In architecture, we use the term “diversity” in a few ways: to illustrate the breadth of work we do, to demonstrate different perspectives as we problem-solve, and to illuminate the range of expertise and experiences we bring to the table. While many architects intuitively understand the economic benefits of diversified project teams, when directly asked to provide actual examples and data, firms often scramble and land on deploying my favorite term: diversity of thought.
It’s a loaded expression, this kind of diversity. Across industries, corporations have exploited diversity of thought, or the equally hollow sound bite “cognitive diversity,” in lieu of confronting their lack of cultural, gender, or racial diversity. In truth, any company with at least two employees with two differing opinions can claim diversity of thought as a core value. However, in our thoroughly globalized society, that bar appears to be awfully low. The notion that cognitive diversity is testament enough undermines the importance of addressing the disparities of representation within the profession.
Too often, companies claim to champion diversity without promoting specific, measurable goals of what they intend to accomplish. It could easily mean “we have more women than before,” or “we’ve recently hired a few people of color.” But where is the follow-up to culturally support or retain those people by creating paths to leadership? Firms boldly set revenue and profit goals to ensure business accountability; if diversity is a business imperative, what are the corresponding targets to track cultural change? Though companies can anecdotally say they’re “making progress,” a lack of data behind that progress challenges the picture quickly.
Consider the percentage of licensed black female architects in the industry. In a little over a decade, this value has gone from 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent. Though that is progress, this still means that of the 110,000-plus architects today, fewer than 500 are black women. While this number does not represent all the black women in the field—for example, those working toward licensure—it is telling of the massive blip in the industry’s efforts—or lack thereof—to increase these numbers in earnest.
Instead of blaming the design industry, we should embrace a deeper level of strategy that differs from simply meeting quotas. For example, architects should invest in a pipeline of emerging designers through mentorship and programming that also enables and enhances recruiting. When we know and grow multifaceted types of talent from a diverse pool, it is more likely that we will hire a wider range of people. And when interviewing, designers must look beyond the polished portfolio to the potential of the human being before them, who may think or lead differently.
Ideally, we would see formalized, specific outcomes and strategies expressed from the juggernauts of the field. Right now, we see the bulk of the work to create equity falling to those also in the minority: for example, Milton Curry, who founded the University of Michigan’s ArcPrep program, which introduces high school students in Detroit to the field of architecture; and Sarah Rafson, of ArchiteXX and founder of Point Line Projects, who is partnering with other women to tell powerful stories of activism in architecture. (Editor's note: Rafson has written for ARCHITECT.)
Still, there is no concerted, organized aim to substantially move the equity needle toward accountability or subsequent action. Until then, the profession is essentially forfeiting the possibility of having inclusion or equity become a sustainable reality. How can we muster up some corporate courage to be more transparent? What does it cost? And at whose expense?
No matter what architects call this mission to diversify the field, we still have an opportunity to make good on these promises if we set clear objectives and track palpable progress. This only comes if we definitively articulate our professional values and direct sufficient resources to actualize them. After all, we’re supposed to be thinking outside of the box—not aimlessly checking one.
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.