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How top architecture firms measure up in the #MeToo era

We surveyed some of the industry’s most powerful practices on how they handle sexual harassment in the workplace

Over the past few months, as the issue of sexual harassment has been thrust to the forefront of the national conversation and industries have been rocked by allegations of misconduct, a question has circulated in quieter corners of Twitter and Facebook: Will architecture face a reckoning of its own?

Architecture has a long history of celebrating the lone male genius, creating power structures that disadvantage women and that have yet to be fully dismantled. The field’s problems with diversity and gender equality are well documented. Even as women close the gap among architecture school graduates, their numbers shrink the further up the ladder you look: Women make up 31 percent of the profession but only 20 percent of principals and partners, according to the American Institute of Architects.

At the very top, the numbers are even more staggering: In November, Dezeen found that only three of the world’s 100 biggest firms are led by women, and that 90 percent of their C-suite executives are men. Compound this with the economic realities of the profession—starting salaries tend to be relatively low, and the gender pay gap broadens as architects progress in their careers—and it’s hard to ignore the resulting power dynamic.

Several of these economic realities are well-known risk factors for sexual harassment. According to a comprehensive 2016 study by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “anywhere from 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” Organizations with a lack of gender diversity, significant power disparities, and “high-value employees”—who bring in significant amounts of money or prestige for a firm, or who are perceived to do so—are also organizations where women are more likely to experience harassment.

Indeed, The Architects’ Journal’s 2018 Women in Architecture survey found that almost a third of female respondents reported experiencing sexual discrimination, and one in seven said they’d experienced sexual harassment within the past 12 months. Yet while Hollywood, tech, sports, media, politics, the restaurant industry, and others are reeling from high-profile revelations and resignations, the design world has remained—with the notable exception of Daniela Soleri’s account of sexual abuse by her father, architect Paolo Soleri—mostly undisturbed in the public realm.

To learn how global practices are tackling sexual harassment issues today, Curbed surveyed the top 20 architecture firms (“top” by revenue, as calculated by Architectural Record) about their sexual harassment policies, reporting procedures, and efforts to create inclusive and equitable environments. Four of the firms with the greatest name recognition—Gensler, HDR, Perkins Eastman, and Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates—did not respond to requests for interviews, or stopped responding after questions were sent. Two declined to comment: Jacobs, which in December finalized a deal to acquire No. 7 firm CH2M, and CallisonRTKL, whose spokesperson said he was “not sure we can add anything to the discussion.”

What policies do firms have in place?

Legally, sexual harassment falls under state and federal jurisdiction—and while it isn’t criminalized, it is considered a form of gender discrimination, which is a civil violation in every state. According to the law, behaviors that rise to this level fall into two distinct categories, both of which must be deemed “unwelcome”: quid pro quo coercion, in which an employer threatens an employee’s job or offers benefits in exchange for sex, and a hostile work environment, in which an employer fails to address “severe and pervasive” harassment, whether verbal, physical, or otherwise.

All of the firms that responded to Curbed’s questions say they have formal antiharassment policies in place prohibiting discrimination and harassment of or by employees and, in many cases, clients, vendors, subcontractors, and other third parties. While most mirror the language of the law, some take a more expansive approach. Suzanne Pennasilico, chief human resources officer at New York City-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, says that the company’s policy is stricter than the legal definition. “It’s meant to be very broad,” she says, “because everybody experiences the workplace in a different way, and we don’t want someone to not come and talk to us because they think, ‘Oh, well what’s happening in my life isn’t rising to that level of misconduct.’ We want people to come to us if they feel uncomfortable in any way.” Without providing the precise language of the policy, she says it talks about “misconduct” and “making people feel uncomfortable,” and includes examples of what this may look like.

Rarer are formal policies around workplace relationships. However, Patricia Beagle, CannonDesign’s director of human resources, says the firm added a nepotism and personal relationships clause to its handbook several years ago to avoid potential issues around favoritism or conflicts of interest. If two employees are in a personal relationship and there is any kind of supervisory or management relationship, it says, they need to disclose it to HR so that the senior employee can recuse themself from decisions relating to the subordinate.

Many firms’ policies also include reporting guidelines and anti-retaliation clauses. And for publicly traded companies (AECOM, Jacobs, Stantec, and IBI Group), the standards are stricter: Employees who report misconduct, including sexual harassment that they have experienced or witnessed, are protected by federal whistleblower laws. The Sarbanes–Oxley Act, passed in 2002 in the wake of the Enron scandal, also mandates that public companies disclose their codes of ethics; AECOM and Stantec publish their employee codes of conduct online alongside other compliance documents.

What options do employees have to report a complaint?

Policies on their own hold little weight if employees don’t feel safe reporting violations. The EEOC found that 75 percent of those who experience harassment at work never discuss it with a manager or supervisor, typically because they fear blame, inaction, or retaliation.

When Daniela Soleri published her open letter about Paolo Soleri in November, she wrote of her struggles to reconcile her trauma with her father’s visionary public image. “There are so many reasons why victims of abuse keep silent,” she wrote. “It’s not always or only their power as a gatekeeper to your future, there can be other factors as well… you are up against him, his opus and all the affirmations those have garnered. The work itself argues against you, is a source of power for him.”

If Soleri’s situation is unique, her fears aren’t. Even in more commonplace situations of workplace harassment, victims may feel they can’t come forward without damaging their career or their reputations. As an industry, architecture presents its own set of challenges: Among top firms, offices are spread out around the world in countries with different cultures; employees work not just with one another, but with vendors, contractors, subcontractors, and others; the companies’ gender diversity, or lack thereof, is also a factor in decisions to report harassment.

Most firms detailed multiple avenues for reporting complaints. At CannonDesign, Beagle says, “We always make sure to include both male and female contacts for reporting,” which can include human resources executives and managers, the director of compliance, and office practice leaders at any of its 19 offices worldwide. In addition, she says, it is the firm’s policy that if employees believe they have observed inappropriate behavior, they are obligated to report it, and all supervisors are required to bring any complaints they receive to the named reporting contacts.

In written policies, firms go into varying degrees of detail about the procedures employees should follow and the steps supervisors should take if they receive a complaint. Stantec, for instance, outlines the details a complaint should include, where possible, from dates and surrounding circumstances to potential witnesses and any discussions with the alleged offender about the offensive behavior. AECOM’s code of conduct provides a list of contacts to whom employees can bring a complaint, but doesn’t go into detail about what information that complaint should include.

About six months ago, Sydney, Australia-based Woods Bagot established a global whistleblower hotline to anonymously report misconduct of all kinds in the workplace, according to the firm’s head of people and culture Andrew Kalinowski. SOM, IBI Group, Stantec, Leo A Daly, and AECOM offer similar phone and email hotlines for employees who don’t wish to reveal their identities, typically operated by a third-party vendor. All of these firms say that they promise to investigate every complaint made through the hotline or otherwise, and most outline their investigation procedure, at least in broad terms.

Omaha, Nebraska, firm Leo A Daly, for instance, states in its policy that “a confidential and impartial investigation will be promptly commenced” if an employee reports harassment, discrimination, or retaliation that they have witnessed or experienced, says a human resources representative. If necessary, it states, the process will include interviews with the involved parties and potential witnesses, and upon completion, “The parties of the complaint will be notified of the findings and their options.”

What harassment training do firms provide?

The effectiveness of corporate harassment training, which has become all but ubiquitous in larger offices, has come under particular scrutiny in recent years. “Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool—it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability,” reads the EEOC’s report. It’s also expensive: a compliance executive told Marketplace that about a third of large companies budget $100,000 or more annually. (Other estimates put the cost for online training at around $25 to $50 per employee.) Be that as it may, many companies are doubling down on the programs, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, have been found to be most effective when part of a “holistic effort” to address inequality and harassment.

Firms that do business in California or Connecticut are legally required to provide training to employees in supervisory roles in those states (in Maine, this extends to all employees, and even small companies have to provide it).

IBI Group, which has historically taken a less formal approach to training outside of the mandated states, says it is adding a module to its leadership training across the firm, while Woods Bagot says it is developing a web-based training package to implement globally. Neither explicitly link the decisions to the #MeToo movement, however.

Beyond basic harassment training, Perkins + Will’s chief talent officer Meg Brown says the firm also provides “unconscious bias” training for its staff of 1,500 across 24 offices worldwide in order to examine “how both negative and positive stereotypes that exist in our subconscious minds can affect our behavior toward others.”

Stantec’s chief human resource officer Emree Siaroff says the firm is also particularly focused on raising awareness about the issue of unconscious bias and combating it at all levels. As part of its Diversity and Inclusion Plan, the company has updated its training to reflect this priority, he says, and has also conducted surveys to gauge its progress among employees. “Unconscious bias creates barriers to inclusion, performance, engagement, attraction and retention, promotions, and, ultimately, innovation,” he says. “To recruit, motivate, and develop the best talent we must ensure we aren’t creating unintended barriers.”

How do firms handle complaints?

Most spoke in broad terms about investigating complaints thoroughly and dealing with them appropriately, without providing specific examples. A few, however, were more candid about what, exactly, this means in practice.

Juli Cook, partner and chief operating officer at Seattle-based NBBJ, says that they’ve trained the leadership team to address every complaint promptly with a confidential investigation, and have contacted outside executives when complaints have involved a vendor or subcontractor. “We’re not okay with the ills of the past and the unbalanced teams and the way people might have been treated,” she says. “We’re focused on now, and when we see an issue, we address it. We’ll exit somebody from the firm if it’s something that we need to address, or we’ll attack it head-on with legal support and figure it out.”

SOM’s Pennasilico says that while “there haven’t been that many instances,” complaints have, in certain cases, resulted in termination. “You can’t be part of a community if you can’t conduct yourself properly,” she says, adding that the most important part of handling these kinds of incidents is listening. “You have to hear them and just let them talk, because there isn’t an ability to investigate anything until someone feels completely comfortable and tells you everything.”

”Employees will only come forward when they see in practice the policies applied without fear, favor, or retribution,” says Woods Bagot’s Kalinowski. “And while this is easy to say, it means implementing them discreetly, respectfully, and swiftly whenever any allegation is made… Every complaint is logged, recorded, and reported to our operating committee and on a quarterly basis to the Board Audit and Risk Committee. The complaints are investigated swiftly and independently, which on the rare occasion may be by independent legal counsel. The outcomes, remedies, and actions are independently decided so that there is fairness for all parties.”

Jane Sillberg, global director of human resources at IBI Group, likewise emphasized the investigation process, saying that based on the findings, consequences “could include having to take a training course in harassment and discrimination up to and including termination.” But asked whether the firm, which has 2,500 employees across 60 offices, has handled complaints in the past, she says, “Nothing that is of significant concern.”

Has anything changed in the wake of #MeToo?

Some firms say their policies and conversations have not shifted in recent months: “We have not had a change in policy as our policy does not tolerate any kind of harassment,” writes Populous’s human resources director Missy Ragsdale in an emailed statement. “Our policy and training are current and therefore there isn’t a need to rethink or change,” echoes the human resources representative from Leo A Daly.

A representative for Corgan said that the firm’s new chief human resources officer started on January 1 and is not yet available for interviews, but the firm provided a brief statement saying that policies have not changed in response to the #MeToo movement: “Corgan already had policies in place prohibiting any kind of sexual harassment or discrimination and participates in annual training and education on both topics with 100% employee participation.”

Others allow that there is, at least, more dialogue around sexual harassment and what firms can do to prevent it. “We haven’t had to update our policies and procedures because they’ve been pretty robust before this,” says Brad Lukanic, chief executive officer of CannonDesign. “But as you might imagine, we can expect and do see an increased level of conversation. I think what we’ve done is taken this as an opportunity to look through the materials and the curriculum that we offer on this to make sure it’s current and it’s relevant.”

”The post-Weinstein #MeToo campaign has certainly re-ignited the conversation around sexual harassment and gender equity, and that is a good thing,” says Woods Bagot’s Kalinowski. “Raised awareness can never be a bad outcome.”

”We’re all so aware of the damage to other industries,” adds SOM’s Pennasilico, “and I think it just heightens the level of conversation and it also heightens the level of respect in the workplace, that you suddenly realize that anything can be taken out of context.”

NBBJ’s Cook says that in response to the recent cultural movement, NBBJ will be rolling out the online training it provides in California to the whole company, encompassing 700 employees across 11 studios in the U.S., U.K., China, India, and Hong Kong. This will supplement the current processes, which include having new hires sign a document confirming that they’ve read and understand the firm’s policy, and sending human resources officers to meet with studio leaders and coach them “not only on how they are they driving good business for the firm, but on how they’re creating careers for their people, how they’re supporting them throughout their own goals, and then also dealing with any issues or potential weaknesses in their staff.”

At CannonDesign, informal women’s groups that have come together organically throughout the organization are forming a firmwide resource, says Beagle, supplementing the work of the firm’s diversity and inclusion task force.

What are firms doing to proactively empower women?

Arguably more important than any corporate procedure is a company’s commitment to fostering an inclusive and equitable environment. Only one of the firms Curbed surveyed, Woods Bagot, appears to have released statistics about gender in its overall workforce (47 percent of Woods Bagot employees are women), but firms that have established women’s groups and initiatives say they’ve been integral in promoting larger issues of diversity and professional advancement.

”One of the things that is unique about SOM is that we have this really vibrant women’s initiative that started about six years ago,” says Pennasilico, “It was really a group of mid-level women who wanted to have a greater impact and promote women within our culture.” The initiative gives women an access point to connect across the organization, she says, and helps disseminate information. Having a resource like that “elevates your ability to have a larger conversation, and not just an HR conversation. It really becomes a more inclusive conversation,” she says.

At IBI Group, Sillberg says the firm started a global women’s network last year, which has a steering committee that sets objectives and organizes speakers, a reading club, a mentorship program, and events like speed-networking. “When you’re working in architecture and engineering, there’s typically lower demographic of women, and when you’re dealing with a global company, there’s not always the same point of view in women’s issues,” she says. “I want to make sure that women that are working in the organization, regardless of geography, have the support and the network.”

Populous’s Ragsdale says the firm supports its local Women In Design efforts, and that several female employees run a collaborative group “established with the object to influence culture and increase the visibility of women at Populous.” As part of its benefit package, it also offers an employee assistance program, which typically provides access to confidential, employer-sponsored counseling and treatment for issues like emotional distress, domestic violence, substance abuse, and personal or work-related stress.

Addressing the pay gap can likewise play a significant role in improving workplace culture. A representative for St. Louis, Missouri-based HOK pointed to the firm’s compensation process as exemplary of its “commitment to fairness.” While the firm did not provide details on the process, the representative said in a statement that since the process was enhanced five years ago, “all decisions related to compensation and promotion are thoroughly vetted, including active involvement in the process by the most senior leaders of the firm.”

At NBBJ, Cook says, the leadership team “sits back every year and benchmarks the differences in genders in pay,” which informs salary decisions for new hires and has, in the past, led to pay adjustments for some existing employees. “We know that there are certain things that have happened in the past that we have to take back and make up for, so we do that every year.” While the majority of its partners are men, its C-suite leadership is 50 percent female and the firm employs a “paired leadership” style, in which responsibilities are shared collaboratively rather than resting with one person, internally and with clients. “We really believe in this idea that diversity of pairs and teams drives the best outcomes,” she says.

The firm also has a women’s forum in every office that meets either monthly or quarterly where, Cook says, the topic of sexual harassment has been “front and center.” “The forum is open and has sparked tremendous dialogue, obviously, in communication around relevant topics,” she says. “We really understand that women have to be at the table, particularly now, helping this discussion but also in developing our culture.”

Perkins + Will’s Brown pointed to the work of the firm’s diversity, inclusion, and engagement program, led by its global director of diversity, Gabrielle Bullock, which raises awareness of and advocates for breaking down barriers and stereotypes in the workplace. “We are proud of the work we are doing to influence inclusion in our firm and across the entire industry,” says Brown. “We believe that right now, while #MeToo continues to gain momentum and earn the attention it deserves in the public realm, it is critical for employers everywhere to revisit and reexamine their policies against sexual harassment—strengthen them if necessary—and re-educate their employees about those policies. This will help those who have felt voiceless in the past to know that they are encouraged to speak up.”

Anyone with information about alleged misconduct in the architecture, design, and development industries can contact Curbed’s editor-in-chief, Kelsey Keith, at We are accustomed to discussing sensitive information and stories over the phone, so feel free to send an email asking for a phone call. You can also send tips using the app Signal, which encrypts text messages and voice calls. Tip Curbed via Signal here: 267-714-4132.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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