One of the most difficult questions I am asked on a daily basis is “What do you do?” I am an architect, a former electrician, a social entrepreneur and founder of Built By Us, and I’m honoured to be a charity Trustee and an elected member of the Architects Registration Board (ARB).
I am an individual who wears many hats and assumes different professional identities. What drives my work is that I hate to see wasted talent. And in construction and architecture, we have become too used to believing that talent comes in a particular package. My belief is that we need to challenge the lazy preconceptions that have been allowed to flourish in our culture about who in our society has the potential for greatness and to provide a safe space for the potential to grow.
I am also a Black, British female of Jamaican heritage and like the majority of people in the UK I attended a comprehensive secondary school. I am from a single parent family and our level of income meant that I qualified for free schools meals. This is not the typical background or profile for an architect, a board member or a professional.
While only 7% of the UK population attend independent schools, according to Alan Milburn's report on Social Mobility: Fair Access to the Professions, 75% of people in professional roles have been schooled independently. And this report highlights that it’s not just an independent education that provides a sound platform for progression, it also accesses to networks of people and connections which help to open up opportunities. This begs the questions: What role is state education playing in nurturing talent? And, how can the majority access the support and networks necessary to fulfil their potential?
In some ways, my personal profile, like my professional life is complex and multi-layered, no one aspect of which fully defines me. And I believe it is not only one aspect of a profile that impacts the ability to progress.
The need for a holistic approach
It is only by understanding how diversity characteristics interact with each other (i.e. those which are protected and those which are acquired) that we can really and truly address difference, diversity and discrimination.
“If we aren’t intersectional, some of us, the most vulnerable, will fall through the cracks”
Kimberle Williams Crenshaw
What this means for me is that if we as a sector and as individuals are to truly address discrimination, we need to be taking a holistic approach, recognising the individual and combined impact of protected characteristics such as gender and race, but also encompassing income, caring responsibilities and all the places where those strands overlap. And ideally, the solution should be created and co-designed with the input of those impacted.
For individuals pursuing their aspirations in architecture who are impacted by intersectionality, trying to navigate the barriers of gender, class and ethnicity can be exhausting. Not surprisingly many are put off before they even start; they may drop away during their studies or within the first few years of qualifying.
The RIBA did a piece of work looking at the average time it takes to qualify as an architect. On average it’s 9.5 years in the UK.
Looking in more depth at the RIBA’s data on education there are reasons to be positive and it would appear that efforts to widen participation are making an impact. In 2015/16 there were 3,741 new entrants to Part 1 full-time courses. Of the total number of full-time entrants to Part 1, 49% were female. 32% of those Part 1 students were from Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) backgrounds. While this sounds positive it is worth noting that the data set includes students from around the world.
According to RIBA around 1,000 people, on average, each year, take and pass the Part 3 exam which allows them to register as an architect. Of that number around 35% of passes are achieved by women, 11% are BAME and 1% identify as Black British, that’s as few as 10 a year.
Given my background and heritage, it is clear to see that the chances of my becoming an architect were statistically unlikely. It’s incredible to think that when I qualified I may have been just one of a handful of black British women to become an architect that year.
However, the challenges I have faced on my career journey are not just about gender or educational structures, access to networks, stereotyping or access to financial support, all of which work together against the most vulnerable to create a series of barriers.
In order to address diversity and inclusion, we need to be looking at all of these issues holistically. We need to address the entire talent supply chain, the image of our industry, practical support and create a cohort of inclusive leaders. We need to see diversity as an opportunity for disruption.
So what might a more holistic approach look like?
The FLUID Diversity Mentoring Programme
It started at Architects for Change and is now run by Built By Us as part of our mission to diversify the construction sector. Our vision is for a construction sector that reflects the society it serves.
We do that by connecting diverse talent with opportunities in construction, supporting companies on their journey to being inclusive workplaces and fostering inclusive and diverse leadership through mentoring interventions.
Why FLUID? Started in 2012 it was developed to address under-representation and the higher levels of attrition for diverse talent. FLUID is designed to aid career progression and most importantly to help develop leadership skills.
The programme encourages applications from women, black and minority ethnic (BAME), those disadvantaged socioeconomically, LGBT people and people with disabilities.
FLUID uses a traditional model of mentoring, i.e. someone more experienced paired with someone less experienced. But we also leverage the opportunity for cross-discipline knowledge transfer by attracting a pan-professional cohort of mentors.
We support people at key stages of their careers, which means the mentees can be from student through to managerial level.
What does it involve? Mentors and mentees are matched for 12-month partnerships. We are currently in the midst of matching the 2017-2018 cohort, which we believe will be the largest one yet.
Back in 2012, we started with 20 pairings and over 5 years we’ve facilitated mentoring partnerships benefiting over 125 mentees, who have gone on to become leaders in their organisations.
The potential for apprenticeships
For more than 50 years architecture and other professions have favoured higher education as the principal pathway and despite major changes in funding the structure has remained constant.
Contracting organisations over this period have been contributing to an apprenticeship training fund via the Industrial Training Boards or ITBs. With a new levy, there is a real opportunity for the professions to engage with apprenticeships, and work has already begun.
A group of 20 practices and educators in architecture convened at the RIBA and began this journey in September 2016. The need to address the cost of education and the effect that this is having on the profile of architects emerging from schools of architecture was identified as a key challenge.
Two apprenticeship standards have been approved by the Department of Education for further development: Architectural Assistant (level 6 - Part 1 equivalent) and Architect (level 7, beyond part 1). It is hoped that 2018 will see the first architecture apprentices beginning their training. And as long as the quality of the courses and rewards ensure that the widest talent pool can access the profession, this could have the potential of making architecture and other professional careers an option for all.
The tools are being put into place, but they are only as good as we are, in terms of crafting the industry we wish to see and ensuring that talent is no longer wasted.