3 Firms on the Forefront of Diversity in Design Share Actionable Steps

Deryl McKissack, CEO and founder of McKissack & McKissack. Photography courtesy of Deryl McKissack. 

Both anecdotal evidence and abundant data have demonstrated that a diverse workforce, much like an artist’s well-stocked paint palette, fuels innovation. “The more diverse and inclusive we are, the more creative we are,” affirms Gabrielle Bullock, principal and director of global diversity at Perkins and Will. Equally important, especially in a service industry, is that the makeup of our companies reflects the diversity of the populace for whom we are designing. “We want to look like the fabric of America,” says Deryl McKissack, CEO and founder of McKissack & McKissack, a company that evolved from the nation’s oldest Black-owned architecture and engineering firm.

And yet, there’s a dearth of representation in the A&D community: Just 2% of licensed architects in the U.S. are Black, according to 2019 data from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, and only 4.84% of designers across all disciplines are Black, according to 2017 data from the Census Bureau. Moreover, minority practitioners don’t always feel welcome or included. “I have experienced a lot of discrimination in this industry—for being Black and for being a woman,” says McKissack.

Gabrielle Bullock, principal and director of global diversity at Perkins and Will. Photography courtesy of Gabrielle Bullock.

Indeed, until recently, says Bullock, “the issue of race and racism was not easily discussed or acknowledged.” But progress has gained momentum over the last year, as the scourge of systemic racism has catapulted into the nation’s consciousness and pushed the A&D community to address discrimination in all its forms. As more firms adopt or expand their D&I policies, Perkins and Will, McKissack & McKissack, and Gensler are among those that have led the way with longstanding equitable practices. All have rolled out multipronged action plans to combat racism and have found success with strategies such as embracing diverse leadership; recruiting, hiring, mentoring, and promoting more minorities; considering the pipeline by offering minority students scholarships to historically Black colleges; engaging and investing in the Black community; and financially supporting the National Organization of Minority Architects.

Change starts at the top, says McKissack. At the firm’s executive level, two leaders are Black and one is Latino. “Having diversity in your senior leadership—that’s what people are looking at and makes them feel comfortable,” she said. “People feel like I’m going to be fair because I’m Black.”

Gensler principal Jean Anderson, who sits on the firm’s 22-member Global Race and Diversity Committee, agrees. “I look at our leadership structure—the co-CEO is Black.” But, she adds, diversity and inclusion have to permeate the organization to be effective. Gensler is constantly pushing for more diversity throughout its workforce and takes pride in its diverse team, which includes numerous NOMA members. “We’ve always been a very inclusive kind of culture,” says Anderson. “We innovate by drawing from different cultures’ points of view.”

Gensler principal Jean Anderson. Photography courtesy of Jean Anderson. 

At Perkins and Will, where minorities make up 31% of the U.S. workforce, diversity, equity, and inclusion are embedded as core values. Bullock was instrumental in creating the firm’s Diversity Council in 2013, a groundbreaking move at that time. Comprised of staff members from across the firm’s 24 global offices, the group is responsible for advancing a culture of diversity and supporting the careers of minority architects and designers. “Cultural differences are key to authentic design solutions,” Bullock remarks. Perkins and Will was also instrumental in coauthoring the AIA white paper: Creating a Culture of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Your Architectural Practice.

Although there is work to be done in the A&D community, there’s much optimism for its future—and the world’s. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the architecture, engineering, and construction industry employs more than 13 million people; “that’s billions of dollars spent yearly,” McKissack said. “If there’s any industry that can help bring people together or move the needle on removing racism from this country, it would be our industry.”

Click here for each of the above-mentioned firms’ formal set of diversity strategies: Perkins and Will; Gensler; and McKissack & McKissack. Additional resources can be found at AIA, NOMA, and Design as Protest 

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