New London Architecture

NLA prepares ground for diversity research

Monday 19 July 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

NLA marked 10 months since it launched a hard-hitting diversity pledge with a look back over what had been achieved across the built environment, and forward to a research paper on the crucial issue it is putting together this autumn. But it was clear that telling positive stories about the successes can play a major part in helping ‘nudge the industry forward’ to a diverse workforce that better reflects the society it serves.

Representatives from practices and companies across the built environment and the GLA took part in a webinar to discuss some of the challenges and achievements since the pledge was launched in October 2020, NLA’s Ben O’Connor explaining that it had been meeting with member organisations to talk through how its principles could be adopted. Today, some 25 businesses are signed up from a mixture of local authorities, architects, agents and BIDs. ‘And that number is growing every week’, said O’Connor, revealing that around 20 are about to follow suit. ‘We’re quite pleased because there are some quite hard-hitting things in there and a lot of accountability that ideally we’re hoping to measure over the next few years. So it is quite an undertaking’.

Some firms have used the pledges as the basis of EDI or forward action plans, which will figure in the research from NLA. In the period since launching the pledge NLA has also produced webinars, think tanks, interviews and blog posts on the topic, all of which have been publicly available, on topics like industry barriers and bias.  

Louise Duggan of the GLA said her organisation has been having conversations on hitting the baseline of being an inclusive employer, but also ‘to create the culture that makes the GLA a place that a broad of people actually want to come to, a place that people can bring their whole selves to and a place where people can progress’. Initiatives include a support and talent development programme called Black Thrive, as well as improving data and procurement processes such as a pre-procured panel for service providers. ‘That's about recognizing the talent pool that exists within London, and it's about taking action to diversify the talent pool so it better reflects the communities we serve’, she said. ‘We spend £9 billion a year on services across the GLA group so spending that on the right kinds of organizations obviously has a benefit.’

CJ Obi of Urbanist Platform said his firm was working on talent attraction and recruitment for underrepresented people or demographics. But perhaps more importantly it was also helping companies that are doing good work to get their messages out in the right way, rather than being scared about ‘walking on eggshells’ or saying the wrong things. ‘So we are really holding client’s hands in terms of telling that message, not just recruiting people but also conveying the good work that’s being done internally’.

Nicola Mathers of Future of London talked about the firm’s diversity pledge, providing speaker presentation skills training to give people confidence to get onto debate platforms, leaders’ programmes and courses as well as an emerging talent programme to get people of colour into the housing and regeneration sectors. ‘We just need to help nudge the industry forward by sharing really positive stories’, said Mathers.

Deloitte’s Alix de Nercy spoke about Women in Planning, internal Deloitte blogs and aiming to communicate and educate people, opening up discussions with other consultancies such as JLL, Savills and Knight Frank about signing up to the pledge. Women in Property SE regional chair Ferky Azib said her work across the built environment included support for members on getting diversity inclusion through roadshows, mentoring, a list of panel members, student awards and creating a database of employers willing to give women a break early on in their careers. It is also encouraging members to become part of committees and get involved in a bid to rid it of property’s ‘white, male and stale’ image. But it was also important to get men involved in the conversation, she added.

The group is also aiming to gather data together from the built environment sectors, which at the moment is ‘piecemeal’, This would help to get to a position where diversity can be sold as something beyond an ethical and moral imperative, said O’Connor, to being of benefit to businesses’ diversity of thought, and their financial performance. ‘We should be doing it from multiple perspectives’, he said. 

Duggan made a plea for ‘logical categorisations’ and ‘coalition’ around data, capturing it using consistent approaches in order to ‘read across’ to a more connected rather than ‘atomised’ London or individual context. 

‘Those kinds of coordinated moves will be really powerful’, she said. CJ Obi added that it would be important to discover what ethnic diversity there is at senior level in order to avoid the ‘sugar-coating’ of numbers and masking the truth, and to encourage meritocracy rather than tokenism. ‘We don’t just want a box -ticking exercise, we want them to pick the right person. But we do still need to hold these companies accountable’.

Other topics included unconscious bias, the use of blind CVs versus EDI forms, advocacy and what career progression looks like.

Ultimately, though, Amos Simbo of Black People in Construction (BPIC) provided some extra clarity on the whole issue. ‘What we tend to find is that people just overcomplicate this whole diversity thing, to be honest’, he said. ‘You know, you just need to hire people from black and ethnic minorities’.

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

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