employ a culturally diverse workforce. We cannot continue to believe that the status quo is good enough. If we only surround ourselves with what we know, the familiar, how can we grow and develop our mindset to produce great architecture that truly benefits people, locally and globally?

I encourage all to read Matthew Syed’s book, Rebel Ideas – The Power of Diverse Thinking. He highlights the limitations of homophily and deftly explains the benefits of collaboration between people from diverse backgrounds. Architecture practices have much to learn from improving the diversity of their workforce, and much to gain.

Click here to take the AJ’s race diversity in architecture survey

Some people cannot see, or indeed refuse to acknowledge the problem; yet the more enlightened leaders from our profession are addressing the challenge head-on. One such example is the Architecture Trailblazer Group, which has set up the Architects Apprenticeship scheme. Over 200 apprentices have already been enrolled. The aim is to increase the intake of architectural students from non-traditional backgrounds. Once more universities and schools of architecture become engaged in providing L6 (degree level) as well as L7 qualifications, real progress will be made.

We also need our practices to increase the diversity of their senior leaders and invest in mentoring – encouraging connections between individuals with different backgrounds and characteristics. Not only will the mentee learn and grow professionally, the mentor will also benefit from a different perspective.

We need to record and celebrate progress. By publishing our ethnicity data and shining a light on role model behavior, we can drive improvement across the profession. Is it any surprise that some of the most diverse practices are also some of the most profitable ones, too?

As architects, educators and influencers, we can make the difference and build the world we want to see. I urge senior leaders: enrich your practice with diversity of people, opinion, mindset and see how all-encompassing global design can truly be.

Femi Oresanya is principal of HOK and chair of RIBA Architects for Change

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