Diversity pays dividends, declare designers

Wednesday 14 February 2018

Achieving greater diversity in the workplace results in a happier, more rounded workforce, but also pays dividends on the bottom line. However, the architecture and related professions must try harder to be more representative of the city they work in – in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability.

Those were some of the key points to emerge at The Business Case for Diversity, a discussion at NLA last night held as part of its Inspiring Women Programme.

This is an area NLA takes very seriously, said NLA chairman Peter Murray, with the percentage of women members on its panels having risen from 15-20% two years ago to 35% regularly today and up to 47% on a number of events. ‘We’re very pleased with the way that is going’, he said.

But we will only really have got somewhere, said Pam Alexander, urbanist and founder member of Equilibrium, when we see that 35% of the leadership of the built environment world is female. And actually, she went on, this is a case for all of us, men as well as women. Alexander said it is sad there is very little in the way of metrics in the built environment, and pointed to a ‘sad and huge attrition rate’ in middle management. So Equilibrium aims to deliver those metrics, starting with a baseline now, putting ‘serious money’ into research work and offering speakers and mentors to women.

GVA chief executive Gerry Hughes said he passionately believes in maximising a diverse workforce but not only as a matter of principle. ‘It is about creating an environment which is good for our business and it absolutely makes us a better business’, he said. Accessing the best talent represented a competitive advantage, so it was important to ‘break the logjam’ of too many white male middle class staff members. Hughes said he was sad to see the stories about the Presidents’ Club, but not particularly surprised given the ‘systemic problem’ he feels exists across property, with its ‘alpha male culture.’ ‘We need to completely reframe the conversation’, he said, to create a modern, dynamic, inclusive and responsive industry that attracts people from every corner of society. GVA, said Hughes does not use the term diversity, preferring authenticity and letting people be themselves, but it was important to not forget people from different social backgrounds as well as gender and ethnicity aspects.

For architect Elsie Owusu it was tragic that since Stephen Lawrence’s death 25 years ago, when 2% of registered architects were from BAME backgrounds, statistics now show a 55% decline in that number. ‘We have been going backwards’ she said. ‘In order to have a truly diverse profession it should look like London and clearly it doesn’t’. There were enough studies to show that the ‘system is rigged’, she suggested, but rather than having ‘think tanks we should instead have ‘do tanks’.

Lendlease’s managing director in sustainability and external affairs Paul King said his company drew on the values of its founder, who was a great believer in social and environmental dimensions of property development. ‘The vision of the company is to create the best places and you don’t have to be rocket scientists’, he said, ‘if you only employed men you probably wouldn’t create the best places. We have to reflect the communities we are in.’ Lendlease has rolled out a programme of ‘unconscious bias’ training, has a female development programme and aims to get beyond the rhetoric and close the gap. ‘We have set ourselves a target of 50-50 and won’t be satisfied until we do it’.

The event also heard from Quintain head of procurement Mary Kelly Mannion, who said that at a time of a shortage of skills we are not drawing from the widest possible pool; the company has created a women in property and construction group and is working with schools within ‘a culture of continuous improvement.’ Finally, Monica von Schmalensee, consultant with White Arkitekter, said there were lessons to be learned from Sweden on gender balance, particularly on the country’s policies on parental leave and comparatively inexpensive childcare. Part of the answer lies with leadership and ‘starting with the family’ to educate children, so that with firms like Snohetta they talk about gender and diversity as part of their story. ‘This is about values, and the values you share.’

Discussion points with the audience raised issues such as aiming to end the creation of ‘disabling environments’; the need to act on mental health, with construction having one of the highest rates of male suicide; avoiding a ‘boundary approach’ in favour of broadening the discussion out; and even consideration for a ‘Rule of two’ – that no more than two shortlisted candidates for positions can come from the same group. 

By David Taylor, Editor - New London Quarterly

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The Business Case for Diversity


Across London’s built environment, diversity and the role of women in the industry has been rising up the agenda. Examining a crucial question for the industry, this panel discussion will discuss what difference a diverse workforce can make to a company’s bottom line.

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