Meeting the #MeToo moment

Meeting the MeToo moment

Steps to fostering a culture of respect within architecture firms are within reach

Last year, the #MeToo social media movement (along with the related #TimesUp movement) launched a national public conversation about sexual harassment and assault, unmasking long-standing patterns of harassment, accusations, and cover-ups across entertainment, sports, politics, and, yes, architecture. With women comprising almost 22 percent of registered AIA and FAIA architects, 37 percent of Associate members, and 24 percent of International Associate members, this remains a stubbornly male-dominated profession, and one that is not immune to sexual harassment. Architects may now be at a critical juncture to take a leadership position on harassment and inequity, and therefore change the culture of the profession forever.  

When asked about the #MeToo movement, Meghana Joshi, Assoc. AIA, could instantly draw up several negative experiences about being, as she puts it, the only woman at a table of men. “All of the site visits,” she recalls, “where the contractors would inappropriately address me as ‘the beautiful architect’ instead of learning my name, all my friends who poured out stories of being demeaned by their bosses…and above all, the constant doubt that weighs heavily on my shoulder every day. Doubt that my work and efforts would be seen on the same level as my male counterpart, doubt that this endless cycle of treating women differently than men would ever stop.”  

Joshi is far from alone. “My experience centers largely around unconscious bias, which often manifests by way of insensitive comments, actions, or attitudes,” says Zena Howard, FAIA, managing director and principal of Perkins+Will. “In this male-dominated profession, women at all levels may experience various types of unwelcome behaviors.”

Data points…to a way forward?

In February, the 2018 Women in Architecture survey conducted by the U.K.-based Architects’ Journal found that 32 percent of female respondents had experienced sexual discrimination in the prior 12 months, and 14 percent had experienced sexual harassment. Although only half of female respondents thought that the profession treated men and women fairly, a full 73 percent of men felt this way. Another third of female respondents thought that the architecture profession favored men over women, whereas only 13 percent of men agreed with this. As with all fields, many women might have chosen not to report incidents of harassment and assault because of the threat of disbelief and retaliation. Others might not consider “smaller” incidents—catcalls or wolf whistles on construction sites, lascivious stares, inappropriate jokes—as being worthy of reporting when, collectively, they can add up to a hostile work culture.

“In this male-dominated profession, women at all levels may experience various types of unwelcomed behaviors.” - Zena Howard, FAIA

Other data sources paint a similar picture. In a 2016 survey of diversity in the workplace, the AIA found that more than two-thirds of women felt that gender equity was not sufficient in the profession, versus only half of men. Half of all women surveyed felt that women were less likely to be promoted to senior positions than men, whereas only 21 percent of men of color and 13 percent of white men felt this way. Last fall, the design magazine Dezeen found that among the world’s 100 largest architecture firms only one in 10 senior positions are occupied by women, and one in six firms have no women at all in their management teams. The data strongly support the view that the work experience, and the perception of their worth and competence, is completely different for female architects than it is for males. When women aren’t given positions of power, their power to contribute is compromised, and their power to speak up against harassment and discrimination is diminished as well.

“I’m very happy this is all coming out and am supportive of it as a woman in the world,” says Janet Bloomberg, AIA, principal of KUBE Architecture in Washington, DC. “Many years ago, people just didn’t say anything. Women I really respect, who were abused and assaulted, didn’t say anything. And I get it. It can be a scary thing.”

Challenges to changing firm culture

When asked to comment on #MeToo, several architects, representing firms of all sizes, declined to participate “due to the sensitivity of the issue.” Other architects didn’t respond to requests at all. Reticence on this subject is unfortunate, perhaps, but not surprising. In addition to concerns about assault and physical misconduct, language—particularly how we talk with and about women—is often at the heart of these issues. And no one wants to misstep, at least publicly.

But being careful about what is said and avoiding the issue are two different things. “Companies that take a ‘not us’ attitude are setting themselves up for potential disaster,” wrote Christina M. Reger and Robyn Forman Pollack in the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) HR Magazine last November. “Failing to prevent an issue—or worse, ignoring an existing problem—can have monumental, negative consequences.”

Large and small architecture firms face different benefits and challenges in addressing sexual harassment concerns. Larger firms, for instance, are likely to have a human resources staffer or department and an established channel through which to address harassment complaints. But adverse behavior might not garner the immediate attention and swift action it deserves if it happens in pockets of a large firm.

“I have witnessed hundreds and hundreds of cases of bullying, subtle and not so subtle, in large firms,” says an architect who asked to remain anonymous. “The levels of hierarchy, politics, and competition make it extremely hard for an individual to speak up and feel safe. An HR department might be effective for very egregious cases of abuse or bullying, but it is not going to be effective for the smaller, more subtle cases that usually get classified as ‘whining’ by the corporate culture. In a large firm, there are much less opportunities to just walk out and leave.”

“The younger people are much more aware of these things than we were [at their age], and that’s a really good thing.” - Janet Bloomberg, AIA

Smaller firms are, by their nature, tighter-knit communities that require open communication among all levels of employees. “The beauty of a small firm,” says Susan Jones, FAIA, founding principal of atelierjones in Seattle, “is that…there is a sense of understanding and awareness of each person’s personal lives, including the principals’. That community makes it harder for abuse to thrive, unless the atmosphere is really toxic.”

The potential downside for smaller firms is that they are less likely to have a human resources person who can be a confidential avenue for complaints. The power structure within small firms can be especially challenging for employees, with a single principal managing them, if harassment occurs. On the other hand, harassment could be easier to identify and address with a small firm’s employees working so closely together on a daily basis.

Bloomberg notes that all the other employees in her six-person firm happen to be men (she says she doesn’t get as many qualified applications from women, another testament to inequities in the field), and that #MeToo has made her think about how inappropriate comments and behavior affect everyone, men included. “We want all our employees to be comfortable and happy, men or women,” she says. “The younger people are much more aware of these things than we were [at their age], and that’s a really good thing.”

Steps to fostering a culture of respect

Across the country the #MeToo movement has already spurred much discussion among AIA members and committees. All firms, regardless of size, can take certain steps to create a culture of respect that has no space for sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying.

Go beyond the standard sexual harassment policy: Responsible firms might issue a policy on sexual harassment, require some staff training, or send out an email on the topic, says Dr. Shirley Davis, a human resources expert and president of SDS Global Enterprises—and that’s necessary, but not enough. Firms need to be asking hard questions about themselves and accepting hard truths, Davis says. “[This means] initiating a culture transformation, and that is being willing to identify the parts about your culture that do not necessarily resonate or align with—or do not support or sustain—all generations and people of different backgrounds.” And when someone lodges a complaint, act on it, Davis says. “When [executives] respond in a quick, fast, and consistent way, others see them walking the walk and not just talking the talk.” That’s how cultures change.  

Embed equity in all levels of your practice: Davis adds that firms should embed equity throughout the firm culture, from hiring practices to methods of communication and feedback to performance reviews and beyond. “Project assignments and positions [for women] should be commensurate with their ability and aspirations, and consistent with career growth that is paced similar to comparable male counterparts,” Howard says. “All this begins with fostering a company culture and environment that encourages speaking up and values the importance of diversity and inclusion.”

“All this begins with fostering a company culture and environment that encourages speaking up and values the importance of diversity and inclusion.” - Zena Howard, FAIA

Consider establishing an external outlet for complaints: All firms, but especially small firms, could consider establishing an unbiased external person or small group that could investigate and make formal recommendations regarding all complaints leveled against the firm, according to Bettina Deynes, chief human resources officer for SHRM (a suggestion seconded by Davis as well). This step would “go a long way to making employees comfortable that they will be heard and the proper actions will be taken,” Deynes says.

Join or start a Women in Architecture committee: In response to what she had experienced in the industry, Joshi started the Women in Architecture committee for AIA Orange County two years ago. “The sole purpose of the committee,” she says, “is to provide a safe space for women and minorities to work together and bring positive change, providing support and mentorship crucial to surviving in the profession. In addition to social and networking opportunities, we have taken our committee a step ahead by organizing events that showcase everyday role model women and mentors.”

Celebrate women’s accomplishments and leadership: Last summer the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit brought together 400 attendees to discuss pathways to success and leadership for women in the field. The vast majority of attendees, not surprisingly, were women. Among the attendees was 2018 AIA President Carl Elefante, one of few men to have attended more than one such summit. Having more men attend would be a natural step towards better understanding of women’s experiences and ambitions. “It is very important to speak and act in ways that are uplifting and encouraging,” Perkins+Will's Howard says. “When women are placed in professional roles, they must be empowered, supported, and heard by leadership and their male peers.”

AIA Orange County, for example, recently hosted Laura Oatman, AIA, an architect running in Orange County for the US House of Representatives who shared stories of her frustrations in her profession.

Practice the Platinum Rule: We all learned the Golden Rule as children, which is to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated. Davis suggests instead that architects (and all people) practice the Platinum Rule, which is to treat others as they want to be treated. “This way, we put ourselves in other people’s shoes,” she says. “We try to learn and understand and recognize that not everyone sees the world the way I do. By doing this, I am more inquisitive, I come with an open mind, I come with an attitude of gratitude, of being willing to learn and understand. A key skill in all this is listening, listening with the intent to understand, listening with the intent to suspend judgment, to assume positive intent with other people, and to learn and broaden our own perspective.”

“Equity cannot be achieved overnight,” Joshi says. “But when we speak up together as a united voice and amplify [each other], change is inevitable. The fight for rights is beyond annual marches. It is in every project on the boards and in construction, educating the clients, consultants, and contractors to respect a woman for her talent, and look beyond the gender.”

Learn more about resources to address harassment in your workplace.

Based in Arlington, Virginia, Kim O’Connell writes about architecture, conservation, and sustainability for a range of national and regional publications.

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Meeting the MeToo moment

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