One rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel, and when it comes to sexual misconduct, the design profession appears to have several rotten apples. As we are beginning to see, a single practitioner of rotten activities can ruin the name and even legacy of an entire firm.
I became interested in the topic of sexual misconduct when I was trying to understand why many women were dropping out of the design field within their first 10 years of practice. These were young and talented women who had excelled in architecture school. They were also vulnerable. Recent headlines have made it clear how prevalent sexual misconduct can be when powerful men hold the keys to a person’s career and advancement. There have been too few consequences and too much looking away.
Sexual misconduct encompasses a wide array of activities. Some are criminal behaviors, while others do not rise to the level of criminality, but are still legally actionable. Some behaviors are not actionable in and of themselves, but can contribute to a hostile work environment. However, none of these activities should be confused with issues relating to equity or discrimination.
The AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct has a prohibition on discrimination, Rule 1.401: “Members shall not discriminate in their professional activities on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, or sexual orientation.” In addition, the AIA has published a stream of statements referencing its Code of Ethics, denouncing sexual misconduct in the workplace, announcing the development of a guide for equitable practices, and outlining future actions to eliminate sexual misconduct in the profession.
Sexual misconduct is a men’s problem, and only the men can resolve it, because the men have the power—for now.
I write about sexual misconduct as it is defined legally. It includes sexual assault and battery, which is against the law. It is a crime. You can go to jail. Sexual harassment is the basis of a lawsuit. Retaliation is against the law. If a firm retaliates against an individual, then the firm itself can be in trouble with the law.
I describe below how I would like the men of the AIA to respond.
First, the AIA should insert into its Code of Ethics a prohibition explicitly against specifically defined sexual misconducts—the term for the whole category of sexual misconducts—and add the specific legal definitions (see “Definitions of Sexual Misconducts” below) as some actions are crimes that could result in jail time or lead to lengthy litigation. It should be noted that each state has different regulations in their penal and labor codes, and federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) regulations add another layer of protection from harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.
Second, the AIA should explicitly outline the punishment for those found guilty of sexual misconduct. For example, it can require training, publicly censure architects, and strip them of all Institute honors and awards. If a crime is found to have been committed, the AIA should revoke membership and the use of AIA after one’s name.
Third, the AIA should define a process to adjudicate claims.
Fourth, the AIA should take the lead in urging the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) and all 54 state- and territorial-licensing boards to act on sexual misconduct. The AIA cannot revoke the license of an architect, but it has the ear of the organizations that can. NCARB and the licensing boards can also adopt statements prohibiting sexual misconduct, require training as part of maintaining licensure, institute a fine structure based on the severity or number of violations, or, in case of a crime, revoke the person’s license to practice architecture.
Finally, the AIA should encourage firms to find ways to not only stop sexual misconduct, but also to support and retain architects who have been affected by any form of sexual misconduct, including that by clients or contractors.
As news accounts have confirmed, many who have been the victim of sexual misconduct in the workplace do not want to draw attention to the situation, file complaints, hire attorneys, make formal charges, or risk retaliation. So they opt to leave their firms and, in some cases, the profession, thus contributing to architecture’s pipeline problem.
Indeed, one rotten apple can create a toxic workplace culture of harassment and an atmosphere of discomfort and instability, increase employee attrition, and cause a firm reputational and financial harm. Sexual misconduct also hurts the public image of our entire profession.
Let’s get rid of the rotten apples.
Read the AIA's response to this article, "Emily Grandstaff-Rice and the AIA on Sexual Misconduct in Architecture," which appeared alongside this article in the June 2018 issue of ARCHITECT. Read the response by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards' CEO, Michael J. Armstrong, entitled "Here's How Architectural Licensing Boards Can Uphold Ethical Practice."
Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.