Difficult conversations – tackling diversity and inclusiveness at SGP
Muhammad Khan, SGP’s London Studio Director, talks about the need to feel comfortable having the awkward conversations about diversity and inclusion in a profession that has the reputation of being dominated by white, middle-class, middle-aged men.
Let’s say it out loud. Discrimination exists in our profession. [Or there is a lack of diversity and inclusiveness in our profession.]
I’ve felt it. Colleagues have felt it. That feeling of otherness, of looking around a meeting or site or office and seeing no-one that looks like you, shares the same background, uses the same restroom. Being looked at differently of judgements made on assumed stereotypes. And that feeling of being constrained, on edge, anxious, apart.
I don’t think anyone – at least I hope not – believes that this situation is right. So, what are we doing about it?
SGP as a practice, prides itself on being caring, open and fair to all its employees, after all, our ethos is We Care, We Challenge, We Deliver. And that isn’t just in architectural design. So, we’ve taken the first steps along what is likely to be a tricky and uncomfortable road.
Self-awareness is key to wanting to have the hard conversations, and equally those conversations need a safe place to start and grow. We set up SGP ID, a formal group which meets regularly, to talk openly about the challenges of equality, diversity, and inclusion that we face and how or what we need to overcome them. It’s a space where people feel comfortable enough to talk frankly about those difficult issues – like discrimination because of race, sex, gender, religion, belief, or many other grounds.
We set ourselves some objectives:
Culture Competency – Eliminate biases, fears, and stereotypes.
Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) – Understanding social identity and cultivating a climate of respect.
Anti-Racist – Race & Culture: Examine historical roots, contemporary manifestations, systemic racism inside of policies and practices.
Anti-Oppression – Identities, external and internal policies, safe workplace.
Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion (JEDI) – Dismantle and identify systems and structures that create inequality, promote fairness.
From my experience, a lot of people want to learn, but are afraid to ask questions. We need to give everyone the confidence to talk openly and non-judgementally about discrimination and diversity. I think many people believe the conversations will be awkward – and many do start out a bit sticky – but I believe if the mind-set is open, the exchange of ideas can be liberating for all concerned. As a young architect, I was called into my manager’s office to explain why I left work for an extended break on Fridays. I told him honestly about the importance to me of attending prayers. My boss hadn’t realised that was where I went and what started as a potential “issue” soon resolved itself into a positive conversation.
SGP ID has taken forward some important actions. Through SGP Role Models and Mentor Champions, SGP ID is, we hope, developing an honest open-door policy where staff feel they can speak up and can have conversations about their needs and emotions. We’re working to establish role models organically throughout SGP, in positions at all levels throughout the practice, and in all forms – gender, religion, culture, race, sexual orientation. Seeing someone like you, having that representation, that vision of opportunities and achievement is vital to promoting confidence and the feeling of belonging.
We’re also progressing Peer to Peer Mentoring and Reverse Mentoring. We’re involving Senior Directors and pushing the roles laterally throughout the practice, working to our aim of having people throughout SGP, Part 1 to Partner. My own mentoring is not restricted to within SGP. I am part of the RIBA Future Architects Student Mentoring Scheme and mentor students at London South Bank University and Kingston University, hoping to instil confidence and the thirst for diversity in students before they come into a practice. As a practice our midland offices also mentor students from Leicester and Loughborough schools of architecture. Inside or outside the practice, SGP is bringing on future leaders and they need the confidence of being part of a culturally diverse office.
We’re experimenting with various channels of communications, offering diverse platforms to engage with as many staff, people, clients by creating multi-host group discussions by introducing SGPodcast and SGPTube.
SGP ID can offer / plans to offer One to One Support and Guidance as well as creating a Study Group to further bring people together and expand the discussion.
Recently I was asked to be a contributor to a RIBA London LFA Panel entitled EDI Caring for Colleagues and Community and took part in a wide-ranging panel discussion with people from a range of professional and cultural backgrounds, ethnicity, and genders. One question that spoke to me very strongly was on how to get senior management to “buy into” diversity and inclusion within their practices.
To me, it’s a no-brainer / it’s obvious.
In architecture, our people are our main assets, so anything that limits an individual’s potential is an economic as well as an ethical issue. Discrimination not only bars some people from achieving their professional promise but the anxiety and stress that comes with not having a safe environment in which to be yourself, can have a catastrophic impact on mental health. We need to treat people as human beings rather than production tools and create an environment where each member of staff is treated as a valued individual rather than a cog in the machine.
I believe, very strongly, that EDI should not be just a tick-box exercise. It must go beyond just slogans and themed logos, and positively encourage open conversations that lead to action. It shouldn’t be classed as a “HR issue” or to accommodate some “flavour of the month” campaign. EDI should be everywhere, every day, for everyone. It should be the first thing we think of, not some bolt on because we’ve just noticed we have unrepresented staff. It should be as much as part of a practice’s DNA as good design.
And perhaps we should be doing more. We can look at what’s trending in the media and see different themes – religious, gender, BLM – and we can address the issues that look easiest to tackle or will give us a strong “PR narrative”. But, in architecture, we can look at it differently. We can, if we want, make every SGP person an ambassador for diversity in our professional landscape, sector by sector. Many sectors in the construction industry are male dominated. We, SGP, could challenge that majority view, but is that a dangerous business practice?
One thing is true; one size does not fit all and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for all. After all SGP is over 50 years old, we’re on a learning curve, but we are learning and, in the process, making a practice that has all the strengths of a truly open, inclusive, and diverse culture.