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14/03/2019

We need to look at the person, not their haircut

Afro iStock

Employers should hire individuals based on ability not their ethnic background, argues Richard Douglas

The question of ethnic diversity in society is often framed as a problem, including in the construction industry, where one’s ethnicity or race can, or can be perceived to, provide barriers to entry. I am mixed-race, with a black Caribbean father and a white British mother. Growing up, my race did not significantly shape my perception of who I am. Studying architecture at university I achieved well academically, spoke well and presented myself professionally.

I had, however, grown a sizeable but smart Afro. When applying for jobs, I often sensed unease as many interviewers stared at me–or,more accurately, my hair.

After many failed attempts, I cut off my Afro and subsequently secured a job at Pro Vision, where I remain. The company did not employ me to increase ethnic diversity but because I was the right person for the job. Pro Vision sponsored me through my diploma and postgraduate diploma in architecture – practical help that made a huge difference to my progress.

Whether my barriers to entry were perceived or real, I cannot say. It is a reality, though, that ethnic minorities are less likely to enter the construction industry. While non-white workers make up 12 per cent of the overall working population, in the construction industry they constitute only 5.7 per cent.

“I had, however, grown a sizeable Afro… I often sensed unease as many interviewers stared at me – or, more accurately, my hair”

This is not a problem, as long as this is not driven by systems preventing access and opportunity within the industry. Discrimination is about removing an individual’s power to choose in any given situation.

I was inspired to enter architecture by a desire to create beautiful, functional objects. That most well-known architects were white did not bother me. But many others do not feel the same. Naturally, people often aspire to and feel more comfortable around those of similar racial or ethical origins.

More visibility of ethnic minorities at senior levels and in public positions in the industry would provide inspiring role models. But this should not be achieved through ‘positive’ discrimination. People should be judged on ability and merit, not skin colour. Historic prejudices against ethnic minorities are not overcome by now discriminating against the ethnic majority. 

Diversity has been described as ‘the art of thinking independently together’ and it has definite benefits in construction. The industry must strive to reduce barriers to entry and provide opportunities to all. Diversity then becomes not a problem but an outcome of a properly working system.

Richard Douglas is associate director of Pro Vision planners, architects and urban designers

Image | iStock

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