For the built environment to be all it can be, each individual with sufficient talent and drive should have equal opportunity to help create the environment.
But observers point out that’s never been the case in the field of architecture. Black female architects represent just four-tenths of one percent of all working architects, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) reported in 2019. Largely excluding women of color hamstrings the potential of design, and by extension, of cities.
What happens when the built environment is designed almost exclusively by one group of people? How does it end up being not all it could be? How many potentially groundbreaking building designs never break ground? How many talented young women never get the opportunity to exert their skills and influence on the skylines of today and tomorrow?
Having given that topic much thought are Perkins&Will’s head of global diversity Gabrielle Bullock, principal and managing director Zena Howard, and associate principal and practice leader Floyd Cline.
Why are African-American women so underrepresented in the world of architecture? Answering that question requires acknowledgement of the historic barriers facing women and people of color, Bullock says.
“Architecture has been a predominantly male and white profession, and this has been slow to change,” says Bullock, author of the white paper Creating a Culture of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for Your Architectural Practice, offering clear guidelines on how architecture can strive for true equity at firms nationwide.
“While the profession generally acknowledges we must address issues of diversity, many firms don’t have the proper tools or knowledge to make significant progress in the right direction.”
In addition, the profession is small relative to some other industries, Howard says. The nation is home to 1.5 million lawyers, 1 million doctors, but only 110,000 architects. “More importantly, there are many barriers for entry, including an extended education and licensure process, an imbalance between educational expenses and entry-level salary and the industry’s historically Eurocentric viewpoint,” she adds.
The structures and environments this country builds only embody the experience, lifestyle and image of the majority, Cline says. Missed are the richness and diversity emanating from the collective voices the buildings and environments serve.
“Architecture is and continues to be a form of oppression on cultures and communities when representation in the process is not present,” he adds. “We miss the true needs of the constituents we’re serving when our teams of architects lack the full capacity to understand them. We continue to operate as a profession out of a narrowly-viewed perspective of what design looks like, and miss out on opportunities that come from diverse perspectives and backgrounds.
“Without diversity, the profession will suffocate.”
Among initiatives to begin addressing the problem is Perkins&Will’s pilot Black in Design Mentorship Program, in which the firm’s staff mentors Black GSD students, and those students go on to mentor high school students. “This unique arrangement allows for true relationships to form, [enabling] Harvard GSD students to learn from professionals in the industry while honing their own mentorship skills,” Bullock says.
Additional Perkins&Will programs include the Diverse Subconsultant Program, which seeks to create partnerships with disadvantaged and minority-owned service providers and manufacturers. “We know design can be an agent for a just and equitable world, and we don’t take this responsibility lightly,” Bullock reports.
“We need to ensure we are having a positive impact on the communities we design for. It’s incumbent upon us to challenge the status quo and look at every area of practice through the Justice, Equity, Engagement, Diversity and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) lens.”
The past few years have witnessed an industry-wide acknowledgement more must be done to address issues of representation, equity and inclusion, Bullock says.
The American Institute of Architects and the National Organization of Minority Architects are among associations providing valuable resources, including programs, training and scholarships, to break down barriers.
Architecture and design schools have also worked to address a shortage of inclusive curricula and African-American faculty, she says.
“We need to see a significant increase in the number of African-American architects,” she concludes. “Firms and industry organizations must continue to actively build the future pipeline.”
Adds Howard: “To me, success comes with seeing more minorities and women at the head of organizations. When we see that balance, we will see real change through a trickle effect. For women, the momentum that began at the 2017 Women’s March has continued to gain energy and strength.
“Diligence is critical. A movement can have setbacks. Things are changing now. But will they continue to progress at the same pace?”
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