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Equal pay for women in architecture is not a luxury, it’s the law

All architects have a part to play in the struggle for gender equality, says Christine Murray

In many ways, this is a golden moment for women in architecture: Ruth Reed is President of the RIBA, with Angela Brady as president-elect. Sarah Ichioka is the head of the Architecture Foundation and Vicky Richardson, director of architecture for the British Council. Catherine Slessor edits the Architectural Review. Zaha Hadid was the first woman to win the Pritzker, and picked up this year’s Stirling Prize. There are also more prominent female-led practices than ever before, from Deborah Saunt (DSDHA) to Alison Brooks (ABA) to Amanda Levete (ALA).

But if this suggests the glass ceiling has shattered, recent statistics revealed by The Fees Bureau are sobering. The percentage of women in practice has dropped from 24 per cent in 2008, to 19 per cent in 2010, supporting recent evidence that more female practitioners were made redundant during the recession. Even more shocking is the persistent gap in pay. In private practice, female sole principals are paid nearly 17 per cent less than their male counterparts.

When it comes to the female-male imbalance in practice, there are vague excuses about lifestyle choices, family life and fertility. As a working mum from a family of working mums, I feel qualified to say that in most cases this is absolute rubbish. But don’t take my word for it – research from the University of the West of England in 2003 revealed that many women leave the profession (or fail to return) because of unequal pay, the prohibitive cost of childcare, sidelining in the profession, and sexism in the construction industry. 

Women have good reason to be wary of architecture. What reason is there, aside from discrimination, to pay a female practitioner less? It is unethical, and furthermore, illegal. With the passing of last month’s Equality Act 2010, I urge practices to re-examine their books. Prior to the new act being passed on 1 October, employers could take action against members of staff who openly discussed their salaries. Under the new act, the profession can freely compare notes – this increased and encouraged transparency will enable female architects to force the issue of equal pay.

It would be nice if practices would volunteer to address pay issues first. It’s the cheaper alternative to a tribunal. But negative attitudes are imbedded deeply, and it will take effort to root them out. The founder of a leading British practice once said to me, rather casually over dinner, that female architects with children should simply leave practice as they were no longer good at their job.

As Angela Brady said at the launch of her 50/50 by 2020 campaign, change must come from the grassroots up. Reading down the high-powered list above, women in architecture are well placed to be the change they want to see in the profession. As for male architects, it’s time to stand up for your other halves. Whisper your salary to your nearest female colleague and compare notes. Not because you have to, but because you just know that it isn’t right.

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