Sonia Sarangi continues the conversation about ethnic diversity – asking what is going on and pointing to the well-documented advantages of the profession better reflecting the community.


Finally. Somebody has let the cat out of the bag.

Yvonne Meng’s essay about the lack of ethnic diversity in architecture starts the conversation that we, as a profession, need to have out in the open. To date, these issues have only been whispered about behind closed doors by those affected by them. Public conversations have the power to remove stigma and build momentum towards change. Parlour has made huge strides for gender equity in a short span of time by facilitating such conversations among us all.

Is the glass ceiling real?

Yvonne has touched on a few aspects that I would like to expand upon briefly. Early in her piece she asks, ‘Is the glass ceiling real?’ My perception is that it is. I hope that future research can reveal the statistics around the attrition in ethnic diversity. For the moment, in the absence of such data, I would like to posit that the erosion in ethnic diversity starts as soon as architecture school ends.

The student cohort across Victorian schools of architecture is incredibly diverse ethnically. However, on entering the profession, graduates may encounter unconscious bias in hiring. Let’s not pretend this doesn’t exist. I recall when applying for jobs as a graduate being relieved that my first name wasn’t ‘too ethnic’. What a terrible thought to have! And yet research supported by ANU backs up those worries. A particularly sobering excerpt reads:

To get as many interviews as an Anglo applicant with an Anglo-sounding name, an Indigenous person must submit 35 per cent more applications, a Chinese person must submit 68 per cent more applications, an Italian person must submit 12 per cent more applications, and a Middle Eastern person 64 per cent more applications.

– Alison Booth, Public Policy Fellow, ANU Crawford School of Public Policy. 1.

Architectural practices often use very informal approaches to finding, interviewing and hiring staff. This has its advantages, but also means that unconscious bias can flourish. Addressing this requires awareness and active procedures. For example, the Victorian government has recently begun taking active steps to redress unconscious bias in their hiring practices by removing key personal information to help ensure that hiring is based on candidate skills alone.2

Some will reply with the old chestnut of being unable to ‘sponsor’ architectural graduates. This is not correct. Recent changes in immigration rules have made it possible for international student graduates of architecture to work within Australia for 18 months to two years under the Temporary Graduate Visa.3 That is a fairly long stint and does not require sponsorship from an employer, as the applicants bear their own costs.

Obstacles to progression

Next comes the succession hurdle. Why is the ethnic diversity I have witnessed at the APE examination not reflected in the upper levels of the profession? What happens to those bright, optimistic young souls on their way up the career ladder? Why are they are so visibly absent from mid-career positions such as associate directors or other senior roles? My own experience offers some clues.

Over the course of my career I have occasionally been made to feel that my ideas were ‘too different’ or ‘not how we do things’ – or I’ve been told ‘the client probably won’t like it’. When this sentiment was proved resoundingly wrong, it was put down to sheer luck. More damaging was the insinuation that certain clients, teams or consultants would not be able to ‘connect’ with me, and that I was better off letting someone else do the talking/presenting. Such insidious comments are devastating. When internalised, such messages can mean that perfectly qualified candidates will not put their hand up for succession. Or people wait patiently for a more senior role to be offered, only to leave in disgust when it does not materialise due to long-held attitudes in senior management. Then there is the casual racism of some workplaces that kills one’s confidence through death-by-a-thousand-cuts.

Money talks

Common sense suggests that you promote those who are an asset to your organisation. Where sense fails, dollars and cents can do the talking. A recent report by global strategy firm McKinsey & Co shows what ethnic diversity can add to the bottom line of businesses.4 In particular, I was gobsmacked by the following chart:

Chart from Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey and Co.

Diversity’s dividend, from Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey & Co.

So, the reward of ethnic diversity isn’t simply feel-good warmth. It pays. Surely any businessperson can see the sense in increasing their bottom line compared to their peers. How does this work? The report explains:

… the correlation does indicate that when companies commit themselves to diverse leadership, they are more successful. More diverse companies, we believe, are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns.

– Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton & Sara Prince, co-authors Diversity Matters4

And for those tempted to argue that international findings aren’t really applicable to Australian shores, here’s a more familiar voice chiming in on the issue:

“I can say categorically that we wouldn’t have gotten through the transformation and the tough times of this business as well as we did without having that diversity in the top leadership team. At the end of the day, it makes you a better business.”

Alan Joyce, CEO, Qantas Airways.5

Reflecting the community

It’s important to point out that architecture isn’t the only Australian business sector going through tough times. If our profession were better able to embrace ethnic diversity (an image that Australia successfully projects internationally), would the profession be in better shape?

If the profession is overwhelmingly dominated by a narrow demographic, are we also discouraging the wider demographic that is modern Australia from engaging us, because they cannot see the community’s diversity reflected in its architects?

I hope that starting to have this important conversation will lead us all to look for the answers to these questions.

Vive la difference

If you are reading this as a person of an ethnic background, don’t think that being different is all doom-and-gloom. I recently had a chance meeting with Julie Eizenberg at the National Conference in Adelaide, which has absolutely fired me up with optimism. I shared with her how I had hesitated to answer a question she put to the audience because I felt like an ‘outsider’ within the wider profession. Her response will be carved in my memory forever:

“Never let that thought hold you back. Being an ‘outsider’ is fantastic. It gives you the strength to question, to challenge the status quo and to rise above the fray and see things from a different viewpoint. It’s the best thing ever!!”

–Julie Eizenberg

A diverse profession isn’t a handicap; it’s an asset that we need to tap into.

  1. Alison Booth, ‘Job hunt success is all in a name’, The Canberra Times, 4 March, 2013 (accessed 22 June 2016)[]
  2. M Perkins, ‘Victorian government trials blind job applications to overcome hiring bias’, The Age, 20 May, 2016 (accessed 22 June 2016).[]
  3. Architecture is included in the Skilled Occupation List, Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection (accessed 22 June 2016).[]
  4. V Hunt, D Layton and S Prince, ‘Why diversity matters’, McKinsey & Company (January 2015), (accessed 22 June 2016).[]
  5. K Hope, ‘Why it’s important to be yourself at work’, BBC News, 21 June 2016 (accessed 22 June 2016)/[]