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Walters & Cohen on how to attract, and keep, senior women in architecture

Last year’s winners of the AJ Woman Architect of the Year award, Cindy Walters and Michál Cohen speak to the AJ

Walters & Cohen Architects employs 21 architects and architectural assistants, of whom more than 70 per cent are women. We asked them how, as business leaders, they manage flexible working and parental leave and how to attract, and keep, senior women in practice.

As a small business, how do you manage the costs involved when staff are on maternity leave?

Walters: We try to be as generous and flexible as possible, we do everything we can to retain valued members of staff and make it attractive for them to return to work after a break.

Cohen: Be as generous as you can - keeping a good, dedicated member of staff is worth it.

How do you make flexible hours work?

Walters: Raising a family and having a career is not unique to architects, and certainly not a problem faced only by women. We try to make it possible for people to work hours that enable them to teach or look after children - we have demonstrated that it is possible to manage other demands within a supportive practice.

Cohen: This question of flexible hours needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. We try, where possible, to accommodate our staff in this respect so that people can pursue their desires to raise a family, or continue in education, without feeling that their position in the practice might be jeopardised.

What is your view on plans for shared parental leave for fathers and mothers?

Cohen: I support it. The fathers in our office are also dedicated to spending time with their children.

Walters: We currently have three members of staff who have chosen to reduce their working hours to be able to teach or look after young children; as it happens, two of these are men.

What is your top tip for women returning to work after maternity leave, or after a career break?

Cohen: Give yourself time to settle back and take it slowly. I remember coming back to the office after three months of maternity leave and feeling I really didn’t belong in my own office. It helped that I only worked four days a week for a couple of months on my return.

Walters: Speak to your employers and partners. Try to find an arrangement that works for everyone. Be sensitive to the people in your office and team that don’t have young children to go home to. Take on tasks that you can manage and complete in the hours you are able to work.

At what stages in their careers are women likely to leave the profession, and why?

Cohen: I think it depends on people’s personal circumstances, but in general ‘danger points’ will be at times when circumstances change, such as moving from university to work and starting a family.

Walters: I don’t know enough about this to comment fully but I’m sure the RIBA could be persuaded to do the research. Many women leave full time employment to raise families, this is not specific to architects.

How might these points be approached so that women continue in architecture?

Walters: Better and more available state-subsidised childcare.

Cohen: A mentor system in the office environment might help with the transition from university to work. Starting a family: this is always going to be challenging for any professional. Of course it would help to be able to work flexible time, to have help with childcare (financially and physically) and find a balance that suits you.

However, I find that I have many of these benefits and it is still difficult - I never feel I have enough time in the day to be a really good architect, a really good mother and an acceptable wife. Perhaps we have to accept that something has to give?

How important is personal confidence in terms of being a successful architect?

Cohen: Very.

Walters: Confidence is important in all walks of life. I would say resilience is as important for architects - learning how to pick yourself up and stay positive after not winning a job takes time.

Do you have any tips for building confidence?

Walters: No. Passionate belief in what you are saying is a good confidence booster. I also find it helpful being able
to benchmark our work against work being done by other architects around the world.

Cohen: No, women architects don’t need more confidence than men. Being well prepared has always given me confidence. Confidence also builds confidence.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women in architecture today? And what should be done about it?

Cohen: The same challenges as those facing men: long university training, long hours and poor remuneration. At the same time the value of design seems to be frequently questioned. You have to be really dedicated to the profession to become an architect and stay in the industry.

Walters: I think the challenges facing young architects are exactly the same for women as for men, and my advice would be the same for both: stay focused on design excellence, that’s where an architect can add the most value.

What practically might be done to reduce the pay gap between men and women in the industry?

Walters: We don’t have a pay gap between women and men in our practice and I find it impossible to see how this could be justified in any business or practice.

Cohen: I cannot speak for the way other people choose to run their businesses.

What’s your top tip for running a women-friendly practice?

Cohen: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. Be as transparent as possible. Talk to people. These don’t only apply to women-friendly practices but to all practices.

Walters: We do not run a women-friendly practice. Our practice is a creative and stimulating place to work, where design, innovation and research are at the forefront of everything we do. We nurture a secure and non-confrontational working environment and try to make our office a place where everyone can enjoy what they do.

Which women architects inspire you, and why?

Cohen: Someone you will not know - Mary Greening. When I was graduating, Mary was an architect in her 60s working in a small office in Durban, South Africa. For many years she was one of two women architects of her generation in Durban (the other took an academic route rather than work in practice). Mary also had a child who she brought up pretty much on her own. She managed to find a work/life balance, which I found admirable even then.

Walters: I have nominated one of the architects who has inspired me most for the 2013 Jane Drew Prize and have asked that my nomination remain anonymous. I admire architects who stay focused on excellence, regardless of
their gender.

What is your advice to aspiring female architects?

Walters: My advice to any architect, male or female, would be don’t be afraid to start your own business. Choose partners you trust and can rely on.

Cohen: Be the best architect you can.

Cindy Walters and Michál Cohen are directors of Walters & Cohen architects. They are joint winners of the AJ Woman Architect of the Year Award 2012

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