Part 2 student Tobi Sobowale explains why seeing others like her succeed in this profession matters so much
Architecture is a field that basically reflects the construct that is Britain. It is male and it is white. As I write this, I am careful of the words that I use to narrate my experience and how it will be perceived. However, my experiences are what they are, and they are true to me. It is said that everyone is an expert of their own experience.
When entering new spaces I am always on the lookout for familiar or similar faces. When I started my undergraduate degree in the city of Newcastle, I was anxious. I was far away from home, a seven-hour drive, and I did not know anyone. I remember walking around my campus and keeping count of the black faces that I would see. In my year, I was the only black woman and one of two black students. I remember across the other four years only being able to recall one other black student on the architecture course. Not one of my lecturers was black. But I was in the North; coming from London, I understood that Newcastle was not as diverse.
Okay, so I’ve graduated; onto the world of employment I go. It took me 10 months to find a job. In those months, I applied to maybe 100 jobs and only got called for two interviews. These interviews were as a result of knowing someone. I cannot pinpoint the exact reason as to why I barely ever got called for an interview but whenever I showed my portfolio to industry professionals, my work was always commended. Eventually I got a job in London.
There were a lot of women and more black people than I was used to seeing. I was surprised. Because during the job-hunting process, I hardly ever saw black faces advertised on a company’s website. I was once told a story about a conversation that took place regarding hiring prospective employees at an architecture practice. A statement was made that I will never forget. The story went something like this. ‘Do not hire this person because we already have enough Nigerian people’, followed by a laugh.
You might be surprised to hear that this comment was made by a Nigerian. The person who overheard it was newly employed at the company. They felt like the practice was doing them a favour by hiring them, so they decided not to respond to the comment. For me, it’s funny, because during my search for a job, I questioned myself a lot. Was I not good enough? I thought of many reasons as to why I did not get the job but I never would have thought that maybe it was because a black person thought that there were enough black people already hired.
Now, fast forward to my master’s degree. I am now studying in Manchester. Manchester is a culturally diverse city, so I expected my experience to be different to that of Newcastle. Now, in my year there are about 160 students, almost twice as many compared with when I was in Newcastle. Did I find myself counting black faces again? The answer is yes. This time I counted 10. Now 10 might seem like a large number but out of 160 students in a city like Manchester, it is not that much. Scanning the faces of the staff, I can recall one black female lecturer who recently became joint head of the architecture school. I smiled when I heard the news. But, she does not teach any of my modules.
Would you apply for a job as a black woman where the practice consists only of white, middle-aged men?
So, okay, there aren’t many black faces in architecture. Why is it such a big deal? The answer for me is role models. Now I have had a certain amount of people that have helped me along the way. But it is important for some of those people to look like me, because how do you talk about the difficulties with employment due to your race with a white person? How do you talk about the struggle of being a woman in the workplace with a man? Some – not all – conversations need to be had with people that can relate to the discussion at hand.
Inspiration is also another factor. Whether or not you like Zaha Hadid’s style, she became an iconic name within the architecture industry as a British-Iraqi woman. Isn’t it funny that the closest role model that I can think of that looks like me is a Middle Eastern woman?
And for the generations that are to come, it is more encouraging to see someone that looks like you, excelling in an industry that you didn’t think was possible for you to excel in. Because many conversations regarding race and architecture talk about the access and willingness of young black people to join the career path. But as a black person, would you want to walk into a room full of white people alone? Would you apply for a job as a black woman where the practice consists only of white, middle-aged men? Because when I am applying for a job and see that there is not even one black person on the team, I hardly ever apply for the role advertised.
Now you might say that maybe I can be the first. And, yes, maybe I can. But there needs to come a point where I don’t have to count the faces and I don’t have to be the first. Because this is the 21st century and life is already difficult as it is.
Tobi Sobowale is a Part 2 student at Manchester School of Architecture