New London Architecture

Time to level the playing field, say female architects

Thursday 18 March 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Tumpa Husna Yasmin Fellows

Founder of FAME, Director of Our Building Design
Senior Lecturer of Architecture at the University of Westminster and Trustee of Mannan Foundation Trust

Pooja Agrawal

Co-founder
Public Practice

Dr Teri Okoro

Founder and Director
TOCA architects

Siu-Pei Choi

Senior Design Manager
Wates Construction (Residential)

Manisha Patel

Senior Partner
PRP Architects

A group of female architects got together last week to share their experiences and expose the barriers that are preventing more women of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities from progressing in the built environment sector.
 
The event, organised by the FAME Collective with the NLA, heard some horror stories about racist and sexist attitudes – but also celebrations of achievements, and ideas about how to create something better resembling a level playing field.
 
FAME Collective’s Tumpa Husna Yasmin Fellows kicked off by saying that the aim was to review the ‘systematic inequality’ in the built environment and planning system and enable the voices of underrepresented communities to address inequality.

Pooja Agrawal, co-founder of Public Practice, questioned what success is and how it is defined – whether it was her own admission into Cambridge University having grown up in Mumbai, or indeed her keynote speaker status. She had been most interested in the spaces outside the red line boundary, leading to her interest in public space and how to improve it, moving on to real projects such as the Black Horse Lane regeneration and its equitable impacts on the local neighbourhoods. Working at the GLA, though, she could bring more influence and recognised the power of politics, not least on diversity at an NLA Awards ceremony where mayor Sadiq Khan spoke. 

‘Having the mayor hold up the mic and speak to the industry, saying: “you need to make the change” I think is really, really important’, Agrawal said. Barriers are one thing, but recognising who your support system is, in order to really push you, quite another.
Dr Teri Okoro of Toca presented a case for the ‘pathways to success’, challenges and wider societal role we have to play, but chiefly how you need a ‘seat at the table where decisions are being made’. ‘You can take a lifetime to be seen as an overnight success’, she suggested. ‘It’s a journey, not a destination, because you never actually arrive there’. Bottlenecks that individuals experience in organisations, Okoro added, are all about the difference you make in overcoming them for those that follow. 

‘You actually need the leadership to recognise that there is a problem before you start to craft some solutions.’

Other speakers included Siu-Pei Choi of Wates Residential, who told a story of how she was given advice on her CV following difficulty getting a job after the Bartlett. She pointed out that having a name that was very difficult to pronounce and on paper didn’t look English was possibly holding me back’, she said. And Manisha Patel of PRP recalled when she told her parents she wanted to be an architect. 

‘They quickly turned around and said: “ooh, that’s not a career for an Asian. What’s wrong with becoming a doctor or an accountant?”’ Patel added that she was the first ethic to reach board level at the practice, after 50 years, something she celebrated with Prosecco and samosas. ‘But I have had to work harder, be tougher, be at the top of my game and learn a lot more skills than my counterparts – while having two children’, she said.

Following breakout sessions, suggested ideas from contributors to improve the situation included sharing experiences more, ‘feeding’ change through the education system, encouraging more diverse voices and support for those starting families from companies, encouraging more male voices to speak up and be ‘allies’, pushing boundaries on job sectors to counter ‘pigeonholing’ and disseminating more real-world information and advice about existing levels of bias.

‘The main thing for me to take away’, said Agrawal, ‘is just the support that we all offer each other and knowing who we can all reach out to, to help us all move forward, together.’ 
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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Tumpa Husna Yasmin Fellows

Founder of FAME, Director of Our Building Design
Senior Lecturer of Architecture at the University of Westminster and Trustee of Mannan Foundation Trust

Pooja Agrawal

Co-founder
Public Practice

Dr Teri Okoro

Founder and Director
TOCA architects

Siu-Pei Choi

Senior Design Manager
Wates Construction (Residential)

Manisha Patel

Senior Partner
PRP Architects


Diverse Leaders

#NLADiverseLeaders


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