Building an Equitable Practice

The national conversation related to equity in the architecture and design professions continues to be top of mind for many. Earlier this year, on International Women’s Day, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) published its first diversity report in more than a decade, “Diversity in the Profession of Architecture.” The findings, though not groundbreaking, proved that little has been done to move the needle. More than 7,000 people, including 3,117 women, responded to the survey. Among women, 69 percent believed that their gender was either somewhat or very underrepresented in the field of architecture. And a significant majority of all people responded that minorities were underrepresented. Ultimately, the survey verified the glum conclusions that change is slow.

As someone who is in firm leadership but not an owner, and who is interested in building an equitable practice as a female minority, I often wonder what my true ability is to drive change. While it is true that we have a long way to go, it is important to remember that it takes many small steps to steer the biggest of ships in the right direction. Here are a few suggestions to consider.

Be open to conversations
Dialogue with colleagues about equity in practice is always valuable. Do others in your firm have the same perspective? Do they view the issue as something that needs to change and can be remedied?

Be critical of existing conditions
As with any design project, the best solution comes from proper problem identification. No matter what level of influence you have, everyone has the ability to look critically at the makeup of the firm as a whole. Admittedly, most firms would probably have a hard time serving as a mirror of our society. But how does your firm stand up to the demographics of the local community? And if balance is needed, how can a firm become more equitable?

Be realistic in developing solutions
Unless you find that you are with one of the few firms that are setting the bar, change will be necessary. However, be reasonable, given what you know of the current state of equity within the firm, its leadership, the firm’s size, and the larger professional community that your office is within.

Act upon strategic opportunities for intervention
How can a firm develop a more equitable staff? One suggestion is to expand the means by which the firm both seeks applicants and promotes job openings. Design firms tend to reach out to the same outlets for candidates every time. Are there other schools with design programs that your firm needs to develop a relationship with?

Attracting qualified architects and designers with at least a few years of experience is a challenge in today’s more robust economy, following a recession in which some left the profession. And attracting a more diverse team may require creatively looking for those who teach as an adjunct at a college or university, for example, or seeking out members of such organizations as the National Organization of Minority Architects or the Society of Hispanic Professional Architects, also known as Arquitectos Chicago.

Once the best staff is on board, retaining talent takes effort as well. I suggest that employees of all levels display an active interest in the future of their firm and do what they can to ensure that the path to leadership is equal for everyone. For example, look for opportunities to modify the employee review and compensation process if necessary. The AIA survey results indicated that employee satisfaction across the board was among the lowest regarding issues of fair and transparent employee promotion and compensation practices.

If your firm is, indeed, adapting to become more inclusive and equitable, that is fantastic. But do not be shy in letting the world know. For example, on a firm’s website, it is valuable to show not only the partners and principals but also the associates. That way, the firm will project a more diverse team in terms of age, gender, and race, and, as a result, attract a broader pool of qualified, diverse applicants.

Perhaps your firm has been missing out on amazing talent by not broadening its reach to potential candidates. Slowly, one step at a time, each individual and firm can contribute to making a difference.