Over the past year, a series of high-profile scandals has propelled the subject of workplace sexual harassment into the public eye. Referring to the lost contributions of women who have left or been forced out of just one field, television, writer Kater Gordon told The Guardian: “We are all paying a cost for harassment.” A cultural moment of self-reflection has followed, with other disciplines – including architecture and design – now being urged to examine the sexual power dynamics within their respective workforces.
Then, the New York Times reported that five women have accused architect Richard Meier of sexual harassment.
So how does the architectural profession stack up? According to a 2016 British survey of 1,152 female architects worldwide, 28 per cent had experienced sexual harassment on the job. Combined with those reporting discrimination or other victimization, the proportion of women affected reached a shocking 72 per cent. “The #MeToo movement has shown that all industries have work to do when it comes to combatting sexual harassment and promoting diversity and inclusion,” says Emree Siaroff, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at the design and engineering firm Stantec. As disheartening as architecture’s statistics are, they are broadly consistent with North American averages: In 2017, a survey by Canada’s federal government found that 30 per cent of respondents had experienced workplace sexual harassment.
These days, most large firms have anti-harassment protocols in place. Canada’s IBI Group, which in 2016 was the eighth-largest architectural firm in the world, requires all new hires to read and sign a document defining sexual harassment and to attend an orientation session on the subject. Stantec, which is based in Edmonton and has 15,199 employees, makes all of its employees retake a mandatory ethics training course annually.
Should an incident of harassment occur, companies such as Diamond Schmitt Architects, a Canadian firm that employs 207 people, follow a detailed set of instructions that guide victims through the process of filing a complaint, including maintaining a written record of times, dates, locations, the type of behaviour and the names of any witnesses. IBI Group’s policy states that an investigating officer will be delegated to determine the truth of allegations and to recommend appropriate action. Both firms emphasize that the proven commission of sexual harassment could be grounds for dismissal.
Clearly, many of the major international players take the issue seriously, but harassment also occurs in small firms, which form the majority of practices worldwide. And small businesses are often ill-prepared to handle incidents – a 2016 poll by tech company Manta found that 67 per cent of small employers in the U.S. have no formal policy or training at all (11 per cent said that implementing rules would be “too P.C. for my company’s culture.”)
Of course, there is a simpler and more effective solution to the problem of workplace sexual harassment: Hire and promote more women. Citing multiple studies, a 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review detailed why this approach works. “Reducing power differentials can help,” the authors wrote, “not only because women are less likely than men to harass, but also because their presence in management can change workplace culture.”
At all of the mostly large firms that Azure consulted for this article, male employees outnumbered female ones, and most of the senior positions were held by men. Diamond Schmitt Architects came the closest to employing an equal number of men and women, with a 46-per-cent-female workforce. Other firms highlighted their efforts to step up recruitment and mentoring for women. “Having more women in design, [having] more women in leadership positions and having the courage to stand up for ourselves and each other is crucial,” says Jane Sillberg, IBI Group’s global director of human resources.
To be sure, it does require courage for victims of sexual harassment to come forward. But the underlying message is clear: If architecture and engineering firms placed more emphasis on achieving parity in their workforces, and on increasing the number of women in leadership roles, the power imbalances that allow and encourage harassment in the first place would gradually diminish.