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Why do Women Really Leave Architecture?

Maria Smith, shortlisted for Emerging Woman Architect of the Year in 2013 attempts to bust some myths on why women are under-represented in architecture

Women in architecture. There, I said it. Whether you’re in the ‘why do we need to talk about this, I just want to be good at my job’ camp or the ‘we must do more to bring our backward profession up to the 21st-century standards it lags so embarrassingly behind’ camp, ‘Women in Architecture’ is probably a phrase that irks. I waver daily between those camps but I am firmly in the ‘get involved or stop whinging’ camp so, here we go: why do women leave architecture?

In the UK, first year architecture studios are about 50:50 male to female, but the profession is male dominated, so somewhere along the line, we’re losing our women. Most discussions revolve around three simple explanations:

  • One: Being an architect is horrible – long hours, low pay, stress and poor job satisfaction.
  • Two: It’s very hard to balance architecture with motherhood.
  • Three: Architecture is sexist, stuck in the wattle and daub ages when it comes to sexual discrimination with a macho culture, unequal pay and unequal opportunities.

I’ve always been quietly baffled by why numbers one and two are, in this day and age, still seen as women’s issues, and have almost never personally experienced number three. It’s all too easy to say gender issues are a thing of the past, but it’s not just women who were born while Elvis lived that are leaving architecture, it’s women barely older than Justin Bieber. So do these three popular explanations hold up to scrutiny today?

To investigate, I interviewed Mary Wang and Vere van Gool who set up MISS, a platform that celebrates femininity in design at the Architecture Association. I first met Wang and van Gool when they invited me, along with other female architects including Alison Brooks, Deborah Saunt and Sarah Wigglesworth, to their ‘Fantastic Feast’. All the food was pink and our discussion was directed around challenges female designers face today, how the personal informs the professional, and what happens when design stops and life begins. I also consulted various pieces of research from the Architects’ Journal and RIBA as well as launching a new survey with the AR, which consulted nearly 1,500 people. We did not ask: ‘why do women leave architecture?’ as we felt that question would simply return the three usual explanations. Instead we thought a more sideways probe might reveal something new. Now back to the question at hand.

Our first explanation, that architecture is horrible, must ring true for the majority of practising architects, but that does not make it a women’s issue. At best this explanation is a red herring; at worst it supports dodgy statements that architecture is too tough for girls. You can say architecture-is-competitive-and-aggressive-in-a-way-that-women-tend-to-identify-less-with until you’re blue in the face, but until architecture is less eager to revel in its own agony, how can we expect healthy, non-masochistic individuals, male or female, to become architects? So indulge me a minute, and let’s put this aside.

Second, motherhood. Too many contributors to this debate conflate women in architecture with parents in architecture. It is absolutely true that until maternity leave and paternity leave are legally equivalent and transferable and culturally acceptably so, the burden for early childcare will continue to rest predominantly with the mother. But in the UK, one in 10 stay-at-home parents are now men and it’s rising. Since 2011 the second six months’ maternity leave have been transferable to the father and the government are currently working toward paternal leave being fully shared by April next year. We’re not there yet, but all signs point to this becoming a gender neutral issue in the not too distant future. Of course, despite this not only being a women’s issue, it is still an issue. MISS argue that men are more willing to abandon the idea of family than women – and perhaps this will persist for a while. But that men still have to abandon family for architecture goes to long, inflexible hours, and that takes us back to exampanation one, that architecture is horrible, and that fool’s errand.

Third, is the architecture industry simply sexist? Now things are getting interesting. While acknowledging that sexism is a real issue for many, I’d like to cautiously suggest that fighting the feminist battle of the 1970s in 2014 is bringing a gun to a knife fight. Today’s battle is much more nuanced and young women feel that they’ve been left a curious legacy by their parents’ generation. The battle of the 20th century sought to remove gender from the equation and this resulted in a polarisation of women: super feminine (traditional) or super masculine (in order that their gender didn’t come into the office with them). So being a woman is now acceptable, but being feminine is not. Now there’s only one way that it’s OK to be feminine, and that’s to be ironically feminine. You can take your Hello Kitty phone out on site, but it’s not OK to just casually wear a skirt to a job interview because your interviewer might think that you think that you’re promoting your sexuality as part of your qualification and it’s a problem if you’re not comfortable with them thinking that you think that. The AR’s survey showed that of architects who claimed to dress like architects, women were much more likely than men to answer that their gender obscured their identity. Do female architects dress how they feel an architect should in fear of their gender getting in the way? I’d believe that. The new battle then is less for women in architecture than for femininity in architecture, whether it’s brought by women or men. Success will be marked by a fluffy pink jumper worn unnoticed.

With two out of the three popular explanations clearly not exclusively women’s issues, and the third looking a bit rough around the edges, MISS opened my eyes to two new (or at least previously little acknowledged) key points that don’t fit into the usual three explanations.

Point one. Architecture is not as creative as it purports to be. In the AR’s recent survey, a whopping 97 per cent considered architecture to be a creative industry, but then you read the comments: ‘only 1 per cent of our time is devoted to creation’, ‘often I feel I’m not as creative as I would like to be’, ‘Yes, or at least it’s still trying to hang on to the idea!’, it goes on. Is it surprising then that students aching to endure the terror of being broken into little pieces and built back up into a virtuoso practitioner of the mother of all the arts, might be a little disappointed? Does this mean that women tend to have more lofty creative expectations? Or does this mean that men are more likely to settle for something they didn’t bargain for? Discuss.

Point two. Architectural education is horrible. Not a shocker, but I do think this point needs to be brought into the women in architecture debate more. Because architectural education prepares students so poorly for architectural practice (let’s debate that later, a lot of people agree), students with not one but two degrees end up spending years of their early professional lives monkeying which is unsurprisingly unattractive. I can’t put it better than this student: ‘I am not really sure if I want to become an architect because I don’t know if I want to not really use my brain for the next 10 years.’ The result is that students feel that the only way to really touch the fabric of life is to start their own practice. As a small practice starter myself, I can confirm that the parenthood and sexism issues do arguably come a little more under your control, but you can take my word for it that that architecture is still horrible: long hours, check; low pay, check; stress, check; poor job satisfaction, sometimes, due to difficulty of small practices getting big projects, check. I do tickle the warm underbelly of real life almost every day though so I can’t complain. To further investigate this new theory we need to ask: are men happier than women having a more abstract existence, monkeying away for a decade? Or, of the men and women that won’t settle for big practice, are the men more likely to strike out on their own, and if so why?

But why, I hear you ask, am I saying that it’s not OK to say women can’t hack a horrible profession like architecture, but that it might be OK to say that women are less impressed by their hopes being dashed? Excellent question! I think it comes down to the difference between saying ‘men are better than women’, and ‘men and women are different’. Do we believe that men and women are fundamentally, biologically different? Or are our variations simply due to our being treated differently by society for squillions of years? If we are different (and I accept that there are persuasive counterarguments to this) then surely we can interact with the world differently.

The women-in-architecture conversation has become stuck on issues of poor working conditions, straying over to parenthood that brings it right back into poor working conditions again. If we can’t break free of this cycle then the debate will inevitably deteriorate from ‘why do women leave?’ to ‘why do men stay?’

I’d also like to mention – and this might not make me very popular – that there’s something to be said about being a female architect within a profession that is hyper-aware of its lack of women. The AJ’s Women in Architecture survey showed that 79 per cent of women and 73 per cent of men feel that the profession is too heavily male. Nobody saw the title of this article and thought: women in architecture, that’s a new idea. In the AR survey, only 12 per cent of female architects and architecture students said that their gender sometimes obscured their identity but for men it’s more than double that. It is conceivable then, that being one of the few women in architecture is a massive advantage? If so, that can’t be irrelevant.

A fresh gender debate is afoot and what’s more it’s wearing pink and saying ‘girl’ without blinking. As ever, it highlights issues within our profession as a whole and, in considering why young women are leaving, education and training come into sharp focus. This emerging debate operates under a ‘truest things are said in jest’ banner, which I can’t applaud enough, so I would like to end on a light, optimistic note: my favourite comment from the AR survey: ‘If you dress like an architect, do you undress like one?’

Readers' comments (1)

  • Gender balance and gender bias are always difficult topics to discuss because few people have a foot in both camps and opinions tend to get polarized. However, might there be another facet to Maria's first point, that women leave architecture due to poor job satisfaction? I think that's possibly true, but the thing to consider is why equal numbers of men don't leave to profession for exactly the same reason.

    I suggest (tentatively, you understand...), that there may be more opportunities available to women wanting to diversify their career path than there are for men. This is something that comes to us from 'society' at large rather than being a problem confined to architecture. I theorize that our society (and that means all of us) is more accepting of women taking career breaks, moving into part-time work, staying at home to care for the children and (eventually) retiring early to look after the grandchildren, than it is of men wanting to do those things, because society still expects a man to 'man up', buckle under, take the strain and to 'provide' for his family. So when we consider why there are so many male architects we should also consider why there are so few stay-at-home dads and so few male primary school teachers (to give just two examples of where female architects have tended to go in my experience).

    Gender equality in the workplace is governed by rafts of legislation. But gender stereotyping in the home is firmly entrenched in our society, and we are a long way from equality in that arena. Mathematically speaking it must be impossible to get 50:50 gender split in the workplace until we get a corresponding 50:50 gender split at home, I think.

    Perhaps more emphasis should be placed on creating opportunities for men to leave the profession, following the lead of their female couterparts? I imagine there are many who might wish to, but don't feel able. That would create a better gender balance amongst those architects that remain....!

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