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It's time for a serious look at women in practice

Excuse the gender bias, but this is the first time women have taken over the AJ in 116 years, says Christine Murray

I hope male readers will not feel alienated by the female focus of this issue – the first women-centric issue in the AJ’s 116-year history.

The concerns raised by the 62 female practice directors and partners we profiled are those shared by men too: the downward pressure on fees, the long road to qualification, the rising cost of education, the lack of flexible working, and the erosion of the architect’s role. Men are also not immune to the challenges of balancing career, relationships and kids. Should this edition prove influential, men will benefit too.

On a personal note, as a mother of a two-year-old, juggling work and life in all its complexity, I have more than a passing interest in advice on making career and family life work. I was both disappointed and relieved to find that these women didn’t have a single approach. There is not one way to ‘have it all’ – if ‘having it all’ is even possible. Life is full of decisions. You do the best you can, work hard, improvise, and if something isn’t working, try something else.

That said, working for an enlightened practice can help. The most successful firms are already retaining talented staff by supporting their employees during the handful of years when they need a more flexible working arrangement. Kids grow up fast, and after their first three years of life, go to school – the period in which parents (male and female) may need to work compressed hours is relatively short when you consider the length of an architect’s career.

Practices that aren’t as concerned with staff retention are losing dedicated and skilled employees. I can only express the loyalty I feel towards my company for enabling me to work flexible hours while my child is small. I would urge any practice to do the same, if only to engender such gratitude – a great boost to anyone’s work ethic. As Michál Cohen of Walters and Cohen suggests in her interview, women only appear to leave practices that don’t treat them well.

Of all the data we collected for this issue (nearly 700 women completed our online survey), I was most shocked by the number of women who felt they were being paid less than a male colleague with the same job. After all, this is illegal. Practice managers would be wise to address this pay gap – employees can take you to court, even up to six years after they’ve left your employment under the Equal Pay Act, now that the High Court can hear these cases.

The other shocking claim repeated in the interviews with leading architects was that sexism in the industry is now more prevalent within practices than on the construction site. Gone is the cliché of the enlightened architect and the crude, uneducated contractor. In this changing world, where prominent client representatives, from Land Securities to the V&A Museum (not to mention editors), are now female, architects would do well to banish sex discrimination from their practices, if not for equality reasons, then because it makes good business sense.

Readers' comments (3)

  • John Kellett

    Your opening statement "The concerns raised by the 62 female practice directors and partners we profiled are those shared by men too: ....... the long road to qualification" is perplexing.
    It is our thorough education and high standard of qualification that separates us from the charlatans and the 'wannabes'. Anybody who wants a short cut to a professional career as an architect, whether male or female, is no more than one of those very same charlatans or 'wannabes'!

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  • Christine Murray

    With the rising cost of education, there are many male and female part 1 and part 2 students who believe an architect's salary and fees are no longer representative of the cost of qualification - especially when compared with other professions such as medicine and law

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  • John Kellett

    Yes, but it's not the length of the course that is the problem.
    Speaking as someone from a 'middle income' background I would rather have studied with the benefit of a loan for the full cost than struggle with a partial grant, which my parents were unable to 'make up' to the full amount. At least the loan is only paid back if one is earning enough, the financial difficulties of 6 years as a student took many years to work through! The lack of female students during the late 70s and early 80s may have been partially due to the grant system. Has the proportion of female students under the loan system improved?

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