“We need to move on from just having the conversation” says ex-RIBA inclusion boss Marsha Ramroop

Portrait of Marsha Ramroop

The race between a man of Asian descent and a woman to become the UK’s next prime minister is a cautionary tale for architecture firms about mistaking “tokenism” for true inclusivity, argues former RIBA diversity lead Marsha Ramroop in this interview.

“I worry about things like tokenism when we see certain people being chosen to represent racial diversity, when you can see that things aren’t changing as a power structure in our society generally for these groups,” Ramroop told Dezeen from her home in Derby.

Britain is set to get a new prime minister within days as the Conservative party leadership contest concludes. Liz Truss, the favourite, would become the third woman to occupy Number 10 Downing Street if she wins while her rival, Rishi Sunak, would be the first non-white UK prime minister.

“I worry about things like tokenism”

Truss and Sunak were chosen from an initial list of eight candidates including four people from racial minority backgrounds and four women, which some commentators hailed as a major step forward for equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) issues.

However, Ramroop is less certain. “While one or two individuals might be doing well and being held up as poster people, that doesn’t actually mean that there is fundamental societal change,” she said.

“And so that’s why I think there’s something different going on there than necessarily the Tory party doing EDI well.”

In that vein, people from typically underrepresented groups getting into senior positions at architecture and design firms does not necessarily mean the job is done on EDI, Ramroop argued.

Diversity issues have not been heavily championed during the Conservative debates, with candidates tending to show off “anti-woke” political stances.

Portrait of Marsha Ramroop
Ramroop left her job at the RIBA this spring

“When you look at whether those individuals are creating policies that are equitable and actually supporting inclusivity, then you have to look at that story to say, well, is that in any way beneficial to underrepresented groups?” Ramroop remarked.

Her former employer, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) itself recently elected a new president in Muyiwa Oki, the first Black person to occupy the role.

“Significant news and a reason to hope,” Ramroop wrote on Twitter in response to the news last month. “Muyiwa Oki will need the full support of membership to bring about the inclusive change he wants to see.”

Ramroop left her job as director of diversity and inclusion at the RIBA this spring, having been appointed in January 2021.

In her short stint at the institute, she set up an award-winning EDI culture change programme and developed resources for members, including RIBA Radio.

Before that she spent nearly 18 years working for the BBC, initially as a radio journalist and moving into EDI leadership towards the end of her time at the corporation.

Her interest in inclusivity comes partly from her upbringing by Trinidadian parents in north-west London, who she says made “huge, huge sacrifices” to send her to private school.

“She was never recognised in terms of her pay seniority in the NHS for the work that she did,” Ramroop said of her mother, who worked as a nurse for 41 years. “And she would very much put that down to her race.”

Ramroop’s own experiences of racism – including in her professional life – have also played a role.

“I’m not sure how much I’m willing to speak about that,” she said. “What I will say is that at the time those experiences were exceptionally painful, and going through that was the worst time of my life. And coming through it has been not only an incredible learning experience but has really continued to drive me to do this work.”

“I’m so keen to stay in architecture”

She had left the BBC to set up a consultancy, Unheard Voice, when she applied for the role at RIBA.

“When I saw the job [at RIBA] advertised I just thought… if I could influence the creation of inclusive spaces, I could influence the creation of an inclusive society,” she recalled.

“I still believe that, which is why I’m so keen to stay in architecture and the built environment sector,” she added.

“It’s for everybody in the sector, whether you’re from an underrepresented group or not… absolutely every single person should be thinking ‘what do I need to do differently so I can be more inclusive?'”

Ramroop sees herself as turning good corporate intentions into material change, taking as the starting point “cultural intelligence” or “cultural quotient” (CQ).

“It’s the capability to work and relate effectively with people who are different from you,” she explained. “It’s an introspective piece of work: what is it about me, what is it about us that needs to change so that we can be better at working, relating with you, whoever you are?”

The crucial underpinning principle of CQ is that the burden should not be on people in overlooked demographics and that this “uncomfortable” mirror-gazing exercise is for everyone as all human beings harbour unconscious biases, Ramroop outlined.

“So take architecture, for example,” she continued. “There’s nothing wrong with women in architecture, there’s nothing wrong with racialised groups in architecture, there’s nothing wrong with the disabled. So why are we saying that we need to develop them?”

Organisations can then apply that cultural intelligence to how they attract, retain and progress staff, how they create their services or products and how they engage with clients or other stakeholders.

“Are you sure you’re not treating one person differently from another?” is Ramroop’s summary.

Her assessment of the UK architecture profession’s progress on equality and inclusion based on her time at the RIBA is one of carefully qualified optimism, though she argues that there is more work to be done.

“We don’t need any more reports”

“I think it’s great that there’s so many open conversations right now about how architecture needs to, as a profession, lead our society in the way that our society is shaped and it absolutely has a role,” she said.

“But we need to move on from just having the conversation, because having the conversation doesn’t help either underrepresented people in the profession or our society.”

“So if there could just be a little more momentum behind that,” she added. “We don’t need any more reports, we don’t need any more research into why there’s underrepresentation. We know why: it’s because there’s structural problems that need to be dismantled in order that the underrepresented can progress in the profession.”

This action, she argues, requires “support, time, resource, effort, agency and money” in the architecture industry as a whole.

“That was so amazing about the RIBA staff, they were so engaged, they absolutely want to do this work, so [it’s] just making sure the whole sector is supportive,” she said.

“So yes, it’s moving in the right direction. But we can do more, and we should do more. And it is possible to move at pace, it just takes the will.”

The photography is by Malcolm the Photographer.

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