The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every area of our lives. From how we work, to the ways we travel, how we structure our businesses, how we heal, and beyond – we’ve seen our lives upended practically overnight. As designers of spaces, communities, and economies, we have a large responsibility in shaping our environments to impact change. We also have a responsibility to respond to the changes we see on the horizon to design for better futures. In 2020, we saw many social, economic, and environmental issues thrown into the spotlight. These issues unearthed a greater awareness of the deep-rooted and systemic inequity present in our societies, and for many, shifted perceptions of how we view the world.
At B+H, we recognize there’s a lot of work to be done around the issues of diversity and inclusion. We enlisted the help of Associate Professor of Human Resource Management at York University and Organizational Psychologist, Marie-Hélène Budworth to explore how we can begin to impact change within our organization.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be interested in the study of diversity and inclusivity?
I’m a faculty member at York University in Human Resources Management (HRM), although I would identify myself as an Organizational Psychologist. Early in my studies, I stumbled upon an area called Cognitive Psychology, which at its core is about understanding how we think, how we look at the world, and how we make decisions. This gives us deep insight into our biases, what they are and how we navigate obstacles, and it translates well with understanding the problems we see today with diversity and inclusivity. I teach in the Undergrad and Grad programs within the school of HRM at York University and I’m the Director of the School of HRM.
Why does diversity matter in the workplace?
That’s actually a really big question and you can answer it in many ways. Perhaps the easiest answer would be that it’s good for business. There’s a line of research for the business case of diversity – to increase customer base, etc. But that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Diversity is important because of the communities we live in. The default isn’t lack of diversity; the default is diversity. If the default is diversity, it should be represented in everything we do. You can also look at it from the level of the individual. If the goal for our communities is to educate and build societies where every individual is smart and contributes to help support society, then we have to give everyone an opportunity to see themselves in spaces where they can make a contribution.
Diversity and inclusion bring us all up, to ensure that we continue to raise people and bring people into our society who will give back. In creative industries, like architecture, it just makes us better at doing things. Diversity increases the pool of ideas and the potential for creativity and innovation. When we bring in new ideas that come from people from different backgrounds, coming from different histories and families – that’s what drives innovation.
The way we solve problems through diversity will likely benefit more than just the people we solve them for. Modifications can often benefit everyone. For instance, when we include curb cuts at street intersections to allow for wheelchair access, we’re also benefiting those with strollers and people lugging suitcases. Meeting the needs of one often services a broader spectrum of people.
How has the need for diversity evolved over time?
Clearly the biggest shift has happened in the last 18 months or so. But when I started researching in this area, studying gender or race in the workplace was very niche and would equate to less opportunities. We may have had diversity officers or committees, but they weren’t necessarily part of running a business. What we’ve seen in the last 18 months is a bit of a crisis in our understanding of the importance of this issue. The voices of people who have been historically marginalized are getting louder. It’s impacted people and changed the conversation.
What are some small initial steps companies or employers can take to start thinking about this?
It depends on the values of the company and the size of the company, but one place to start is to look at who you hire, and who is promoted and how they’re promoted. To start to count and make a concerted effort to drive diversity through your organization.
Another would be to make people comfortable with having conversations about it and talk about things in a realistic way. It’s important to make sure that people are aware that this is valued by the organization and this is something important to the company’s culture. Through those conversations, there can be organization-specific solutions that come up.
Most organizations are built on old historical paradigms. Let’s take the example of mentoring. Informal mentoring happens in all organizations and is a very valuable practice. We might see a leader notice someone and consider them a rising star and put more effort into that person. This informal process advantages a mentee who is likely similar to that partner. When mentoring develops informally, it usually develops over some sort of relational bond and research shows that this is likely a shared background or commonality. That practice creates barriers. A young black woman won’t be a choice mentee of a 70-year-old white man, that’s just not going to happen. It’s human nature to connect with people who are like us but this is about finding a way around that – looking for ways to circumvent our normal way of doing things.
How do we think about diversity and inclusion in multinational companies operating across different cultures?
Diversity means something different depending on where you are. There’s a lot of research that indicates that it’s really important that leaders express the values of the firm, especially in global firms. When they express values as big picture ideas, each part of the organization is responsible for understanding what that means locally because there’s going to be nuances depending on context, the local culture, local economics, etc. There are all kinds of things that will influence how those values are lived. When we have leaders share these big ideas and allow different parts of the organization to interpret them, the company as a whole can be nimble and work effectively.
What is your experience working with architectural firms?
I’ve done a fair amount of work with many architectural firms and have been really entrenched in them. One thing that became clear with B+H is the fact that things are different, from the Toronto studio to Seattle and certainly to Shanghai, but even just the jump across the border changes things. This global/local piece is important to a firm like B+H. There are also some characteristics about creative careers worth noting. Generally speaking, we tend to see less diversity represented in architecture partly due to the fact that it isn’t really an “on-the-radar” profession for many communities with limited resources, and that’s a place where firms can impact change directly through outreach programs. There are certainly other types of diversity so there’s an opportunity to push and change the industry – who gets into design and how they get there.
How do you get people in an organization engaged and excited when they’re busy and have competing priorities?
There’s always the danger that if people feel like they can’t solve an issue, there’s no reason to bother trying and the problem of diversity and inclusion can often feel unsolvable. How we can get people engaged on an unsolvable problem revolves around helping people find things they can make a dent in. And even then, it’s not easy with this particular problem. There are ways of engaging people through human impact. For example, being that person that takes part in programs that go into high schools to engage hard-to-reach communities. We can invite students into our offices and take them out for lunch or a coffee. At B+H, we’ve talked about facilitating inspiring conversations around shared experiences, like a movie viewing or book club. This helps people find a way to make meaningful insights and connections with each other.
No one person can hold all the insights. When you have multiple voices and all kinds of input, you get better solutions to problems. At the end of the day, we’re looking for ways to celebrate diversity by getting all the experiences on the table, all the insights, and all the knowledge, to create more rich solutions to our world’s problems.