Standing Out and Fitting In
Dec 11, 2020
BY TIM MILAM (WITH ASSISTANCE BY SHANNON RODRIGUEZ)
Since there were no open positions in the area where I was living, I relocated to a smallish town in a very rural state. I accepted a job at a 30-person architecture firm.
As a recent graduate, I knew next to nothing about the “real” world of architecture, but I was determined to do my best and worked hard. One day, I was called into the director’s office. I assumed this was not a good thing. The director, an imposing man in a suit, was very polite but told me that in order to “fit in,” I needed to cut my hair and dress more conservatively. When I asked if this was about my performance, he said I was doing well but that someone outside the firm had called to complain about my appearance. The problem was that I just didn’t look like the other employees. He explained that as former military, he would always believe that men should have short hair and dress conservatively.
The director never said that I looked “gay,” but I assumed this was the subtext. I really needed the job, but after a lot of introspection, I decided not to comply but to work harder and improve my skills. After a few more months, I requested a transfer to another branch of the company in a more progressive city. While I would like to say that everything got better in the new office, that was not the case, as I still felt like I was an outsider.
I’m not telling this story to complain. I know that, as a white man, I had the option to conform and “pass” while others are labeled and judged whenever they leave their homes. This experience and others, however, made me understand what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. I could have pretended to be someone I’m not, but it seemed wrong to work in an atmosphere where I felt excluded and would never be fully embraced as a team member. I promised myself that I would find a workplace that welcomed me, valued my uniqueness, and understood that I could be an asset. I wanted to find a place where I could stand out and fit in.
I am pleased to report that I eventually found an office where I belonged. These days, a large portion of my life is dedicated to issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I am a partner at FXCollaborative (FXC) located in New York City, and our firm is committed to making improvements— not only in our business but in the architecture profession. Additionally, I am a founding director of Build Out Alliance, a not-for-profit dedicated to promoting and advocating for the LGBTQ community in the building design and construction industries.
DEFINING DIVERSITY, INCLUSION, AND EQUITY
What exactly does DEI encompass? Here is my elevator pitch:
- Diversity requires that the makeup of our staff reflect the world in which we live with a mix of genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc.
- Inclusion must happen to ensure that all of these (very individual) employees being hired are working in an environment where they can feel comfortable and in which they feel that they belong.
- Equity means that all employees are treated fairly and given equal opportunities for training, professional development, project assignments, and leadership roles.
These three DEI components overlap and must constantly be assessed, adjusted, and redefined. To be truly successful, a business must put effort into all three and recognize that this is more than just checking a few boxes.
So, where do we begin? I believe that the starting point is taking an honest look at your business practices and, after you’ve acknowledged your reality, committing to positive change and to doing the necessary hard work.
Like many professions, architecture has historically been a male-dominated field, and in the United States, it has been mostly white. Our firm is no exception. Although difficult, the first step for us was to face some cold, hard facts. In 2014, the partners in our firm began evaluating who our “future leaders” would be. When we assessed the final categories, we realized that there was a serious lack of diversity. While we talked about diversity and considered ourselves progressive, we acknowledged that we needed to do much more.
Around the same time, a group of junior-level women had come forward and were interested in starting an official women’s group to address gender-related issues in the firm and the profession. The organizers asked to see the firm’s diversity data, which became the first time that we shared this beyond the leadership group. This transparency, and the acknowledgment of the challenges we faced, became a turning point in the firm, and our first employee resource group (ERG) was formed. The mission of the group, known as FXWomen, is to support the professional growth and leadership development for women in our office and profession through training initiatives, mentoring, and outreach. The firm provides financial support to the group and the use of our office space for events, seminars, and lectures.
Discussions between leadership and FXWomen, which had become quite honest and often uncomfortable, helped us recognize that training was a critical element of the puzzle that had been missing within our firm. Our focus shifted beyond the baseline of tolerance to deliberate, conscious actions toward diversity, equity, and inclusion and set us on a path to be more proactive.
TRAINING FOR DEI
In our firm, we approach DEI training from several different angles, including formal and informal sessions, open discussions, and interactive panels.
In New York, yearly anti-sexual harassment training is now required for a firm our size. The most effective training to date was conducted in-person by an expert facilitator, with attendance required for all staff. Topics covered in the training included types of harassment, the legal risk and liability involved for all, one’s responsibility as a bystander, and reporting requirements. Managers received additional training on how to handle any potential harassment complaints.
One of our most successful training sessions has been on the subject of unconscious/implicit bias. These sessions can be tough and uncomfortable as personal issues emerge and employees realize that the biases have impact. Everyone walks away with more awareness and sensitivity, which slowly starts to become part of the firm culture. Additionally, as we learn more about our colleagues, it’s much easier to understand how conditions and experiences shape someone and to be more empathetic and take time to explain and inform.
The training also put a spotlight on firmwide biases that played a major role in how we operated. Some of those biases included what schools we recruited from, how gender played a role in the way we staffed our projects, how our promotion process worked, and how certain language is often used to describe someone who is/looks “different.” Led by an expert with industry experience, the training was required for all staff—including all leadership. The success of the training, which will be required on an ongoing basis, has allowed us to become more aware of our biases and work together to correct them.
One of the major takeaways from the implicit bias training was that we needed to recruit differently. In the past few years, we have made significant strides to increase our recruiting efforts and improve the pipeline through various outreach initiatives. For diversity with entry-level employees, the key is to have relationships with various schools to create a pipeline of candidates, including connecting with schools that have a large percentage of minority students such as HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).
Some of our regular efforts include attending career fairs, providing paid internships throughout the year, offering housing stipends for all students that do not live in the New York City area, and supporting employees who wish to teach design courses at local colleges. We also offer resume and portfolio reviews twice a year to students who suffer from a lack of exposure to the profession or have little to no resources available at their respective colleges to assist them in this manner. We also recognize that for this profession to become more diverse, we need to target students at the high school and elementary school levels and introduce them to architecture, which we have partnered with local organizations to do.
NO SIMPLE SOLUTIONS
Unfortunately, not everyone understands the challenge of diversity faced in our office. Recently a friend said to me, “Oh, just hire more Black architects.” If only it were that easy. Of all the registered architects in the United States, only 2% are Black. That’s only 2,300 Black architects in the entire nation, so how does our firm attract some of those architects?
The other obstacle for diversity is the classic argument: “We don’t consider race—we hire the best people.” Of course, we want the best and brightest employees, but someone has to determine who makes the cut. First of all, if we don’t have a diverse candidate pool, it’s impossible to have a diverse staff, so all recruiting strategies must be considered.
It’s not enough to find the candidates. You must also consider who is making the hiring decisions. If there is a lack of diversity in this group, that is problematic. We all have biases—both conscious and unconscious—that can impact who is hired. Sometimes these biases are not apparent, but upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that certain schools are preferred (by alumni) or that slick design portfolios are valued. While some programs offer semester-long classes in portfolio development, other programs never mention portfolios. Some students must work part-time or full-time jobs while studying, so they don’t have the same opportunities to develop work that is portfolio-ready—or their schools don’t have the technology, expertise, or mentors to assist them.
The types of training previously discussed in this article are helpful in that they bring attention to and awareness of DEI. It can be leveraged to wake up employees and encourage them to start thinking about these important issues. These sessions have been magnified by the social equality movements that have happened during the last few years: Me Too, Time’s Up, and Black Lives Matter. For architects, there was even an underground “whisper” list in 2018 called “Shitty Architecture Men,” and there’s currently a shared chart on social media that tracks diversity in various firms in New York City to illustrate the problems.
Our DEI initiatives have stretched beyond training, discussions, and panels to the creation of meaningful policy changes in our firm. We are committed to creating and supporting an environment where every employee feels safe and welcomed to express their gender identity. In support of our LGBTQ employees, we have introduced a “preferred pronouns” policy, allowing employees to use the pronoun they most closely identify with. We have also introduced guidelines for anyone going through a gender transition.
These are just a few examples of DEI initiatives, and there are many more components. The subject is complex and includes sensitive, uncomfortable topics. Business owners and managers may think that DEI is a noble cause but is too much work and a distraction from the essential tasks necessary to survive, especially in the current environment. The answer is that for employees to be at their best, we must create an inclusive and supportive environment. If employees don’t have to put energy into worrying, adapting, or hiding, they will contribute more and improve your bottom line. In addition to it being the right thing to do, it is a solid business practice.
About the Author: Tim Milam, AIA, LEED AP is partner, managing director, FXCollaborative Architects, and founding director, Build Out Alliance. Shannon Rodriguez is FXCollaborative’s human resources director.