Increasing Diversity at Your Architecture or Engineering Firm, Nov. 2019

Presenters: Mark Kalar, AIA, Esq. and Amy Kalar, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

As Architecture and Engineering firms become more focused on diversity, many executives are finding implementation both complex and daunting. It’s a change that can’t be addressed simply by different hiring practices. Some are even wondering “What conversation should we having?”

The subject is emotionally laden, requiring compassion for others (whoever those “others” may be for each of us.) “Compassion” is a word we don’t often hear in a business context. It sound soft, but compassion fuels the process of achieving our hard business goals:

Legal. Non-discrimination is the law, of course. The 14th amendment provides that “No state shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Ethical. Ethically, we want to work toward equity and removing barriers, so that hardworking, talented people can achieve success in what they aspire to do.

Financial. Well-managed, diverse teams (not only different ethnic groups and genders, but ages, and even introverts and extroverts) are more creative and more productive.

How to Proceed?

Here are highlights and recommendations from the presenters and participants at this Round Table.

The AIA and ASCE Codes of Ethics have added language addressing diversity. Some of it needs more specificity. But the AIA Guides to Equitable Practice provides a great toolkit to help you take action.

Obeying the law is not enough, but we can look to the law for guidance. For example the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 expanded the time frame in which an employee could bring a discrimination suit. The lesson of the Act is clear: What you do today can have significance down the road.

In architecture and engineering, you can’t just hire your way to diversity, although it’s important to look for opportunities in hiring practices. One firm decided that a particular job description didn’t need to include “construction experience,” since they were well equipped to provide that. When they removed that requirement they got a much more diverse pool of applicants.

Of course you don’t want to hire an X just because he or she is an X, so get involved with programs that promote diversity and excellence in the pipeline. Do the kids in your area’s high schools know what a civil engineer or an architect or a surveyor does? Do they and the college students know where the internships are and how to apply?

Train, train, train. Some firms have spent a year training executives only, then move their way down, level by level. Some believe in starting with executives plus the grass roots level, so this group (which can include younger, fresher minds) can point out what the others aren’t seeing or talking about.

Encourage people to step outside their comfort zone in choosing mentors. “Like paired to like” limits your pool of mentors.

Build an “inclusive and welcoming” culture. This is a lot more positive than simply focusing on compliance. And it can lead to inclusion practices that simply make sense. For example, in a meeting, after the assertive have declared their opinions, the facilitator can ask, “Who haven’t we heard from?”. You’ll get valuable input from the introverts and those who need to take their time thinking things through.

Above all, make a visible, good faith effort, and have patience. Increasing your company’s diversity takes time and energy. But the benefits are worth it.


Amy Kalar is a registered architect at Cuningham Group with over 15 years of experience in the field. Amy is a member and co-founder of AIA Minnesota’s Women in Architecture Committee, and is currently President of the Minnesota Architectural Foundation.

Amy Kalar, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Project Manager

Cuningham Group Architecture

Mark Kalar is Chief Corporate Counsel at Cuningham Group. Mark is an In-House Counsel Fellow with the ABA’s Forum on Construction Law, treasurer of AIA Minneapolis, and past co-chair of AIA MN’s Government Affairs Committee.

Mark Kalar, AIA, Esq.

Associate Principal, Chief Corporate Counsel

Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.

These highlights represent the knowledge and considered recommendations from the presenters and participants at the November 2019 Coleman Executive Round Table for Architects and Engineers, rather than those of Coleman & Erickson. Note that this is not a comprehensive summary of the law. Legal counsel should be consulted for questions on how these points apply to specific situations.