I Look Up to Look Forward: An Essay on Diversity

By Tiffany Millner, AIA, NOMA of The AUX Collective for 

“I looked up and realized that the discussion about diversity within the architecture profession was over, gender and multicultural inclusion among design teams were essential and vital to produce an optimum product for the clients that we look to serve.”

But that’s not today.

I can honestly say that I was excited to see that the AIA decided to expose the profession and advertise on such a public platform. But can this long overdue exposure aid in rebuilding the perception of such a historically obscure and elitist profession? While this campaign may not necessarily break down all of these perceived walls and diversify the architectural profession overnight, it will at least be the catalyst to gain public awareness and assist in the strengthening of the pipeline into the industry.

Let’s face it – we are in a culture where we are all constantly looking down at our phones or other mobile devices – immersed in our own virtual worlds, and are rarely even interested in the realized textures and context in our environment. In that regard, the ‘I look up’ campaign hits home and makes total sense.
But how does the campaign aid in promoting the various diversity initiatives in the profession? In order to have a more informed discussion, we need to develop a lexicon for the concept of diversity. Diversity in this sense is not a race issue, but it is an issue of inclusion. Inclusion of women and multicultural individuals into a profession that has been historically represented by white males.

It is important to understand that women and people of multiple cultures are continually helping the architecture profession evolve by injecting elements of social conscience and diversity into an industry that has historically lacked in those regards. As we know, architecture is one of the slowest industries to welcome diversity although it is a discipline charged with providing shelter or special experiences that respond to human needs. In order to create diversity in the built environment and have the ability to respond with a sympathetic design conscience, you need to have diversity in the profession. It really is just that simple.

As the population continues to grow and communities begin to enter stages of decay, the design industry should develop a culture of women and multi-cultural professionals that will have the sensitivity, cultural competence and ability to provide a voice in response to the needs of the community and the environment. In this regard, diverse or equitable design practices will equate to a more profitable business model and practice. The client base that we serve will be ever evolving and changing over time. Architecture will need to evolve and develop new methodologies that will be able to relate to and address the needs of this new global audience.

So how do we get to this proverbial promise land?

There is no doubt that the architectural pipeline starts with our younger generation. We need to establish a firm foundation that includes – exposure, informational tools and the professional development required for them to even consider architecture as a viable career path. There is some exposure to the relatable skills in K-12 education, but there is no real introduction to the profession as there is for other industries. This is where the concept of exposure comes to play in a very real way and why this new advertisement campaign has the potential to be very powerful. Architecture needs to become more relatable and accessible to younger people, both as a means of introduction into the industry as a future career path, or as a more informed future client.

Sounds like a plan, right? Across the nation there are numerous mentoring or architectural exploration programs being established to provide this very exposure and serve as a pathways to recruitment. The finesse and challenge of these programs is no longer in the recruitment, but in the retention of this diverse talent within the profession.

The issue of retention is most broadly recognized in the efforts led by the Missing 32% Project. According to their website, women represent a little less than 50% of the students graduating from accredited architecture programs in the United States – However, the number of women that are AIA members, licensed architects or serve in senior leadership capacities equate to approximately 15-18% of the total. So it seems that even when women and multicultural students enter the pipeline and begin to actually study architecture – or may have had early exposure in their K-12 education, they are still not pursuing the profession and/or staying in the industry long enough to create any kind of impact or change on the demographic.

The diversity seems to exist in the fringe alternative paths that people choose after being educated in architecture. They are entering these allied fields for various personal reasons, but we need to ask – are they leaving due to real or perceived barriers in the architectural profession? This is a discussion that is being championed by numerous professional minority organizations across the nation; but in the end, have all of these individual groups become silos that have even further perpetuated the lack of diversity in the industry? This is a global conversation and the concept of breaking down these walls in order to share information and work towards a common goal is more apparent than ever before.

“You can’t be what you can’t see” – Marian Wright Eldeman

Perception is our reality. As students become professionals and these professionals journey along their career paths, they carry with them a personal ideal as to what this industry means to them and what this industry can provide for them. The “I Look up’ campaign can mean different things to everyone. I look up to the people that are re-building communities, which in turn are preserving the cultural fabric of the residents. These are the people that may be reluctant roles models, but they are in fact the realization of my goals and aspirations. Younger generations and emerging architects tend to look up to role models and/or mentors as a way of envisioning themselves in that very role. There is a tremendous need to showcase minorities in the profession or at the very least challenge them to become more visible and accessible in their local communities in order to serve as a source of inspiration to our younger generations – currently within this pipeline. The traditional concept of mentoring is ever evolving and the notion of developing a professional support network has been proven to aid in the retention of our diverse talents. It’s also important to reinforce that these mentors and potential sponsors may even be found outside of the architectural realm.

The conversation about diversity and inclusion is well underway and has undoubtedly become a hot topic among any profession that is charged with providing a service to the public. I challenge you to look up and look forward to the day when we will not have to have this conversation anymore and we can divert this energy to creating sustainable architectural experiences for the prosperity of our communities and environment.

This blog post follows the February #AIAchat on diversity in the architecture profession. #AIAchat is held the first Wednesday of the month at 2pmEST.