Sexual Harassment: How the Design Industry Should Approach It

May 22, 2018
Using the April 2018 panel discussion “Rebalancing the Power: Solutions for Sexual Misconduct in Architecture and Design Culture” as a starting point, EIC Kadie Yale discusses additional ways the design industry can work against sexual harassment and assault.

Is the Design Industry Finally Confronting Its Demons?
In 2018, the discussion of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, has been in full swing in American society. The organization Times Up continues to make red carpet protests to highlight the inconsistencies between how women and men in the film industry are treated and paid. #MeToo became a global phenomenon giving power to victims and their stories of sexual harassment and assault—the hashtag gained traction in late 2017 as the movement made a rarely seen transition from social media to the physical world.

When the New York Times reported in March 2018 that architect Richard Meier had been accused by five women, including previous employees, of sexual harassment and misconduct it seemed as if the discussion had finally permeated into the building industry. But has it? Or is it an instance that will be quickly forgotten? How can the design industry keep the conversation alive? 

Hand-picked Article: Advocacy in the Design Community

Rebalancing the Power: Solutions for Sexual Misconduct in Architecture and Design Culture
On April 16, 2018, a panel organized by Cynthia Kracauer, executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, focused on the topic of sexual misconduct in architecture. Panelists included Mark Regulinski, AIA, former principal of Skidmore Owings & Merrill; Robert Ottinger, Esq., plaintiff attorney; Julie Kantor, Ph.D, clinical psychologist; and Suzanne Pennasilico, head of human resources at Skidmore Owings & Merrill. It was moderated by Robin Pogrebin, culture reporter for the New York Times.

Titled “Rebalancing the Power: Solutions for Sexual Misconduct in Architecture and Design Culture,” the panel discussed an important question: How are issues of sexual harassment and misconduct impacting the historically male-dominated worlds of architecture and construction?

The problem itself is made up of many aspects; it’s definitely not as cut-and-dry or one-size-fits-all as would otherwise be hoped.

Ottinger described sexual misconduct and harassment in the workplace as being seen as different from street crimes. Despite the fact that it’s common knowledge by now that most harassment and assault comes from someone the victim knows, the idea of the scary boogeyman jumping out from a dark alley still drives many ways in which the judicial system works.

Kantor pointed out that victims typically don’t want to speak out to avoid shame, so a shift in thought surrounding the subject of harassment is needed. She added that for the architecture industry in particular, the creative process can be used as a cover for bad behavior. The industry saw this with Meier. The NYT reported that his harassment of female staff members was at least widely enough known that several women were warned to make sure they weren’t alone with him. But his behavior was able to continue and his works lauded by the industry, for decades.

An interesting read: Libby Seller's "Women Design"

Both Pogrebin and Regulinski stated that the conversation around #MeToo and women’s narratives of the abuse they go through has changed quickly in the last year. NYT has run five #MeToo stories in the arts world and Regulinski sees women-led firms becoming more normalized in the design world.

The panel concluded with advice from the panelists for architecture and design firms:

  1. Use the momentum currently happening to build movement and change the profession.
  2. Make it a crime in your company to harass others; outlaw confidentiality agreements (per Ottinger).
  3. Designate organizations to have responsibility and invite the conversation into your workplace (per Kantor).
  4. Host bullying training. Pennasilico spoke about the need for a change in the culture of HR in which harassing behavior isn’t defended.
  5. Create new avenues of communication and the sharing of experiences within organizations (per Pogrebin).
  6. Say that as a company we will not allow confidentiality/non-disclosure agreements and no arbitration for sexual harassment (per Ottinger).
  7. Understand that verbal abuse is still oppressive abuse (per Pogrebin).
  8. Continue public shaming of this behavior.

Four Points Necessary to the Conversation of Sexual Misconduct 
Whether or not our readers agree with the above, it outlines many issues that the design community needs to address still. However, I would add several points:

Display definitions of harassment and places to seek help in offices. Similar to the ways in which it’s required to hang OSHA regulations in breakrooms and other high-impact environments, descriptions of harassment and contact information of places to find help should also be displayed. Knowing one’s options in the case of sexual harassment can be difficult and, unfortunately, lined with those who won’t take the situation seriously or have reasons to sweep it under the rug.

By having conversations in the workplace, providing a clear description of how a sexual harassment case can and should be escalated through the company and beyond, and providing outside resources, companies can create a safer environment for employees.

Create a clear understanding of the different types of harassment and assault. For too long we’ve grouped them all together. While harassment in all of its forms shouldn’t be accepted, saying a man sexually harassed his female employees when his abuse ran the gambit from inappropriate comments to exposing his genitals and unwanted touching, and then using the same wording to describe a man who has made misogynistic statements can decrease the public’s view of the seriousness of the former’s abuse.

Why don’t we call out what happened and use that terminology? “Person A accused of exposing themselves” or “Person B on trial for rape” rather than “Person A/B accused of/on trial for sexual harassment” not only brings clarity to the situation but helps to remove the stigma surrounding conversations of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.

Include harassment of men. I will point out that the discussion of harassment needs to also highlight and address the ways in which men are harassed and bullied as well in the industry. By and large, our society tends to put less weight into the harassment of men and while it is more prevalent for women to receive harassment, there is room and resources to better discuss sexual, verbal, and physical assaults against men.

The media needs to take a stand. Although the conversation has already started, it’s up to us in the media to take a stance on how such things will be handled. The Meier accusations highlighted something that hadn’t been brought up before: How does the media handle such reporting? And how should future reporting be done on companies that still bare the harasser’s name, even though that person has stepped down from the helm?

Something else to think about:

During HD Expo 2018, I overheard a conversation between two men and a woman that has been stuck in my brain all month. After one of the men invited the other to their HD event that night, the woman expressed that she would also like to attend. The men didn’t say that she couldn’t, but their language was still exclusory as they explained that the event occurs in one of the many strip clubs found in Las Vegas. Then one said to her that the interior design industry is still very much a men’s club—at least on the manufacturing side—with company ownership often being passed from father to son over generations.

In 2017, the ASID State of the Industry Report found that the demographics of the interior design industry sits at 66 percent female, and 34 percent male, with a fairly even distribution in age. The demographics for industrial design and manufacturing are unknown at this time, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that industrial design employment will only grow 4 percent from 2016 to 2026.

State of the Industry 2018: Interior Design at a Crossroads

If it’s true that areas of the interior design industry is a men’s club, what does that mean for the interior design profession, in which women are the majority?

Discussions about sexual harassment have appeared in the architectural practices, but what can interior designers take from that, and does focusing on sexual harassment add to the conversation of balancing the power dynamic in the building industry?

About the Author

Kadie Yale | Former Editor-in-Chief

Kadie Yale holds a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State University and a MA in Decorative Art History and Theory from Parsons the New School. In her role as editor-in-chief from 2015-2018, she led the interiors+sources team in creating relevant content that touches on sustainability, universal design, science, and the role of design in society.

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