Re-forming the Building Industry: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
People from marginalized communities are shockingly underrepresented in the U.S. building industry. It’s past time to change that.
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Black people can’t be architects.
That bigoted statement came from the mouth of a child in reference to William Bates, FAIA, 2019 president of The American Institute of Architects (AIA). Although most adults wouldn’t say such a thing, our minds might go there due to messages we’ve assimilated based on cultural norms—messages like “architects are white men from affluent backgrounds.”
“We have these biases that are implanted in our minds very early, and they’re difficult to unravel,” Bates told BuildingGreen. It’s not just those of us who enjoy certain privileges who have these biases: less privileged people internalize them as well. “It puts the message in the mind of a minority or a woman that ‘I can’t do those things; I shouldn’t even try.’” This leads to a Catch-22: most architects actually are white men because people generally expect architects to be white men. Things are even worse in construction and engineering, where professional women and people of color are hardly represented at all.
In this report, we’ll look at the depth and breadth of the building sector’s equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) problem; the negative implications for the industry; and some things individuals and firms can do to motivate change.
What’s the Problem?
EDI: you may be hearing more about it in your workplace, and for good reason. The building professions just aren’t up to the standards of the 21st century.
In a 2018 study conducted by AIA San Francisco, with findings released on the Equity by Design website, it’s clear that, in architecture at least, there are a lot of very complex issues at play for people from a variety of under-represented groups. For example, although equal numbers of men and women enroll in architecture programs and even begin work in architecture firms, more women than men drop out of the profession.
It seems that everyone feels stress at particular milestones during their careers, but that this stress disproportionately affects people in traditionally marginalized groups. “What we’ve learned is that there are pinch points that impact people’s careers—men, women, white, architects of color,” said Annelise Pitts, AIA, one of the study authors. “There are definable moments that are difficult—and especially difficult for those who have been traditionally marginalized in the profession.” She added, “We validated the idea that there are salary gaps and achievement gaps related to personal identity” and that “it’s a complex topic, and there are a number of issues that are very deeply intertwined.”
The grim statistics
“In terms of diversity, in general the numbers are not great,” said Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, 2019 president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). Those numbers are especially abysmal for African-American licensed architects, of whom there were about 2,300 in the U.S. in 2019, according to Dowdell. That’s about 2% of licensed architects, whereas the African-American population of the U.S. is about 13.6%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, Black people and African-Americans made up just 6.7% of the entire construction industry in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In 2021, women made up 25.7% of AIA's membership, according to the organization’s 2021 Demographics Report (this differs from Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers because BLS demographics lump together architecture, engineering, and related services). Members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups were 17.1% of the membership (with another 17.0% not reporting), and Indigenous members were 0.04%. Trends show that these numbers have been growing, with “data clearly show[ing] that incoming cohorts of future architecture professionals are more gender and racially and/or ethnically diverse than the profession today,” the report says. But “firm culture that supports women and minorities throughout their professional careers will be crucial in seeing this extension come to fruition,” the AIA Firm Report from 2018 said.
That support will look different for different groups, however. “K–12 is incredibly important for the Black and African-American communities,” noted Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, former chair of the Equity and the Future of Architecture Steering Group at AIA. (That’s because of limited awareness of architecture as a profession among younger people in these populations.)
For Hispanic and Latinx communities, there is a mystery that needs more research, she said. “We are seeing very close to the population density in school; they graduate but don’t enter the workforce at the same rate.”
Women, meanwhile, enter school and the workforce at parity but tend to drop out between zero to three and ten to fifteen years. “It’s a workforce issue,” said Grandstaff-Rice. “This is a multidimensional issue with different effects based on different populations.” There may be good reasons for this, as women who choose motherhood tend to be primary caregivers, and because of the demanding work of architecture, their careers can suffer. “Working mothers face especially large pay gaps, often because they are making decisions about where and how they work to facilitate childcare,” said Pitts.
In engineering, things are even grimmer. According to statistics released in 2021 by the American Society for Engineering Education, just 22.5% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to women. For mechanical engineers, the number is 15.7%, while architectural engineering looks better at 37.4%. In 2019, just 4.4% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to Black or African-American students, and 12.1% to Hispanic students (18.9% of U.S. citizens identify as Hispanic or Latinx). Asian-American students, in contrast, received 14.7% of degrees, while the population density in the U.S. is just 6.1%. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2022, 8.5% of mechanical engineers were women, while 16.1% of people in “architecture and engineering occupations” overall were.
Professionals in the construction industry are trickier to track because demographic data include jobsite laborers as well. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) reported in 2018 that 63% of the construction workforce was white and that 9.1% of the entire construction industry was female.
While diversity is vital, it’s also important to remember that diversity alone will not solve endemic problems, cautioned Pitts. “The pipeline is more diverse than it’s ever been,” she told BuildingGreen. “But a more diverse pipeline will not yield a more diverse profession without huge culture change.”
Diversity and the bottom line
Diversity should matter to us not only because homogeneity harms traditionally marginalized people but also because it harms firms, communities, and the built environment as a whole.
Research giant McKinsey & Co released a series of three reports domonstrating the business case for workplace diversity. The most recent report, published in 2020, states, “Our latest analysis reaffirms the strong business case for both gender diversity and ethnic and cultural diversity in corporate leadership. ... The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.” A 2018 study reported on in Forbes concluded that “companies that have more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue due to innovation. This finding is huge for tech companies, start-ups, and industry where innovation is the key to growth.” Industries like architecture, for example.
Let’s not forget the fundamental purpose of the building industry—manifesting the goals and aspirations of communities through the built environment. That requires creativity, and homogeneity counteracts that creativity. “There have been studies that have found that more diverse teams are actually more creative and solve problems faster,” pointed out Bates. “It behooves us as a profession to push the idea of more inclusive teamwork.” (For more on this, see “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter” from the Harvard Business Review and the book The Difference by Scott Page.)
And if that doesn’t grab you, consider that you can lose out on jobs simply because of a lack of diversity. “I will say that in many pursuits over the last year, there has been an increased ask for more diversity on the team,” said Amy Donohue, AIA, principal at Bora Architects. “We had one housing bureau say to us, ‘Don’t come back with a team of three men and one woman.’”
Why this demand? Because clients increasingly want to see teams that can truly relate to the communities they serve. “As architects, we shape the future of the built environment for the people who live in the built environment,” said Dowdell. “Our projects are impacting a diverse population, and our profession should also be reflective of that society.”
Yiselle Santos Rivera, AIA, global director of equity, diversity, and inclusion at HKS, echoed these thoughts, adding, “If you don’t really have a team that understands all the users and all the diversity within each community, then you are not going to create something that is truly inclusive of everybody who will use the space.” This in turn affects the sustainability of structures. “If you don’t mimic your stakeholders, you will have a harder time creating something truly authentic to them that will hold value for them in the long term.”
This may be in part because the responsiveness of the extended community depends on their connection with those who are trying to engage them in the design and construction process. Because of broken promises by “majority professionals” in the past, “there can be a little distrust at times if the faces on the team don’t look like the community,” said Bates. “My dream is that more and more, as we get more minorities in the profession, we’ll have a different face on teams that enter communities,” he added. “It might actually encourage local community citizens to open up in a different way and share their opinions.”
Among all the research about diversity and success, there is a princess’s pea of uncomfortable truth. “Research has shown that well-managed homogeneous teams outperform poorly managed diverse teams, while well-managed diverse teams outstrip all others,” states the AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice—a set of six guides released by the organization to support people and firms in advancing EDI. The first guide is about intercultural competence, which it defines as “an individual’s or group’s ability to function effectively across cultures.” It warns that without intentionally building this kind of competence, diverse groups can “clash,” and people can come to view diversity as a hindrance rather than a help.
The guide looks in depth at how to consciously cultivate intercultural competence. Learning to surface and process implicit, or unconscious, bias is a good place for an individual to begin. (This is discussed in more detail below.)
Another important step is to set aside time to listen to yourself and others. “We cannot have a deep conversation without recognizing who we are, our experience, and the experience of others—how our reality can differ from others’,” said Grandstaff-Rice. This is how the Equity in Architecture Commission—the 16-person AIA group whose recommendations led to the development of the Guides for Equitable Practice—began its work, she said. Each of the 16 group members told their stories, reflecting identities like educator, parent, client, or practitioner in addition to gender, racial, ethnic, and other identities. The work was difficult and uncomfortable, but rewarding. One perhaps unexpected outcome was recognition that there was “a spectrum of understanding” among the group members. For example, someone might be very sensitive to issues around ethnicity but oblivious to issues around gender. This might sound squishy and personal and not like the right starting place for an AIA commission, but it was essential, suggested Grandstaff-Rice, to moving forward successfully with the project.
Voices: Listening First
It’s all well and good to read or talk about bias, but experiencing it is painful, infuriating, and sometimes life-changing. For people in a dominant culture to understand those who are marginalized, the first step is to listen. This section includes stories of interviewees from the building industry, intended simply to be listened to. Then, consider some ways to “pass the mic” effectively, and to use your own voice to speak up and help correct bias, microaggressions, and other symptoms of systemic inequity.
A scholarship student
As a student at Notre Dame, Bates was walking into the architecture building during Homecoming weekend when he was approached by some white visitors who asked if he was a scholarship student. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am,” Bates replied.
“What sport do you play?” asked a woman.
“I’ve never played a sport,” Bates told BuildingGreen. “From that point on, I stopped wearing sneakers in college.”
One anonymous interviewee is genderqueer and hasn’t found acceptance of that among coworkers or leadership. Ze uses the pronouns ze, hir, and hirs.
“When I’ve come out professionally as genderqueer, even in a progressive firm of mostly young sustainability professionals in a large urban area, my gender has been largely ignored in an I-don’t-understand-this-so-I’m-just-going-to-pretend-it-doesn't-exist kind of way,” ze wrote to BuildingGreen. “The pronoun issue is an ongoing battle, and one that I haven't even approached (professionally) now that I live in the Midwest and not an urban center. I only use my preferred pronouns when I give talks at universities because they usually get it. “
Architect and mother: possible?
Another anonymous respondent told us, “My dad is an architect, and I almost didn’t become an architect specifically because I watched the hours that he put in. Having a stay-at-home mom made it possible. I didn’t feel the profession would allow me to do both things [have a career and be a mother]. If I were going into the profession, I needed to be part of the solution because it wasn’t going to solve itself.” Now that she is a mother, “It’s a new work identity for me. It comes with challenges, but it may not need to be the same amount of challenge that it would have been. I’m hoping for the best, I guess.”
Five to one
“I went to RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute],” said Grandstaff-Rice. This was in 1994 when the male-to-female ratio was 5:1. “It prepared me well for the experience” of being a female architect. “Often I’m in a project meeting, and I’m the only female in the room, and this is 2019. It isn’t just architects: engineers, construction managers, state officials. Sometimes I have to remind myself that that’s not normal. Because I’ve been in this for so long, I’ve been conditioned to think, ‘This is what it is.’”
“Some people do not intentionally try to figure out what I’m trying to say,” said Rivera, whose first language is Spanish. She cites mispronouncing some words or translating idioms as examples. “I would rather people try to understand, add context, and help me interpret what I want to say instead of mocking my English. That I definitely take more seriously than other things. It always feels like a putdown as opposed to instructive or positive feedback.”
“Until I came to McGough … I had to un-train myself to speak up,” Jennifer Kruse, former director of sustainability at construction firm McGough, told BuildingGreen. “I learned to become a wallflower—to step back and not ruffle feathers because I felt so vulnerable being a female in this industry. I had to figure out for myself that, Hey, I’ve got valuable information here.”
Kruse continued, “I’ve been in construction for roughly 20 years, and I’ve seen the gamut. Probably the biggest kick in the shins I got was when I was laid off.” Hired at the same time as a far less experienced male colleague, Kruse expressed confusion at the choice to lay her off instead of her counterpart.
Her boss replied, “Well, he has more experience than you.”
“I said, ‘No, he doesn’t; he’s right out of college.’”
“Well, his dad was a trim carpenter,” the boss replied.
“I try to support my co-workers of color more, which probably comes across in the most awkward of ways because I don’t know how,” said an anonymous, white interviewee. “Although I’m experienced in grappling with inequities along the lines of gender and sexuality, my position as a white person means I continue to grapple with my implicit bias and how best to support my colleagues of color.”
Calling Mr. Bates
“I’ve had situations where I’ve been in negotiations with owners by phone before I met them, and then when I did finally set up a face-to-face meeting with them, they kept referring to me in the third person,” said Bates.
“‘Mr. Bates told me when I talked to him on the phone that this deal was going to go this way.’”
When Bates replied, “‘I am Mr. Bates,’” they would come back with, ‘Mr. Bates said ...’”
“I grew up in Puerto Rico,” Yiselle Santos Rivera told us. “When I moved to the United States, my viewpoint was always ‘Keep your head down, do the work, don’t be too loud, don’t appear too Latina.’ I wonder if that hindered my work and my success—my own bias about how people would perceive me.” She added, “A lot of those things have to do with growing up in Puerto Rico, an American territory but without American culture or the rights enjoyed by my fellow Americans living on the U.S. mainland. It stopped me from doing me, being more visible, being more vocal.”
The minefield of using your voice
But being more vocal may be called for, and that’s a difficult position to be in for people in marginalized groups.
“I’ve been on a circuit the past week-and-a-half visiting HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] about architecture and the challenges they’re going to face—the discrimination, overt bias, and unconscious bias they’re going to face,” Bates told BuildingGreen. “They have to have some resilience and be willing to speak up. [But] they have to be careful not to offend people who might find it awkward.”
Wow, talk about a minefield.
This may be easier if your office has previously engaged in some kind of conversation on implicit bias and intercultural competence, especially if standards for communication have already been established. “If people in the office, coworkers, begin to understand what they might be doing unconsciously, and if the victims of indiscretions are sensitive to it and willing to speak up when those things happen, I think we can bring change,” Bates said.
But even without that, it’s important to talk it out—if only for your own mental health. Says Grandstaff-Rice, “If you do see bias, call it out. Your voice is your greatest power, being able to talk through things; don’t internalize it.”
Dowdell agrees. “I think that all people have a role to play. People of color have to be really vocal about what their concerns are so they can be addressed.” At the same time, it’s the responsibility of everyone to create a culture of inclusion, she said.
“In the big picture, I don’t think the burden is on [marginalized groups],” said Bates. “The burden is on the majority population to recognize their biases. This is not a Black problem or a woman problem.”
Hence, beware the use of minimal diversity to project an image of greater EDI. “There is an expectation many times that one person of color has to take on, let’s say, the community work or represent the background they come from,” noted Grandstaff-Rice. “It’s unfair pressure as the token, whether it’s them going to interviews to demonstrate diversity, or being tapped for office initiatives to increase diversity. … There is undue pressure to represent something more than they are.”
Leveraging privilege: next steps for allies
So how can people in dominant cultures really be good allies in the workplace? It doesn’t just happen naturally: it requires ongoing and difficult work, plus some strategic thinking and action. Here are a few places to start.
Own your privilege
Barbara Grant, CEO of the Crux Consulting Consortium, facilitates conversations with companies around the world on strategic goal-setting, including how their goals and values relate to EDI. Grant works with people on recognizing their own privilege before moving them on to recognition of systemic inequity. White privilege, for example, means you are free to ignore the color of your own skin.
She often uses the example of having a picnic with her teenage son and his friends at a park. “We don’t notice that we’re white when people go by or police officers go by because we don’t have to,” Grant explained to BuildingGreen. “They just smile at us.” But Black people don’t have that freedom. “If we are Black, we are very aware that we are Black. People walk with their children around us, they don’t smile, and they wonder why we’re at their park.” That image tends to get privileged people thinking.
“That’s kind of where the beginning of the understanding of privilege is,” she said. “It doesn’t mean I didn’t have to work hard or study hard or be disciplined or ask for help. It just means that the color of my skin didn’t make it harder. … It didn’t create an additional obstacle for me to work hard and study and have access to healthcare and get jobs or to be considered a safe person.”
Owning your privilege—whether it’s because you are white, male, young, from an affluent background, or something else—is the first step toward being able to listen to others and become an empathetic and effective ally.
Isn’t this kind of conversation … uncomfortable?
Because they don’t have to think about the color of their skin, white people “consider any discussion of race or ethnicity to be uncomfortable because we haven’t ever had these conversations. It feels abnormal,” Grant says. Not wanting to make people uncomfortable is “a lovely sentiment,” according to Grant. “Who in their work is trying to make a lot of people uncomfortable? Nobody is.”
But if that’s your standard, she continued, “Take that same thought and apply it, and think, ‘Who in this community is currently the most uncomfortable?’” We almost always worry about “the people who are in first class, and say we don’t want to disturb them, instead of saying, ‘What about the people who are traveling in the luggage compartment?’ That seems pretty uncomfortable.” By starting with people’s values, like wanting community comfort, Grant helps people see how to apply those values “through the eyes of the people they’re trying to serve who are farthest from justice.”
Grandstaff-Rice has seen this in her equity work as well. “This idea that [members of the dominant culture] have to change what they’re doing or think in a different way, it makes them worry, Am I in the wrong? I’m not an evil person!” It’s important for them to understand something big: “It’s actually not about you. It’s actually about ensuring that other people can engage and be part of the conversation.”
Listen, then speak (but carefully)
Once you understand your own privilege, you can then start thinking about other people’s perspectives and needs.
Once you are able to more fully listen, hear, and understand, then you will probably want to do something about inequity. But before you jump in, maybe slow down and think strategically, warns Grant.
She offered the example of a Black colleague complaining about her low salary. If you, as an ally (and probably not even knowing her salary), immediately go to HR to talk about your colleague’s salary, that’s not helpful, and “you’ve just outed her as a rabble rouser.” Not ally-like. Instead, try going to HR and requesting some transparency, says Grant. She suggests asking questions like, “Can you give me information about the pay ranges in my position? Because I’d like to understand how my salary was decided.” Or, “Do you ever do a salary analysis, and how often do you do that?” Or, “What should I do if I find that I am underpaid?” If you get answers, you can take the information back to your colleague and recommend pathways sanctioned by HR.
What about when a colleague says something in a meeting, and no one acknowledges it, but a few minutes later another colleague mentions the same idea and ends up getting credit for it? Should you stop the meeting and shout, “Hey, Santina just had that idea a few minutes ago!”
No, says Grant, who says that approach “is just weird,” and offers some alternatives.
For example, she said, if you know your voice is usually heard and someone else’s is not, consider talking to them before an important meeting about their ideas. Then you can use an opening in the meeting to say, “You know, Fred and I were talking yesterday about this. Fred, would you be willing to share what you said with the group?”
If you didn’t think ahead and you find yourself in this situation, consider drawing Santina out again. Do not repeat her idea in your own words, Grant cautions. “Turn back to Santina, and say, ‘Santina, can you say that thing again? I think it’s important.’” Use the person’s name, allow that person to state their own idea again, and “let them have a chance at the first step of leading that next part of the conversation,” she advised.
Recognize that everyone benefits from equity
It’s important not to worry that you’ll be amplifying others’ voices at the expense of your own. Advancing EDI isn’t about getting special goodies for some people and not for others. It’s about meeting everyone’s needs. Often, in an effort to accommodate some people’s needs, we end up helping others as well.
Grandstaff-Rice offers the example of real-time captioning of presentations and speeches, which her firm decided to do at its annual meetings because of an appeal from the deaf and hard of hearing. “It didn’t just help the deaf and hard of hearing: it helped those of us who were more visual,” she noticed. “Also those who are English-as-a-second-language speakers. That point to me illustrates that in many cases when we go above and beyond, it ends up benefiting much more than just the target group. It ends up benefiting us all.”
Be aware of your office culture
In trying to advance EDI in your workplace and the profession as a whole, it’s vital to ensure it’s not just lip service, says Robert Hoang, former associate principal at Bora Architects. And there are certain cultural issues endemic to the building industry that need to be rooted out.
“We talk about this, but we still put these starchitects up as these icons. They’re all white men. All the big commissions that you see around the world, they are all some white dude.” He continued, “It’s a team of people, and one person is getting all the accolades. Why is design like that? Why isn’t it a team of people?”
Getting to the heart of that could go a long way toward advancing equity, as project teams include people who work as hard as everyone else but don’t get acknowledged—and this is especially true for women and people of color. “It is on all of us to push for an agenda that is appropriate as we are evolving,” Hoang said.
You can start at your own firm by helping ensure that entire teams are acknowledged for successes instead of one main person.
Advocate for firm-wide change
Just like you can go to HR and advocate for a salary review, you can go to firm leadership and advocate for a broader focus on EDI. (It helps if you volunteer to be part of the initiative.) Many companies put this responsibility on the sustainability team, but others are starting out with EDI committees or working groups. Others have hired EDI specialists or may even have a chief equity officer.
Firm-level action is important because it helps raise awareness in everyone about privilege and bias, and it can open up communication to promote greater intercultural competence.
“The core is open communication,” said Dowdell. “There is more that unites us than divides us. … It’s really about fostering a sense of belonging. That’s really for everyone to do.”
What Firms Can Do
But individuals can’t go it alone.
“Companies [need to] foster a sense of security relative to people being able to voice what their concerns are,” Dowdell also said. “Make sure the work environment is a healthy one. It’s less about color or culture and more about making sure everyone has the opportunity to talk.” With this, the firm becomes “a place where people feel like their ideas are valuable; an opportunity for them to grow and flourish and do their best work.”
Start at the top
But how can companies ensure this is happening? It can’t happen without leadership (which in this case must include actively listening to those at the metaphorical “bottom”).
McGough is a family-run construction company, which might sound old fashioned, but its EDI policies are anything but. The family “feels like, as part of our culture and the things that we already offer our employees, it’s important to them that we are on the front of the curve,” Kruse told BuildingGreen. The family’s support is why the firm is forward-thinking about EDI, she suggested.
But beware, leaders. As a person in a position of authority, you have inherent blind spots, and you need to be listening to your employees in order to truly move forward. Your success is measured by intercultural competence and open communication, not by legal compliance or potentially misleading diversity statistics.
“When we talk about creating an equitable and diverse environment, you’re going to get a completely different snapshot of what that looks like for [leadership],” according to Leah Alissa Bayer, AIA, founder of architecture firm EVIA Studio and president of Architects FORA. The principal on the leadership team might think, “We’re doing a great job,” she said, because “we have 40% women, and we work hard to maintain a diverse staff.” Then if you talk to one of those women, say, a woman of color, you might discover that 90% of those 40% are white women, and half of them are working on admin tasks, she said. “When responding to those questions, we need to make sure that we are creating an equitable and diverse environment and that we include [all] voices in those conversations.”
Reconsider recruitment and retention
It’s common to hear that firms want more diversity but can’t achieve it because they aren’t attracting a diverse pool of applicants. Changing your hiring practices can mitigate this problem.
It can start as far back as the job description. “We are looking into technology that will help us change the way we create our recruitment descriptions,” said Rivera. “We are being very mindful about the language we project and how it’s being interpreted.” According to the Harvard Business Review, for example, words like “competitive” and “determined” tend to attract fewer female applicants, while words like “cooperative” and “collaborative” attract more. Software programs can help identify such subtly gendered words.
There’s also a question of where you look, Rivera said. “How are we doing outreach to HBCUs? What career fairs are we tackling? We are being very mindful and going beyond our typical connections and doing more outreach.”
Once you’ve advertised a position, what happens next is just as important. A great deal of research (see an example here) has shown that resumes from people who are obviously women or minorities are viewed more critically due to implicit bias. Using a blind resume system can help, says Kruse. “Ours blacks out the name, address, and what school you went to,” she explained. “It takes out anything identifying.”
One aspect of recruitment you might not have considered is outreach to K–12 schools. It takes a long-term view and is really more about recruitment to the industry overall, but it could change a child’s life.
“I grew up as a kid not knowing about architecture,” said Bates. “My parents hadn’t gone to college, nor had they graduated from high school. I was the first person in my family to go to college.” In spite of the odds, Bates “fell in love” with architecture on the first day of school and never looked back. “I know there are others out there in the minority community,” he said, adding that we need to be proactive in creating “ways for them to find their way into the profession.”
This isn’t necessarily a long shot, even for your own firm. According to Donohue, Bora took on a student a few years ago from De La Salle Catholic High School, which has a special corporate work-study program. The school has scholarships that primarily aid students of color. “Most of their parents are not college educated, not professionals; many are incarcerated,” Donohue told BuildingGreen. “These are tough stories for these young students.” The very first youth who interned at Bora ended up going to Columbia University for his architecture degree. “We just hired him back to be a full-time employee with us. He’s working with us on the new De La Salle Catholic High School. It’s a great return for us to have him back.”
Now let’s say you’ve hired the diverse workforce of your dreams. How do you keep them?
First, look at the statistical reasons that people leave (The AIA Guides for Equitable Practice and the Equity by Design Early Findings report are a good place to start). It’s often because the workplace culture doesn’t foster advancement for women or minorities, who are disproportionately shuffled into lower-paid, lower-status positions and are less likely to get raises and promotions. There are also issues for people who want to start families—and especially for women who want to be mothers, since they are often the primary caregivers. According to the Equity by Design Early Findings report, just 5% of fathers in the survey sample reported being primary caregivers, while 44% of mothers did.
“We need to provide guidance for firms on how to be more inclusive and equitable in terms of practices and the way they treat their employees,” said Bates, who called for “opportunities for women and minorities to move up in the ranks into leadership.”
Said Rivera, HKS is trying to address this by internally looking at all employees’ three- and five-year career paths. “We’re looking for opportunities for them to find their own path and providing them with opportunities to diversify their scope within those first years.” If everyone gets a chance to prove themselves at more tasks, it could help solve the problem of defaulting to the lower-status jobs for women and minorities. “We also facilitate mentorship and sponsorship relationships within our firm,” she said, which can ensure that everyone gets mentoring—not just the people who look like the more experienced staff members.
McGough has a special initiative in place to try to develop skills in women to groom them for leadership in the company. “Our leadership panel is pretty dated. … We’re not shy about that. We’re trying to fix it.”
Donohue praised the Paid Family Leave Act in Oregon, but said the company had had its own program for paid family leave even before it was required. “I think it is about supporting everyone in the firm to do their best work—to support people in their personal lives, regardless of who they are.” Paid family leave can go a long way toward helping retain new parents, especially mothers, but also helps anyone caring for a parent or partner as well.
According to Bayer, there is something to be said for radically changing your workplace culture to accommodate all different lifestyles. Her firm, which is currently made up entirely of women, is completely virtual. “We don’t have an office, and we don’t have set working hours,” she explained. “There is an unlimited policy with taking vacation or time off. I think in order to really support a wide array of personal lifestyles and lives, we need to accommodate a lot more flexibility” instead of “punishing people for diverse personal lives.”
Bayer went on, “I think it’s really strange as professionals that we still treat our staff as a typical minimum-wage production position. … I found that if you give people freedom, they produce better work and are much happier. So far, the team that I’ve built is still with me, and I hope that continues into the future because people are happy. We are really breaking down the culture in architecture firms that people are locked into a desk 12+ hours per day.”
You may not be ready to go there and unsure where to start with recruitment and retention. NOMA offers training for its members, according to Dowdell. “We are making sure that we’re helping our corporate members understand how [to] recruit diverse talent, retain diverse talent, and foster a sense of belonging.”
Develop your team
Individual advocates are crucial, and leadership is vital, but in order to truly change the firm culture, you need a critical mass of employees to come along. Culture change will require thoughtfulness, hard work, and investment.
One place firms commonly begin is with mandatory implicit bias training. This kind of training can be helpful for teaching people about their privileges and biases, but don’t expect it to solve all your problems in one go. In fact, according to Project Implicit (a nonprofit that educates people about unconscious bias while also using testing to collect data), “Right now, there is not enough research to say for sure that implicit biases can be reduced, let alone eliminated. Packaged ‘diversity trainings’ generally do not use evidence-based methods of reducing implicit biases. Therefore, we encourage people to instead focus on strategies that deny implicit biases the chance to operate, such as blind auditions and well-designed ‘structured’ decision processes.” In other words, your implicit biases are unlikely to go away, but once you do know what your biases are, you can find workarounds.
“We did implicit bias training based on the Harvard Implicit Bias Survey, and we brought in speakers,” said Rivera. “It created an awareness that we needed more training. We are not just checking the box.”
Indeed, some firms are going deeper. Kruse told BuildingGreen that McGough has begun an annual EDI event, to which it invites other building industry partners—including cities, architects, and even their competitors in construction. “It can’t just stop at our door,” said Kruse. “It’s an industry-wide issue that has to be fixed on a broader scale.” The first year was for raising awareness about and teaching people to navigate implicit bias. This year, the theme is ally-ship.
Grant notes that workshops and trainings can only go so far. She believes that EDI work has to be fully integrated with strategic goals in order to be successful.
“The work that we do really is targeted always toward the mission they are trying to accomplish. We never separate equity, diversity, or inclusion as a separate topic,” Grant said. Crux helps clients look at “the priorities that you’re trying to do in your work, and how is it that understanding equity, privilege, and bias is important so that you can be successful in the tangible strategic goal that you want to do.” She says workshops that are separate from this kind of systemic work “often have limited value, whereas discussions that happen as part of the core work that you’re trying to do creates the condition in which people treat these topics with more seriousness—and I think for this work that’s really important.”
Benchmark, disclose, and improve
How can you tell if your EDI efforts are succeeding? Greater diversity is relatively easy to measure, but equity and inclusion are not readily quantified.
One option for setting a baseline and measuring success is the multi-attribute Just label, a transparency program focused on social justice in the workplace. “If you are saying you are moving toward a place where firms are more equitable and diverse, show it,” said Hoang. For Bora, he said, the Just label “shows a lot of kinks in the armor. It’s a way for us to work towards a better outcome.” As part of a suite of programs offered by the International Living Future Institute, Just integrates with both the Living Building Challenge (LBC) and Living Product Challenge (LPC). For LBC, two primary team members (such as the architect or MEP engineer) must have published a Just label, and five project team members must benchmark their performance. For LPC, two primary team members (such as the architect or MEP engineer) must have published a Just label, and five project team members must benchmark their performance. For LPC, manufacturers must have a Just label as well.
Just 2.0 (the current version) covers the following topics:
- ethnic diversity (benchmarked against the local region’s population diversity)
- gender diversity
- inclusion (based on inclusion policy and a two-question inclusion survey)
- employee engagement (based on an employee engagement program and survey)
- full-time employment
- pay-scale equity (based on the ratio of the lowest-paid employee to the highest-paid employee)
- freedom of association (ability to unionize)
- living wage (using an accepted living wage calculator by region)
- gender pay equity (using an accepted wage-gap calculator)
- physical health (referencing the Centers for Disease Control’s Workplace Health Model)
- well-being (includes a variety of factors, such as flexible working arrangements, mindfulness training, gender-neutral bathrooms, employee assistance programs, and lactation spaces)
- employee healthcare
- retirement provision
- family and medical leave
- training and education
- local communities (regarding engagement with local stakeholders)
- community volunteering
- animal welfare
- charitable giving
- positive products and services
- equitable purchasing
- supply chain (involving socially and environmentally responsible commitments and practices)
Another approach is to pursue B Corp status. Unlike Just, this is a certification rather than a transparency platform and is more broadly focused. It assesses a company’s environmental and social impact, governance, accountability, and transparency. It also doesn’t require transparency about specific EDI metrics. Like the Just label, B Corp status is referenced in the LEED pilot credit.
Reasons for Hope
There is more focus now than ever before on EDI in the industry.
“I’m the eternal optimist,” said Bates. “We’re making headway on improving the numbers” through programs like diversity advancement scholarships, K–12 education initiatives, and relationships with historically Black colleges and universities, he said.
But it takes more than diversity to improve the industry. “We have a lot of work to do as a profession and as a society. … If people have a heart-to-heart discussion about something like this, as important as this, I think it goes a long way toward building bonds between employees that help them create stronger teams.”
It’s important not to try to move too quickly, though, cautions Grandstaff-Rice. “Some of the frustration, especially with advocates, is that this is not happening quick enough—and that’s fair. But we have felt that in order for it to be long-lasting and sustainable, we need to do it in a way that doesn’t set quotas or targets but works at uncovering systematic challenges and creating a new framework for more equitable practices.” She added, “If it was one simple thing that we could fix, this would be a different conversation.”
Bayer noted that things seem to be changing incrementally in terms of workplace culture. “Before I started my company, I was interviewing with firms around the San Francisco area,” she explained. “They were offering much better [than typical] work–life balance perks. I hope that continues and it goes beyond half-day Fridays every other week and what people need to stay in the profession and stay engaged as their lives change.”
To go deep, there is nothing like listening, concluded Grandstaff-Rice. “The key thing is listening to people’s personal experiences. That helps you understand and unpack some of the influences that helped shape their current thinking. Everybody’s on a spectrum, and we can all do better.”
Update: This report was revised on April 19, 2023 to correct outdated statistics and terminology as well as details about interviewees.
Melton, P. (2023, April 19). Re-forming the Building Industry: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/re-forming-building-industry-equity-diversity-and-inclusion
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has approved this course for 1.5 Learning Units. The Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) has approved this course for 1.5 CE hours towards the LEED Credential Maintenance Program.
Upon completing this course, participants will be able to:
1. Define equity, diversity, and inclusion, and explain their relevance to the building industry as well as how they contribute to occupant and community well-being.
2. List seven ways that people can be effective allies in their firms to advance the welfare of colleagues and broader communities.
3. List ten ways that architecture, engineering, and construction firms can advance equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace to address community well-being.
4. Explain how certification frameworks like LEED and the Living Building Challenge reward firms for taking steps toward greater social equity.
To earn continuing education credit, make sure you are logged into your personal BuildingGreen account, then take the quiz.