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‘Higher fees would not only improve architecture’s status, but crucially give women freedom’

Women in Practice essay: Sarah Wigglesworth

Nearly 20 years ago when Katerina Rüedi, Duncan McCorquodale and myself initiated Desiring Practices, a series of exhibitions followed by a book on gender roles in architecture, women constituted 11 per cent of registered practitioners.

Desiring Practicesproposed a critique of the patriarchal basis of architecture, its value systems, knowledge and products. Our project asked: how can women’s ways of knowing and doing posit new values and influence changes in existing patriarchal structures? This question is possibly even more relevant today than it was then.

Though many schools of architecture have an almost 50 per cent female cohort, female practitioner numbers now stand at 20 per cent. So representation is increasing, but not nearly fast enough. While there has been a great deal of emphasis on numbers, numbers alone are not enough, because if all we do is replicate existing values, women will have no opportunity to influence the culture of architecture.

The greatest drop-out occurs during the early years of practice, in the encounter with the twin cultures of the architectural office and the construction industry. While our academic counterparts have raised some important gender issues and critiqued the discourse, in what ways are women effecting cultural change in the world of practice? One example shows how little attention is given to this issue: competition (masculine way of doing) dominates the culture of architecture, but this approach is antithetical to the collaborative, explorative teasing-out of a project (female way of doing) that produces a really sustainable design proposition. 

The large, business-orientated firms seek to be gender-friendly, but their culture is likely to drown out the female voice. Some interesting new practices organised by women are springing up, but their financial model means they are vulnerable in the current climate, and possibly not sustainable. But women’s ingenuity could be used to invent new forms of association, valorising new knowledge or processes, and using our empathy and undoubted communication skills to address new audiences. We need new business models that reflect our interests and life patterns.

As people who tend to have portfolio careers, juggle competing needs, diversify their experience and make do financially, women are well placed to invent these new forms of practice. We already know that women fare better in work associations with life partners where the flexible work-life balance is well understood. Architecture is a subset of life, not the other way round. All the aims of an inclusive profession will fly away if we cannot accommodate people’s life needs in the process of earning a living wage.

While this transitional experiment in new forms of working unfolds, the reality of contemporary practice – the cutting of fees, new disciplines invading the territory and our roles being rendered redundant – is an associated loss of status and income compared with other professions. Students are alert to this, and if the statistics coming out of UCAS are any guide (applications for next year’s architecture courses are 20 per cent down), it is possible that charging high fees means students deserting architecture for other, more promising courses.

This will leave only the wealthy continuing the subject beyond degree level. We need to be careful that the toxic combination of increasing numbers of women with a downgrading of status does not simply turn architecture into a low-wage, ‘feminised’ profession such as nursing and social work, or a dilettante’s ‘finishing-school’ subject. As the large construction companies increasingly call the shots and architects are relegated to the role of expendable aesthetes, the search for a reinvigorated practice that incorporates women’s unique contribution to a realignment of the discipline, is especially important.

One possible solution could be to fight to raise salary levels – which ultimately means fees. This might sound perverse, attacking the problem from the wrong end, but hear me out. Raising fee levels is a signifier of the value we place on ourselves and bring to others.

To deserve higher fees means demonstrating clearly why architecture is worth it: and this means becoming political. Higher fees would not only help improve architecture’s status, but crucially, provide choice. For women practitioners in particular, this would allow them to play a full part in shaping the future profession in new ways.

Importantly, it will keep attracting good women into the discipline, and it will give women freedom and confidence to influence new initiatives within the mainstream. Nothing will change unless we can do this. Women themselves must step up to the mark, regain the political initiative and fight for these principles. Nobody else will do it for us. Time is critical, for if we don’t do it soon, we may have no profession at all.

Sarah Wigglesworth is professor of architecture at the University of Sheffield and director of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

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