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How does code switching affect members of the LGBTQ+ community in architecture practices?

With Pride Month now in full swing in the UK, learn more about a social behaviour that’s keenly felt by the LGBTQ+ community.

06 June 2024

LGBTQ+ Pride Month means different things to different people, but the global celebration does provide an opportunity for practices up and down the country to examine their workplace culture in order to make sure LGBTQ+ colleagues feel supported.

Great strides have been made when it comes to diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, but despite this progress there is always room for improvement. Especially when LGBTQ+ colleagues still feel marginalised or unable to fully be their authentic selves when they’re at work.

The way many LGBTQ+ colleagues cover their true personalities is through code switching. This is the practice of deliberately making a cultural or behavioural shift in oneself in order to fit in, get by, and possibly get on, in a work environment.

Code switching is a practice well recognised among marginalised people, particularly those from minoritised racial and ethnic backgrounds and the LGBTQ+ community.

For instance, a colleague might not share in informal discussions about colleagues' family lives because they are worried about how their queer relationship and family life will be received and viewed.

Another reason a member of the LGBTQ+ community (specifically, in this instance, a trans person) uses code switching might be they don’t feel safe or comfortable telling colleagues their preferred pronouns or dressing differently in the office.

Code switching is a practice well recognised among marginalised people, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community. (Photo: iStock Photo)

How does code switching affect members of the LGBTQ+ community?

Most people behave differently in the workplace than at home or socialising with friends. For lots of members of the LGBTQ+ community however, code switching becomes more extreme. Leaving much of who you are at the office door has a more profound psychological affect.

Architect, artist and former RIBA Journal Rising Star, Martha Summers, says they are visibly queer to most people but that has not stopped code switching being part of their professional life as an architect.

“I’ve been through phases where I’ve decided I’m just going to be myself unapologetically,” they say, “and talk about myself and whatever I was doing at the weekend. But I think I reached a point in my career where I felt this approach was holding me back and I was sticking out like a sore thumb. I then thought, ‘maybe I should just try to blend in as much as I can and play the game’.”

Martha says that there is a difference between thinking that it’s appropriate to act differently in certain work situations and choosing to do so and feeling that a person has no choice but to code switch for fear of being treated unfairly or mistreated if they bring their whole self into that situation.

Personal choice is key here. If a person feels they are not free to choose, then it’s a problem workplaces should try to address. Don't forget, if a colleague is code switching then they are covering their LGBTQ+ identity to fit into a working environment characterised by heterosexual norms.

“People who feel marginalised will feel they have no choice but to constantly self-police their own behaviour,” they say. “And this becomes draining and quite depressing.”

Read more about how practices can apply the principles of Pride all year round.

How can the profession of architecture help?

Code switching can also create barriers when it comes to making friends and building relationships at work. A colleague may be taking an interest in everyone else, but they don’t feel like they can allow people to take an interest in them.

“Those who code switch are always having these measured relationships where you can’t give too much away. It can leave people feeling very isolated,” Martha says.

Martha believes that architecture has a particular problem with accommodating marginalised groups because so many practices have a self-perpetuating hierarchical structure that is resistant to change.

They argue that too many practices are time-locked, with directors still stuck in the same studio culture that prevailed when they went to architecture school.

“You are expected to go along with whatever the overriding message of the practice is, whatever it is that they stand for, even if it makes you feel devalued,” they say.

Martha points out there is a big difference between having a diverse workforce, which most practices would now support, and a diverse work culture in the office.

Read more about RIBA’s initiatives and work in the area of equity, diversity and inclusivity.

Martha argues that there is no simple to-do list for practices wanting to make their work culture more genuinely inclusive. (Photo: Martha Summers)

How can code switching be addressed?

So, what’s the solution? Is there a way to end, or at least limit, a potentially harmful social behaviour like code switching?

Martha argues that there is no simple to-do list for practices wanting to make their work culture more genuinely inclusive. Some of the larger practices will have an LGBTQ+ networking group, which can be very supportive, but they remain wary of practices that organise an occasional one-hour lunchtime discussion on gender, race or disability and think, “job done”.

“An inclusive work culture has to be propagated in lots of different ways,” they argue. “You can feel the difference between practices who are really interested in doing better and those who just want to be seen ticking the box.”

“I really believe that these are the practices [those committed to inclusion] that also do more interesting work - they are genuinely interested in a changing world and will really engage with people in a critical way each time they do a project. They are not just designing the same building over and over again.”

They conclude: “Practice directors need to follow through with their commitments and welcome everyone’s different perspectives and life experiences and the different things that they can bring to a project, and then the project – and the workplace - is going to be better for everyone.”

Thanks to Martha Summers.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Inclusive environments.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as a RIBA Chartered Member.

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