New London Architecture

Diversity is a fact: inclusion is an act

Tuesday 26 October 2021

NLA director Benjamin O’Connor shares a personal view on diversity issues and the measures being undertaken in-house to try to tackle them. As featured in NLQ 44 in 2020, ahead of us launching our Diverse Leaders Pledge.

One way or another, many of us have experienced some form of discrimination or bias, either directly or through shared experiences.

As a gay man I have endured my fair share of insults, stereotypes and open dismissal of my abilities, particularly as I err on the side of the feminine. Perceived ‘feminine’ qualities are still inherently seen as somehow weaker, so expressing emotion, caring and being mindful have not always served me well professionally. I recall a time some years ago when my concern for another colleague was dismissed by my superior as ‘overly emotional’, and that I needed to stop having a ‘hissy fit’, both openly hostile terms used to put down and dismiss women on a daily basis.

The issue of gender equality and the rights of LGBTQI+ people have been front and centre of the discussion around diversity and inclusion, not just in the built environment, but in society at large. Some progress has certainly been made: we at NLA have stressed the importance of diversity on speaker panels, signing up to the Future of London Diversity pledge back in 2016. We led the LFA’s Elephant campaign in 2018 that aimed to highlight the inequity between the genders in our industry, after the Presidents Club scandal. Also, through the LFA, we have supported the founding of Architecture LGBT+ and the float at Pride. These are all things that we are proud of. Here is where the inevitable ‘but’ rears its head.

While tackling these issues is critical, we are living through a unique period in history. At a recent London Assembly Good Growth by Design meeting on diversity a colleague stated that ‘many organisations are focusing on women’s issues and LGBT as these movements are more established and easier to tackle’. This was of course referring to the discrimination and inequity of opportunity and access experienced by BAME people the world over, something we can and must focus on. Since 25 May this year, the date of the horrific murder of George Floyd in the USA, people everywhere are waking up to just how bad our inequality problem is. Indifference and ignorance are no longer excuses(—(personally and professionally we have to do better. We must find realistic and lasting solutions.

To make the changes we need we first have to address the core issues. One thing we hear a lot from industry partners is that they can’t offer diverse speaker suggestions because they don’t have a diverse workforce, and they don’t have a diverse workforce because they don’t get diverse applicants. All these things may be true, and if this is the case then they have identified the first step in helping to diversify the workforce(—(change your hiring practices and try different methods of recruitment.

Creating a diverse workforce is not just an exercise in virtue signalling or meeting quotas. A 2015 McKinsey & Company global study found that ethnically diverse companies are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians, and gender diverse companies are 15 per cent more likely to do the same. In addition to the financial gains and the shift in public opinion, it is clear that having diversity in your workforce creates diversity of thought, leading to more dynamic solutions, ideas and outputs.

14% of the UK’s population and 40% of
Londoners classify as BAME, but only 1.2%
of the built environment sector is BAME

Back in my days working for the museums sector I was involved in an incredible programme supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Part of the Skills for the Future programme and run by the Cultural Co-operation, it was called ‘strengthening our common life’. At its heart it was an accredited traineeship for young BAME people. The idea was that, by offering opportunities to young BAME candidates in museum roles across 20 different organisations, supporting their journey through the industry and providing tailored training, one day heritage leadership roles would be more representative of society. 

The ambition was to create a cohort of diverse leaders that would influence not only the workforce and work culture but also the programming in these traditionally white spaces, so that the 95+ per cent white audiences to museums would start to reflect the wider population. After all, these are public
spaces that should be open to everyone. Initiatives like this are exactly what the built environment sector needs. At  NLA we launched our ‘diverse leaders’ programme back in January, and are now working with a wide range of organisations to come up with a new industry pledge that contains real action and is measurable. 

We want to support our members and London in making better choices, choices that we ourselves have not made in the past(—(we are all in this together. Advice, support and guidance will be provided as part of the pledge, and some realistic goals set for the coming years. We hope to work
in partnership to support traineeships and widen access to BAME people specifically. It is important to recognise that in the same way that Black Lives Matter does not mean all lives don’t, our focus on BAME right now is not saying that we shouldn’t or won’t focus on other areas in the future. In fact, the ambition should always be equity for all. We cannot forget that the gender pay gap is real and the lack of opportunities for women across our sector is still a major problem. We must also be mindful that inclusion means recognising and supporting those with disabilities and people of different ages and classes. Ultimately, we must try harder to include everybody in the discussion and provide a system that offers opportunities and progress for all people.

‘ We must all make a tangible contribution to
eradicate social and economic injustice so that
the pandemic of racism in the UK that is alive
and well achieves complete annihilation and
permanent expulsion from our society. The critical
challenge — for all of us — is to never use one’s
own prejudices to disadvantage another group
or individual, in pursuit of a clear and residual
advantage to your own self.’
Bola Abisogun, Chairman, DiverseCity Surveyors

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