Assumptions continue to be made about people’s professions and ambitions, based on their skin colour, looks or accent. Sumita Singha describes the discrimination she has faced and challenges the ‘gentleman’s profession’ for its lack of diversity at the top.
In 1992, when I was a young architect from India starting out in the profession*, a well-meaning friend advised, “With a name like yours, you wouldn’t make it in architecture in the UK unless you anglicised it”. (Sue was suggested as an alternative name!). In 2002, I was asked to assess buildings in Dorset for the Civic Trust awards. When I rang up to make arrangements for the stay overnight, the Planning Officer told me, “With a name like yours, you would have difficulty finding a place to stay or eat in Dorset”. He also added there were no vegetarian restaurants. I was speechless – I should have told him I wasn’t vegetarian at least – but the next day, cancelled my visit. This incident was published in the Architects Journal and I received an apology from Dorset Council, but it was too late to rearrange.
In 2020, I don’t even have to say my name to get reactions. In January, I entered a lift to get to a board meeting on the fourth floor. Two men got in on the first floor and one of them immediately said to me, “You must be going for the admin training”. I just said, “No”. I have been mistaken for a waiter in a restaurant or a shop worker. There is nothing wrong with these jobs – what upsets me is the assumption that if you are Indian, you must be working in one of these jobs out of thousands of jobs available. These kinds of assumptions about people based on their skin colour, looks or accent are really demeaning and unnecessary. Edward Enninful, British Vogue’s gay, Black, barrier-breaking editor-in-chief, was ‘mistaken’ by security staff for a delivery person and two days before this article was written, Alexandra Wilson, a young black barrister, was ‘mistaken’ for a defendant three times in a day.
Is this happening to me because people are not used to seeing an Indian woman as an architect? Certainly no one has mistaken me for a doctor when there are so many Indian doctors in the NHS. When I became Chair of Women in architecture, there were 8% women architects with even fewer women from minority ethnic backgrounds. A year after that in 2000, I set up Architects for Change, RIBA’s equality forum which commissioned the research, Why women leave architecture? Today we have about 28% women architects. At this rate, we will get to 50% gender balance in 22 years time. But the intersectionality of gender and ethnicity is another big barrier. Look at the Board or the top echelon of a big architecture practice and it may be difficult to find a woman, and even rarer to find a person from a minority ethnic background, regardless of what they say about how progressive their practice is.
The profession of architecture remains very white, middle class and male – a ‘gentleman’s profession’ as a prominent white male architect put it. What is more surprising is that it remains a gentleman’s profession, even though for a very long time we have had 40–50% women students. So, somewhere between studying and finishing, these women disappear. That is why the introduction to my four-volume book, Women in architecture, was titled ‘The Vanished’. The experiences of these vanished women are never told but these could be the most important part of the jigsaw. I heard from many women who had left architecture after I spoke on Women’s Hour in 2002. Some were working in admin jobs, some were writing, and some were not working at all outside the home. All these stories contained sadness at having ‘failed’ to make it somehow, despite having had such an expensive education. None of the women blamed society – they blamed themselves.
Despite having the legal backing of the Equality Act of 2010, which consolidates the various acts on equal pay, race relations, etc, people still find ways to sidestep it. Training programmes, such as ‘unconscious bias’, diversity and others, have been there since the 1990s and yet the root cause has never been eliminated. As there is no way to accurately measure unconscious prejudice, so there is no way to ‘cure’ it. There are now thousands of workplace talks and research papers about bias, but we still have no strong scientific proof that these programmes work. Classifying people as BAME (and pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘blame’) doesn’t help either. Taking the experiences of a very diverse set of people and saying that these fall in the same category doesn’t work. Black experiences are different from Chinese ones. Then there are nuances – even an Indian born in the UK will have a different experience to that of an Indian-born outside the UK.
I have looked at many papers on diversity. Drawing upon my work in the RIBA, the NHS and from teaching, these are things that don’t work:
- Unconscious bias training – The positive effects barely last a day, according to nearly 1000 studies. Users get wildly different scores whenever they retake the test.
- Staying silent and relying on merit/experience – It seems shouting louder helps more than merit or experience. In architecture, work is given out to mates in smoking rooms and pubs, rather than on merit. Sending out CVs might not be as useful as networking.
- Diversity training and other programs – Although it may tick various boxes, this doesn’t appear to improve women’s position, particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
So what works?
From various research papers and work carried out by companies like HR data hub, these three actions work best:
Men and women in powerful positions helping women, is the most successful action to raise the profile of women, according to a research company, HR Data Hub. This particularly helps ethnic minority women who don’t do as well as white women.
You can’t be what you can’t see. Seeing other women succeed is important. Seeing women and those from ethnic minorities in top positions in an architecture practice is empowering, so avoid those where you don’t see this. Recruitment and progression must be transparent and accessible processes. Look for actions, not words!
Mentoring and training
This particularly helps younger women and ought to start during education before women vanish. There ought to be support at the University for those who say they want to drop out. The difficulties of finding work for the two sets of professional practice also deter many women and minority ethnic students – practices and tutors could be working together to help them.
Maybe once these actions are in place more comprehensively I won’t hear things like “With a name like yours”, because there will be a few others with the same name as mine. And certainly, I hope women and ethnic minority architects won’t be brought up like rabbits out of a hat whenever there is something to do with equality, diversity and inclusion. I’d like to hope that we are also allowed to talk about the normal architecture stuff that the ‘gentlemen architects’ like to talk about. And if women and ethnic minority architects decide to rock the architectural boat now and then by trying to have ambitions beyond being the box-ticking ‘diversity person’, I hope no one will come out to squash them with “How dare you come out of the box?”
In 2016, I changed my surname to the original Singha. It had been changed to ‘Sinha’ apparently to make it easier for British colonial powers to pronounce, and diverse sets of people from Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Assam and Bihar all ended up with the same surname. And I went on a lovely family holiday to Dorset in 2008 (and experienced nothing of the sort of experience that the Planning Officer had warned me about).
* To clarify, I studied my RIBA Parts 1 and 2 in India and Part 3 in London. So, I was very new to the UK when starting out in the profession.
PS – I had a flashback during the recent RIBA elections where I was asked to tweet about vegetarian food during the ‘purdah period’ instead of climate change!
Sumita Singha is an architect, academic and author with her own design practice, Eco=logic in the UK. Sumita set up Architects For Change, the Equality forum at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), and is past Chair of Women in Architecture. Sumita was elected to the RIBA Council (2011–14) and has served on many RIBA committees for over 25 years. She sits on the RIBA Professional conduct panel. She is a non-executive Director of Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and a trustee of the Architects Benevolent Society and the Commonwealth Association of Architects. She is a Fellow of the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust.
Sumita has taught architecture in the UK and abroad. Presently she is a tutor in professional practice at the University of Westminster. She is the founding director of Charushila, an international design charity for community projects. She is the author of the four-volume Major works: Women In Architecture (Routledge, 2018) and Future Healthcare Design (RIBA Publishing, 2020). Sumita is currently writing on healthcare for another RIBA publication. She speaks regularly on radio and podcasts about architecture. She likes to paint, cook and garden, and also enjoys exploring diverse cultures.