In mid-August 2023 an anonymous guest host took over the Parlour instagram account to share brave and thoughtful insights. They spoke eloquently of their personal experiences of sexual harassment in practice and the ongoing problem in the wider profession. This generated a massive response in public and in private, and many expressions of solidarity.
We share their story and recommendations here as part of the ongoing effort to stamp out harassment in architecture.
I’m about to step into the spotlight, and there’s something important I want to share with you all. However, for various reasons, I’ve decided to keep my identity anonymous for now. I would like to express my gratitude to Parlour for providing this platform that allows us to have these important conversations.
If you’re wondering who I might be, I encourage you to look around. You may already know me as a strong, articulate, and actively engaged woman who has been working in the industry for the past decade. I have attended many Parlour talks and had the privilege of being part of the Champions of Change. Despite my background and involvement, including work relating to preventing sexual harassment, something deeply unsettling happened to me.
It was the office Christmas party, and, naturally, the festivities continued at a nearby pub. As the night progressed, I ended up in a smaller group from the office, which included one of the directors whom I had always felt uneasy around. This director had a reputation for unacceptable behaviour. Yet, despite witnessing numerous instances of his verbal sexual harassment in the office, the other directors seemed unfazed, responding with nothing more than a smile or a shake of the head.
I was determined to avoid him, especially with alcohol involved. Unfortunately, I ended up sitting next to him in the taxi on the way to the next pub. That’s when things took a turn for the worse. He repeatedly tried to kiss me, not once or twice, but three times. Each time, I turned my face away, hoping he’d get the message. But he persisted, forcefully pushing himself onto me despite my discomfort.
In that moment, I felt a mix of disgust, helplessness and confusion. Why didn’t I speak up? Why didn’t I fight back? These questions haunt me. You see, it wasn’t just my own experiences. I had witnessed this director’s acts of sexual assault on other occasions, and the other directors seemed to turn a blind eye. It felt like a futile battle, and I had little hope that my complaint would go anywhere, even if I mustered the courage to speak up.
Moreover, this particular director held considerable influence, constantly bringing important projects to the practice. It became apparent that his value to the company may have been a significant reason why no one dared to challenge him. It’s disheartening to realise that such power dynamics can silence victims and protect perpetrators, despite the office official rules on sexual harassment.
Looking back, I realise the battle of power, fear, and the perceived futility of speaking up held me back. I questioned my own intelligence, believing that speaking up would jeopardise my future. Now I know that staying silent only perpetuates a culture of harassment. It’s time to break that cycle. No one should have to endure such experiences. It’s time to stand up, speak out, and demand change.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment occurs when a person makes a sexual advance, or a request for sexual favours to another person, or engages in any other conduct of a sexual nature in relation to another person, in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated or intimidated. It is not mutual attraction or consenting friendships, whether sexual or otherwise.
Sexual harassment is unlawful in the workplace, which includes any place a person goes for the purpose of carrying out any function in relation to his/her employment. The workplace can also extend to work-related social events and other social events.
Examples of sexual harassment include:
- persistent demands or even subtle pressures for sexual favours or outings
- staring or leering at a person or at parts of their body
- patting, pinching, touching or unnecessary familiarity, such as unnecessarily brushing up against a person
- offensive comments or questions about a person’s physical appearance, dress or private life
- sexually explicit pictures or posters or screen savers (words and images), sexually explicit telephone calls, voice mail message, SMS, letters, faxes, emails or use of social media of any kind
- humour such as smutty or suggestive jokes or comments
- innuendo, including sexually provocative remarks, suggestive or derogatory comments about a person’s physical appearance, inferences of sexual morality, or tales of sexual performance requests for sex
- insults or taunts based on sex
- sexually explicit physical contact. Some types of sexual harassment can also be offences under the criminal law, such as:
- physical molestation or assault
- indecent exposure
- sexual assault
- obscene communications (by way of telephone calls, letters, emails, social media, etc.)
The #MeToo movement in architectural practices!
In the world of architecture, where creativity flourishes, the struggle for power and equality often remains hidden beneath the polished facades of prestigious firms. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is not an issue exclusive to any particular industry, and architecture is no exception.
Real-time statistics on the prevalence of sexual harassment within architectural practices are lacking, but it is essential to acknowledge that cases occur. Over the years, brave individuals within the architectural community have come forward to share their experiences and expose misconduct. International architectural firms have faced public scrutiny following allegations of harassment, leading to internal investigations and policy changes. One prominent example is the emergence of the ”#MeToo” movement in 2017, which shed light on sexual harassment and assault across various industries, including architecture.
This movement provided a platform for architectural professionals to share their stories. Recently, the Financial Times published an extensive investigative piece detailing allegations of sexual assault involving David Adjaye. Three women, who had worked for him, shared their accounts. The allegations prompted swift action, with Adjaye stepping down from several projects, including his role as a Design Advocate for London’s Mayor and his association with the African Futures Institute. Additionally, his involvement in the design of a UK Holocaust memorial has been suspended.
It is important to recognise that the prevalence and documentation of such cases may vary, and reporting can be challenging due to fear of retaliation, social stigma, or lack of awareness about reporting mechanisms.
Consequently, obtaining specific percentages or statistics within architectural practices can be difficult. However, the architectural community is taking steps to address these issues. Many architectural bodies are establishing support systems for reporting incidents and promoting awareness on harassment-related matters. By acknowledging the existence of sexual harassment, we can work towards fostering a culture of respect and safety.
What should happen?
Sexual harassment within architecture firms, particularly when by those in positions of power, poses unique challenges. Most architecture firms, especially smaller ones, may lack dedicated HR departments, which can complicate addressing these issues.
Creating an equitable working environment requires concerted efforts and a multifaceted approach. To foster an equitable working environment, it is crucial to address the underlying culture and power dynamics. Cult-like worship of star architects can exacerbate these issues, leading employees to sacrifice their time and integrity because they believe it is the norm.
It is essential to recognise that such behaviour is not acceptable, even if it is expected. In situations where the harasser holds significant influence it can be daunting for employees to raise their voices. Fear of career repercussions and the small size of our industry can create additional barriers. To me, it is understandable that individuals may be reluctant to jeopardize their careers by speaking out. However, it is vital to hold sexually abusive individuals accountable for their actions.
It is important to acknowledge that speaking up comes with challenges. There have been cases where the individuals who shared their stories faced backlash or career setbacks. As a young woman who has been sexually assaulted, I understand that it is a personal decision whether to come forward, considering the potential consequences.
Instead, the responsibility should lie with the industry as a whole to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable. Efforts to effect change should focus on shifting the culture within the architectural profession. This requires creating safe reporting mechanisms, implementing robust policies against harassment and providing support systems for victims.
By challenging the notion of untouchable star architects and promoting a culture of respect and equality, the industry can work towards a future where sexual harassment is no longer tolerated.
Taking action – breaking the cycle
Reflecting on the incident, I engaged in a conversation with a colleague that shed light on the broader issue. She shared her own experience of sexual harassment from the same director, igniting a powerful exchange. This interaction underscored the urgency of breaking the silence, not only for our own sake but for the protection of younger graduates who could potentially fall victim to harassment.
Our industry’s tendency to await for the courage of women to step forward before taking action is a cycle we must shatter. Let’s forge an environment where safety and support are inherent from the outset. The recent account involving David Adjaye serves as a stark reminder that no director’s prominence should eclipse the wellbeing of those within the practice.
The allure of great projects or the threat of possible disruptions cannot outweigh the dignity and welfare of our colleagues. By uniting in support and jointly confronting sexual harassment, we have the power to cultivate a culture marked by respect and equality in the architectural realm.
Together, we’re shaping an environment where every individual feels cherished, shielded and empowered to raise their voice against harassment. Each action we take sends ripples of change, collectively steering our industry towards a future that prioritises integrity and fairness.
Let’s keep talking
While I don’t have all the answers on how to confront individuals who engage in sexual harassment, one thing is clear: we need to continue talking about this issue.
I encourage everyone to share their stories on social media and within their networks. By doing so, we can enable others to join the conversation. It’s vital to approach the topic with sensitivity and respect, acknowledging the experiences and emotions of those affected by sexual harassment.
Let’s work together to create a supportive and inclusive atmosphere that fosters open dialogue.
Thank you for listening!
In order to address sexual harassment in the architectural industry, we must take concrete steps towards change. Here are some general suggestions for action.
1. Engage in Open Dialogue
Initiate conversations within the organisation about the importance of a respectful workplace.
2. Implement Zero Tolerance Policies
Clearly establish a zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment.
3. Establish Independent Reporting Channels
Create confidential avenues for reporting incidents outside the direct influence of the accused party, ensuring a fair investigation.
4. Leverage External Expertise
Seek external professionals to conduct impartial investigations ensuring transparency and objectivity.
5. Promote Ethical Leadership
Emphasise ethical conduct in leadership roles.
6. Collaborative Industry Efforts
Join forces with professional bodies to develop sector-wide guidelines that apply to all, regardless of status or size of practice.
7. Raise Awareness
Educate the architectural community about the prevalence and consequences of harassment.
8. Empower Bystanders
Encourage those who witness inappropriate behaviour to step forward and support the victim, creating a culture of collective responsibility.
9. Public Perception Matters
Remind money-making directors and solo-preneurs that a tarnished reputation resulting from harassment allegations can have long-lasting financial repercussions.
10. Prioritise Ethics Over Profit
Ultimately, fostering a culture of respect, inclusivity and ethical behaviour should take precedence over short-term financial gains.
Each situation is unique, and the goal is to create a safe, respectful and inclusive environment for all in the architectural industry. Let’s challenge the status quo and prioritise wellbeing over short-term gains. Together, we can foster a culture of respect, equality and empowerment. Addressing harassment in these scenarios demands persistence, courage and a commitment to a safer, more equitable industry. Together, let’s ensure the architectural field evolves towards a culture of respect and equality.