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Hannah Lawson on being a woman architect in a large practice

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‘I’ve been asked “is she tough enough?” - a question that is unlikely to be asked of a male counterpart’

A little under a year ago I was bestowed the honour of being named the AJ Emerging Woman Architect of the Year. I had been following the AJ’s campaign and its findings but I have to be honest it wasn’t until I won the award that I considered the debate of women in architecture and the challenges and opportunities we face.

In the weeks following the award the reaction from colleagues, clients, contractors and strangers was incredibly positive but a common question was: ‘What will you do now? Will you set up on your own?’ It was interesting that, despite winning the award as a senior member of a well-established practice and, in doing so, celebrating the opportunity to break the so-called ‘glass ceiling’, there was an immediate assumption that setting up on my own would be a step up.

Why? Personally, I can think of many reasons why working in a larger firm is better, but there remains a preconception in architecture that to succeed you must have your name above the door. It is debatable whether this is correct, although of course much depends on the ethos of the practice in question. Typically, female partners are often overlooked, let alone senior female members of an office. While Zaha stands as the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, it is worth noting Robert Venturi won the prize in 1991 and, although his wife Denise Scott Brown had been a partner in their firm since 1969 and had co-authored many of his writings, the award only recognised him.

Is it helpful or even appropriate to have a series of awards dedicated only to women?

Another question raised was whether it was helpful or even appropriate to have a series of awards dedicated only to women? The message being that women would be unable to win the awards if they were open to all, or that women architects are somehow different to male architects. Discussing this with my colleagues the conversation has focused on why I won it.

Was my success at John McAslan + Partners down to a display of skills commonly seen more in men - workaholic, tough, confident, uncompromising? To be successful in the construction industry does a woman essentially have to behave more like a man? I sincerely hope not, because this question epitomises the problem - implying that it’s men versus women rather than each architect, whether male or female, succeeding in differentiating themselves.

The AJ’s survey itself revealed some frightening statistics, particularly the high proportion of women who leave the industry and the worrying presence of latent sexism. I refer to a ‘latent’ sexism (a term borrowed from a comment made by editor Christine Murray) as it’s not so visible or at least I haven’t experienced it.

I have often said how being a woman in architecture has never hindered me and I stand by this, but I have also said that I have not experienced sexism in the industry and this isn’t true. I do recall many presentations or meetings where every question was directed to my male colleagues, despite my being the most senior member of the team.

I also recall being invited to an awards ceremony and rather unfortunately being copied in on the chain of correspondence preceding the invite noting ‘invite Hannah as it will look good to have some skirt at the table’; I’m ashamed to say I still went but took great pleasure in wearing a trouser suit and lightheartedly raising the matter at the dinner with those in question.

I have also been asked by colleagues and clients alike when proposing a female member of my team as project leader on site ‘is she tough enough?’ - a question which is unlikely to be asked of a male counterpart. Saying that, however, I’ve enjoyed many opportunities where I expected sexism to play a role and it never showed its face. For instance, when we began the competition to design a mosque in the Middle East I questioned if I was best to lead. The project, now on site, proved my concerns unfounded. If anything the client struggled more with my northern accent than my gender.

The drop-out rate of women in architecture is detrimental not only to the profession but to our towns and cities

There is no doubt that architecture is a tough game and it is becoming increasingly difficult to produce something of quality in a world that holds less and less respect for our efforts. But is it tougher for a woman? Perhaps. Putting aside the imbalance in male and female architects it is extremely likely that an architect’s working environment will be male-dominated. In more than 10 years of working I can remember working with only one female senior member of a site team, one female quantity surveyor, and a handful of female engineers.

It is clear to me that the drop-out rate of women in architecture is detrimental not only to the profession but to our towns and cities, which will only be richer with the contribution of a more pluralist and diverse mix of designers. I hope the award raises awareness that women in architecture can be very successful and, in so doing, gives confidence to those starting out that the opportunities for them are rich and varied.

The award celebrates one aspect of diversity in the field that desperately needs encouragement. Hopefully, in years to come, the numbers will rebalance and women will account for 50 per cent of those practising and we will no longer need an award recognising women in architecture. Until then it seems clear we need to do everything we can to show aspiring women architects that there is a very positive place for them.

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