Since 2016, Built By Us has championed what Walker calls “untapped talent” through a programme of workshops and mentoring schemes. She was inspired to set up the company after witnessing years of inertia, and also from a personal history of exclusion. When she proposed a vocation in the arts, at the age of 16, a careers advisor suggested she consider working in a bank, or for slightly more pay, become a despatch driver. “I can remember thinking, ‘I have no clue, no idea of who I am,’” she says. “The things I thought I could do, I was being told I couldn’t.”
Those lines haven’t budged much since – in fact, they may have hardened. Gender (in the binary form we traditionally understand it) and equal pay have long been the focus of campaigns within architecture. The recently RIBA-launched #CloseTheGap pledge reflects changes to UK law, encouraging practices to consider the improvement of their gender pay gap performance as a “top priority”. But only 14 practices this year were legally required to report, based on a stipulation of having 250 employees or more – with the rest free to disclose data voluntarily. The move might also have been more convincing had RIBA’s own gender pay gap not increased by 5 per cent last year.
Race is not a new issue either, but it drew attention again in May, when Architects’ Journal published the results of its first race diversity survey – actually it was the first of its kind in architecture, anywhere. It was conducted in partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust close to the 25th anniversary of Lawrence’s racially-motivated murder. The survey reveals a catalogue of disquieting statistics. Of almost 900 surveyed, a third identified as BAME, 23.4 per cent of whom believed racism to be “widespread” in the architecture profession (compared to 9 per cent of white respondents); 24 per cent of BAME respondents claimed to have been victims of racism at their workplace, with one claiming to have witnessed colleagues dressing up in blackface for an event; and 7 out of 10 BAME surveyees believed their ethnicity created barriers to career progression.
“So,” she continues, “I thought that if I could get into a trade, becoming an electrician, that could support me financially, but also act as a springboard into something else.” Her two years as an apprentice were marked by a fresh set of prejudices and opportunities alike. “The guys certainly didn’t take me seriously,” she says, “but I enjoyed learning from them all the same.” When that springboard moment came in 1993 – via an access course to study architecture at university – there were similar barriers. “I was faced with all these new assumptions of how I should behave, and in both of those early experiences, there were particular lines around education and around expectations depending on class, gender and race.”