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Survey shows shocking lack of respect for women architects

Statistics revealed by the latest AJ Women in Architecture survey show worrying lack of professional respect

Two thirds of the 710 women respondents felt the building industry hadn’t fully accepted the authority of the female architect, and almost half of the 216 male respondents agreed.

Reacting to the survey findings, leading architects have called for more women at director level to smash through the ‘glass ceiling’.

Tellingly, of the women architects who responded, just 14 per cent were either partners or directors of practices, compared with a quarter of the men.

Former Aedas board director Sarah Williams, now heading her own firm, S Williams Architects, said: ‘There need to be more women at board level holding senior positions across the industry in order to start to change the culture within organisations.’

She added: ‘The building industry lags behind others and needs to look closely at their clients – many of whom are, and will [continue to] be women. Maybe then these perceptions will change, leading to an acceptance that there are a variety of approaches in leadership and that a balance of male and female views will ultimately deliver the best results.’

Sally Lewis, director of Stitch added: ‘These survey results are symptomatic of an industry that is stuck in the past, occasionally inching tentatively into the present, and nowhere near prepared for the future world, where integration is everything.’

Patricia Hickey, co-founder of Bubble Architects, agreed. She said: ‘We need to be clear that women are being held back from promotion in architectural offices not because the practice directors think they will not be respected on site, but because the primarily male directors do not respect female leaders within the office; otherwise a gender pay discrepancy for the same roles would not persist.’

In response to the results Jane Duncan, the RIBA’s equality and diversity champion, said: ‘What we need are more role models  and more employers who are prepared to empower their women architects through in-house guidance and promotion to develop the confidence needed by any architect for their job. ‘

The survey also revealed that having children remained a barrier to success for women architects: 88 per cent of women respondents still felt that having kids put women at a disadvantage in architecture. One respondent even said she had hidden the fact she had kids from her employer ‘for fear that it would hinder her career’.

Further comment

Mary Duggan, director, Duggan Morris Architects

I started working in professional practice in 1997. Buildings were generally procured with architects in a lead role following a traditional procurement path. In this structure women had greater opportunity to operate creatively in the foreground. As we have moved towards a greater portion of contractor-led procurement projects with a more guarded attitude to risk management, this has swung the pendulum back towards a male predominance. I felt a greater sense of equality 15 years ago due to the greater focus on creative thinking, then placed at the forefront of design.

I felt a greater sense of equality 15 years ago

So when we talk about the industry in relation to women’s roles we need to consider the designers and builders as separate forces as there is a greater weight of men in the contracting and project management roles. Contracting organisations are way behind architects in terms of equality and unfortunately have edged greater power. This also needs to change, but we should focus our attention on the design practices where creative women are more successful.

I’m not suggesting that this is a cause and effect scenario, nor that we should revert to old methods, but we need to recognise that the influx of males correlates with the shift in procurement methodology, and this has altered the trajectory for women. So in considering the dissatisfaction in both arenas, there is a paralleled opportunity. We need to champion design-led procurement methods, level out the playing field, and in doing so reinstate the presence of women.

As a practice we advocate the authority of an architect to drive forth good building programmes. We have a great belief in a collaborative effort to achieve this goal and have worked hard to develop skills to ensure we are all in chorus, both male and female, contractors and designers.

These skills - of communication, negotiation, collaboration, consultation, team dynamics, programming, project management - need to be supplanted into architectural education much earlier. A shorter education timeframe to professional registration will provide time to accommodate alternative pursuits. Key skills and interests will vary widely across the profession and expert knowledge will quickly develop. This is particularly relevant for women who could choose to specialise in areas that can sustain time out.

Yasmin Shariff, Dennis Sharp Architects

Blaming the building industry is an easy way of avoiding the core issue that women are not taken seriously by their own profession. As long as women remain under-paid they will remain undervalued and their authority undermined. It beggars belief that in 2014 in Britain, women architects still do not have equal rights, their voice is stifled and their contribution compromised by their own professional bodies. It is time victims of unlawful discriminatory behaviour were supported. Neither the RIBA nor the ARB have taken action to penalise unequal pay or discrimination. It is not enough to have equal opportunities policies - they need to be enacted. With a million more women than men in this country it should be a prerequisite that only practices with women at senior level should be allowed to tender and those without should be excluded. Then the authority of women will quickly be transformed.

Sally Lewis, director, Stitch

These survey results are symptomatic of an industry that is stuck in the past, occasionally inching tentatively into the present, and nowhere near prepared for the future world where integration is everything. We can’t afford to sit comfortably (with our prejudices) in special boxes with a capital A anymore. It’s plain old fashioned and we’ll only get left behind.

These results are symptomatic of an industry stuck in the past

We also can’t change the fact that women will have children and have to deal with the challenges of balancing various life acts. The big opportunity is that now is the time to change how we operate as architects in the new and different real world. Despite my reluctance to engage in any kind of positive discrimination, I have to say that women could be particularly good trail blazers in being architects with a small ‘a’ - a little less ego and a lot more collaboration, entrepreneurship and engagement in the bigger story of the built environment.

Elspeth Clements, Clements Porter Architects

I currently don’t experience any problems with acceptance of my authority on site but I suspect that is because I work on smaller traditional projects, have a lot of experience being of a certain age and am principal of the firm. This all gives me a certain status.

Where we have experienced problems in the past was on larger design and build projects where we were working for the contractor. After site meetings on a couple of jobs, the job architect (who is also a woman) and I would leave site spitting feathers at the complete disregard with which our input was met. What we have been unable to determine was whether it was sexism or the low status of the architect within the construction team with this form of procurement.  

That being said, my first job on site many years ago started out disastrously. I was job architect on a scheme for 100 flats for the GLC. I was young, was female and wore jeans and was thus inappropriately dressed. The site agent refused to speak to me, let alone take instructions from me, all contact being through the clerk of works or the team leader. Although it was unfortunate for him, my problem was solved 10 weeks into the contract by the site agent having a terminal heart attack. Things got a lot better after that.

Sarah Williams, director, S Williams Architects

I agree that there is this perception in certain parts of the industry, including, unfortunately, our own profession, although I obviously don’t adhere to that belief. There needs to be more women at board level, holding senior positions across the industry in order to start to change the culture within organisations.

The building industry lags behind others in this respect and needs to look closely at who their clients are and whom they wish to target (many of whom are, and will be women).  It just makes business sense to do this. Maybe then, these perceptions will change, leading to an acceptance that there are a variety of approaches in leadership and that a balance of male and female views will ultimately deliver the best results.

Roisin Heneghan, Heneghan Peng Architects

At first I thought the results were a bit alarmist but thinking it over a bit more I can see that happening. It’s so tempting to make the easy choice of someone who fits the “lead architect” type. I have seen situations where there is indirect questioning of the competence of the female project architect. If the architect sticks with it, it usually works out but can be difficult. Ultimately it’s one of those situations which will get gradually dismantled but it can be difficult and disheartening.

Caroline Cole, director, Colander Associates

The implied paternal instinct towards female colleagues is interesting - are the men trying to protect them from the hard hitting world of construction, or worrying that the (predominantly male) client base will think less of their practice if women are put forward in a senior role, or are they simply being sexist?  It’s probably a bit of all three and I suspect that it’s all rather too complex to give a simple answer.  Anecdotally, we know that women are often, and overtly, placed in senior managerial positions but much less often in leadership roles.  I’d be interested to see a similar survey showing the position of women in client organisations; I think this could have a bearing in the future. 

I don’t know whether you have the stats from last year’s business benchmarking survey of RIBA chartered practices?  It showed that while around 38 per cent of architectural assistants were female, the percentage dropped at each level of seniority to around 11 per cent at equity partner or shareholder director level.  

I would be interested to compare the percentage of women who are at the highest level because they stepped out of the mainstream and set up their own business (often with their husbands/life-partners) in comparison to the percentage who fought their way to the top through promotion. I suspect that a comparison with the figures for men would be interesting too!

Angela Dapper, senior associate, Denton Corker Marshall

I find that building sites are very male orientated, there is very rarely a female on site, except maybe in the office. There are still occasional degrading attitudes towards women on site, mainly prevalent in sexually biased language.  On one of my sites I was just referred to as ‘she’. 

Besides the bias found on some building sites, I do not think the building industry generally attributes less respect to women in architecture. 

Architectural practices need to provide support for not only women, but all minorities, to ensure people are treated fairly in their professions. 

Patricia Hickey, co-founder, Bubble Architects

In our experience, the problem lies primarily within the architect’s office and not the industry as a whole as too few women are being promoted to senior positions within their practices. There are a variety of reasons given for this and one of the most common is that women disappear at significant points in their careers to have children and this impacts on their progress.  This is a smokescreen to cover ongoing sexism within the profession as it does not explain why women doing the same job are paid less and there are also lots of women who don’t have children and experience the same barriers.

We need to be clear that women are being held back from promotion in architectural offices not because the practice directors think they will not be respected on site, but because the primarily male directors do not respect female leaders within the office, otherwise a gender pay discrepancy for the same roles would not persist.

RIBA president Stephen Hodder

The annual focus on gender inequality within the architecture profession highlighted by the AJ’s survey is to be commended. The barriers to attracting and retaining women in architecture must be overturned so we retain the widest talent to improve our built environment.

RIBA has a number of initiatives to mentor, inspire and encourage diversity and equality, led by Jane Duncan and the Women in Architecture group. But there is still a grass roots issue that needs to be addressed - as a collective profession and as employers we all must take responsibility to stamp out the lack of equality and diversity which pervades.

Angela Brady, immediate past president RIBA said

We need to support women in our profession and encourage more role models and mentoring such as the Fluid mentoring scheme by architects for change now in its second year.

Clearly women need empowering and some training is planned this year.

It is essential that any prejudices are stamped out and that women are appreciated for the skills and talents. I also think it is important that equal pay is checked out, as many women in our industry do not ask for pay rises as quickly as men do.

The value that women bring to businesses has been proven and more women are rising to director or partner level. However the movement is unacceptably slow and I would appeal to all practices to seriously look at their women to men ratio and make an effort to reduce that gender gap.

I appeal to women architects to mentor one or two younger women architects and give them that confidence boost they may need and opportunities to flourish. Women have great communication skills that many practices lack and this is needed in top management and at partner level. More clients are women and they also look at gender balance when choosing firms to work with.

The changes in legislation for new parents coming in later this year on maternity leave and the sharing of the child care between parents will give women and men and equal chance at childcare for up to 12 months which will be some way towards equality.

I am very surprised by the statistic on the lack of authority of women architects, in our firm we have never had any problems with our senior women architects on projects, and we get high compliments on their skills in design, project management and site experience dealing with some difficult contractors. I would say that part of this problem could be with male colleagues attitude to women being as good as them if not better.

Give women an equal chance and let them prove themselves worthy of all aspects of the title architect.

Jane Duncan, RIBA equality and diversity champion said:

Is this really the result of a 2014 survey? It is a very sad reflection, and one which must be tackled by greater openness, guidance and leadership.

It is increasingly important to demonstrate that the most successful practices simply refuse to accept that women architects are due less respect than their male counterparts, in any part of their jobs. A cursory glance over the last few Years of AJ Employer of the Year would dispel that assumption.

What we need are more role models – and the RIBA is planning a major diversity role models project this year - and more employers who are prepared to empower their women architects through in-house guidance and promotion, to develop the confidence needed by any architect for their job.

In particular we need surveys like this one to open the conversation – we applaud the AJ for facilitating this.

Readers' comments (1)

  • J Burden

    Affable middle class chaps from a good school are always going to be seen as the safe bet for promotion.
    When they get to board level, the cycle repeats itself.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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