Why Diversity in Architecture Firms Must Start at the Top: A Thought-piece by Femi Oresanya, Chair of RIBA Architects for Change


In this article originally published on the RIBA website, Chair of RIBA Architects for Change group and Principal at HOK’s London Studio, Femi Oresanya, shares his views on the importance of diversity in the workforce and why this must start with senior leaders.

Architecture should be open to anyone, whatever their background or circumstance. Sadly, however there are a number of barriers that are impacting the attraction and progression of talented people, and this is most acutely affecting individuals from underrepresented groups. There is a lot of work to do before our profession properly reflects the diversity of our society.

I am proud to chair Architects for Change, a group of experts from a range of backgrounds, who guide the RIBA’s work on diversity. We are working together, and with partners, to drive change and support equality for all: through leadership, influence, events, and targeted initiatives.

Architectural practices have much to learn from improving the diversity of their workforce, and much to gain. We cannot fully understand, appreciate and design for the communities we serve, if we do not employ a culturally diverse workforce. We cannot continue to believe that the status quo is good enough. If we only surround ourselves with what we know, the familiar, how can we grow and develop our mindset to produce great architecture that truly benefits people, locally and globally? Homophily, the tendency to link up with people similar to themselves is limiting, missing the immense benefits of collaboration between people from diverse backgrounds.

Some people cannot see, or indeed refuse to acknowledge there is a problem. Some of the greatest complacency seems to be at senior leadership level, the least diverse group in the current hierarchy. Yet, there are glimmers of hope with some enlightened leaders addressing the challenge head-on. One such example is the Architecture Trailblazer Group which has set up the Architects Apprenticeship scheme. Over 200 apprentices have already been enrolled. The aim is to increase the intake of architectural students from non-traditional backgrounds. Once more universities and schools of architecture provide L6 (degree level) as well as L7 qualifications, real progress will be made.

Clearly practices need to increase the diversity of their senior leaders. However, practices also need to invest in mentoring, encouraging connections between individuals with different backgrounds and characteristics. Not only will the mentee learn and grow professionally, the mentor will also benefit from a different perspective. We need to record and celebrate progress. By publishing our ethnicity data and shining a light on role model behaviour, we can drive improvement across the profession. Is it any surprise that some of the most diverse practices are also some of the most profitable ones too?

As architects, educators and influencers, we can make the difference and build the world we aspire to see. I urge senior leaders: enrich your practice with diversity of people, opinion, mindset and see how all-encompassing global design can truly be.