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Our Journey to Becoming a Just Organization

Our Journey to Becoming a Just Organization

Hacker’s first Just label

Audrey Alverson
May 16, 2019

When I think of the word equity, and particularly what it means in the workplace, I’m a little bit in awe of where we – Hacker as a company – were just a few years ago compared to where we stand today. This in no way implies we’ve made it, solved it, fixed it; I hope at this point in the journey, we can all agree that if we know one thing, it’s that we will work at this forever. But I also feel it important to acknowledge progress, and I believe that we have made real progress.

Our journey toward becoming a Just Organization was a long and winding one, which feels appropriate, given its purpose. We started exploring the Just program – a social justice “nutrition label” of sorts that encourages transparency around company operations and policies – back in 2015. We hadn’t put any real work into it yet but were placing it on our “Wouldn’t this be cool to take on” to-do list, where it sat for a while. We’d also begun having some conversations in our office about gender equity in the architecture profession, but looking back I can see that those conversations were strained; the issues were not well understood or acknowledged by all, and the discussions tended to happen in gendered silos.

By fall of 2016, we’d completed an internal assessment of where we stood based on the Just label categories. We evaluated our company’s operational policies and statistics to get an objective picture of our staff diversity, equity issues, and how well our policies benefit employees and the larger community. Not surprisingly, we discovered that we had work to do in some areas and were on track in others.

And then the world turned upside down.

Sea Change

In the spirit of full transparency, I’d be remiss to not acknowledge the defining moment, that through its hurtful impacts on many of us, kicked us into gear toward completing this process: the 2016 presidential election. The aftermath of the election did more to reveal the gender divide in our office than almost anything else could have. And it wasn’t about men having bad behavior or not recognizing the problems with elevating an admitted sexual assailant to the highest position in our country. It was about recognizing the vastly different impacts on men vs. women. The crushing loss that many women felt – the freefall from our high the day before (we were about to elect the first woman president!), to the reminder that being a woman comes with a penalty – was not, and could not be, felt similarly by men.

I recall sitting in a conference room with two of my female colleagues, in anguish, deciding that now was the time to do some equity work in our office. We almost immediately got in touch with a local equity and diversity training consultant and hired them on for some all-office workshops. The workshops were uncomfortable. They were hard. They revealed bias. They revealed pain. But they also revealed a great team wanting to work on these issues together. The workshops were fruitful, but in many ways just scratched the surface. And they led us to a place where at a minimum we had shared language around things like the difference between equity and equality, the difference between misogyny and sexism, and the acknowledgement that we all hold biases. They also led us to have a publicly available equity statement and “community agreements” to which we hold each other accountable.

Doing JUST for real

During the time between our initial internal audit and finalizing our policies and metrics for submission to the Just program, we made several changes that were informed both by the Just guidelines and our equity workshops:

  • Using the Just guidelines, we found that we had great continuing education stipends, but we weren’t providing the same offering to administrative staff as we were to design staff. That’s not equitable, so we fixed it.

  • Similarly, our living wage calculations were landing us almost at the highest rating so we decided to look at what it would take to get there. We found that we would need to slightly bump up the hourly wage for a few people to achieve the highest rating, so we did.

  • We also made some more significant changes like adding paid parental leave and giving staff a socially responsible investing option for their 401k plan.  

The biggest challenge, of course, is to make the changes that can’t be accomplished with a simple policy edit: most notably, fixing our diversity problem. We know it’s a problem in our profession and we know it’s a problem in our office. It will take time, but we are committed to doing work around the issue. Some are in practice now, and others are in the works:

  • Start at the source – who joins the architecture profession in the first place? We just finished our third year of teaching a class called “Your Street, Your Voice” at The CENTER, geared toward engaging high school students from under-represented communities in the architecture profession. And we are about to embark on our first year of hosting high school students in a work study program, in partnership with a local high school whose students are primarily from minority communities and low-income families – demographics sorely unrepresented in our profession. We hope that this work will do even a little to expose more young people to architecture, and eventually help diversify the field.

  • Hiring and recruiting practices. We are working on extending our recruiting outreach to new areas, reconsidering the language we use in our job ads, and examining our process for candidate interviews and hiring decisions.

  • Women in leadership. It was telling to find that our only 1-star rating on the whole label was for gender diversity. This came most notably from the large gender divide in our senior management group, in which we had a 70/30 male/female split at the time of submission. This continues to be a hot button topic in our office and is something we know needs work. We don’t have a concrete plan in place, but as we embark on our strategic plan for the company’s next three years, this issue is on the front burner.

The Just program gave us a robust but manageable framework from which to work on equity and social justice issues. We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel; we only needed to use the guides to figure out where we stood and what we wanted to prioritize when it came to making changes. The program also provided an opportunity to have these conversations in a way that is more objective – a way to raise awareness about issues that many people may not recognize as issues. And once in practice, the policies that we wrote continue to be our guides – they are there to remind us to comply with what we committed to. We know we have more work to do, and Just has helped us to focus our efforts.

What’s next?

Just 2.0 is now out, and the evolution of the program is exciting. We’ll be working under the 2.0 framework by the time we are up for resubmission next year, so it’s time to get familiar with the new guides. We are also excited about the newly published AIA Guides for Equitable Practice and are looking for ways to incorporate them into our firm’s operations. While we know there is a lot of work to be done, it’s an exciting time. Stigma around discussing these hard issues, and discomfort with transparency in general, are both waning; that can only mean more progress for us all. And if only one thing is clear, it’s that this work is ongoing and will forever be just that – but it’s important and it’s worth the effort.

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