‘Equal opportunities’ must be more than a mere mission statement if we are to end institutional racism. Shemol Rahman, commended in RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition, suggests some practical actions
I write this on the eve of the deadline. The Mars landing of NASA’s Perseverance is a welcome change of headlines on tonight’s evening news. Perseverance means persistence – doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success. A mission named after humankind’s spirit of endeavour. Perhaps a timely reminder for us all to persist after a difficult year.
They say to write what you know. The past year for me has included furlough, losing my job and then looking for a new one. At the time of writing, I still haven’t tricked anyone into giving me a job (hello imposter syndrome!) Over the last few months, I have become familiar with the recruitment pages of architects’ websites and the job sections of design magazines. I would like to share with you a phrase I keep coming across.
‘We are an equal opportunities employer’, firms say, which means ‘we encourage all applicants irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, age, disability, chronic illness, religion or beliefs.’ They promise that candidates will be chosen on merit and talent alone. It may surprise you to know that this claim does not require substantiation of any kind. It is not an accreditation, nor is it regulated. The statement may even be irrelevant, since every employer has to be an ‘Equal Opportunities Employer’ to comply with the Equalities Act 2010, including architectural practices under their chartership with the RIBA.
I have grown tired of this phrase. I didn’t get here on merit alone. There were helping hands along the way, recognising the odds that were stacked against me. Every teacher that saw potential. That workshop funded by the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. That university summer school. Lowered grade offers. There were bursaries and grants. There were of course less helpful hands along the way too, like that unpaid internship for my Part 1.
‘I didn’t get here on merit alone.’ Would it be more surprising, or less, to hear a wealthy, straight, able-bodied, privately educated man admit this to his peers? (Full disclosure, I have at least two of these privileges.)
If the term ‘equal opportunities employer’ is all but redundant, why do architects include it on their websites? I suppose it might an admission of the reality of an unequal profession. Perhaps it is an attempt to uphold the illusion of a meritocracy. In the shadows of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, and the protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder in 2020, ‘equal opportunities employer’ feels rather disingenuous.
The case of Stephen Lawrence defined the concept of institutional racism, a form of discrimination that cannot be attributed to individuals’ actions alone, and thereby cannot be explained outside a collective and systemic bias. In architecture I have had the misfortune of meeting a few misogynists and overt racists, but this handful alone cannot explain the continued lack of diversity and inclusion. It is difficult not to suspect bias when the only call back I’ve had in the past five months has been from someone of similar background to me.
If the term ‘equal opportunities employer’ is all but redundant, why do architects include it on their websites?
The profession lauds the work of the Lawrence family but seems slower to question the biases of its own institutions. I therefore welcome the RIBA’s appointment of the director of diversity and inclusion. As an unemployed graduate in the midst of a pandemic, I offer these humble observations and suggestions:
I once read that we measure the things we care about. The RIBA conducts a commendable, regular survey into the business and economics of the profession through its Future Trends programme. Data on diversity and inclusion has been harder to find, and I suggest that greater quantity, quality and transparency of information is necessary to tackle and monitor the challenge.
The business case
The RIBA needs to do better to promote diversity not just as a woolly principled ideal, but as a measure that makes business sense and is a necessity to drive the innovation needed to tackle the challenges of the coming century.
Systemic biases require systemic redesign (actions speak louder than words)
Anecdotally, I hear of fewer unpaid internships in the UK these days. The RIBA code for chartered practices has improved fair remuneration, setting expectations that are explicit and auditable. The equality, diversity and inclusion section of the charter is less defined. For example, the charter could require practices to have name-blank and school-blind recruitment processes. Perhaps an efficient digital recruitment platform could support this? Is it enough for gender pay gap reporting for practices with fewer than 250 people to be voluntary? To do justice to the legacy of Stephen Lawrence, our institutions ought to aim for the gold standard in addressing systemic/unconscious bias.
The debate around intervention to affect the status quo has been opened up by a Supreme Court ruling last year that deemed the positive action taken by a Jewish housing association in Hackney, as a legitimate means to address disadvantage, connected to a protected characteristic. Simply waiting to receive two equally qualified applications before selecting a more diverse candidate is arguably too late. It does little to acknowledge the challenges candidates face earlier or later in life. If anything, it perpetuates the need for those with disadvantage to have to work twice as hard as their peers.
Fees and salaries need to start reflecting the work we as a profession can do, want to do and are prepared to do. The race to the bottom is leaving us with unpaid overtime, inflexible working hours, limited part time options and fewer resources to divert towards diversity and inclusion. The profession needs to be one that’s worth pursuing for those who can least afford it.
To all those struggling through this difficult time, know you're not alone, and this too shall pass. As for me, I am taking on a job with the NHS to do my bit in the pandemic relief effort and pay the bills. Architecture will have to wait. I'll remember the words tweeted by a rover on a distant planet:
Perseverance will get you anywhere.
Shemol Rahman is a Part 2 architectural assistant
This competition was run in collaboration with RIBA Future Architects Network