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Jude Barber on issues of gender in architecture

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Opinion: Gender equality is part of a wider battle for improved conditions, says Jude Barber

Recently I marched through Edinburgh with several women architects and students to mark the 100th year since the suffragettes’ procession along Princes Street to campaign for greater voting rights. We did it to celebrate the ambition of our predecessors, who faced imprisonment for demanding equal rights.

The current 4:1 male to female architect ratio is a shocking statistic we sought to highlight during the Edinburgh march, particularly given balanced university intakes. 

Financially turbulent times place the most vulnerable at risk of further marginalisation. In light of this, RIBA president Ruth Reed’s comments on the recession and its effect on the employment of women and students are to be welcomed (AJ online 09.10.09).

Specific campaigns regarding gender inequality are essential and sit alongside the need to improve working conditions for all within architectural practice. Architects generally have poor employment conditions: long hours, no overtime, speculative working, minimum maternity/paternity rights, mainly due to our lack of economic solidarity and imagination. Addressing this requires a radical rethink of our current economic system.

While we press our governing bodies to instigate wider change, there are a series of ways in which we can improve our working environment for the benefit of all.

We must embrace alternative business models that accommodate changing lifestyles, flexible working practice and personal design ambition. Collective Architecture is a limited company operating as an employee-owned trust.This provides equal financial and intellectual ownership of the company regardless of experience, age or gender.

We pay overtime, have an open pay scale and review this together. This model, whilst not perfect, allows individuals to assess their own workload, manage projects as a team and investigate specific interests. This instills a greater sense of ownership and shared design responsibility, quite removed from the traditional hierarchical structure.

We should form pressure groups to improve solidarity across the profession and campaign for improved working conditions. The process of group discussion and action can instigate change. Our practice is involved in a number of not-for-profit activities in Glasgow, which is encouraging and exciting.

Male and female architects should also be given the opportunity to take equal responsibility for both work and family.

Significant economic and policy changes by our elected representatives are needed to instill a wider change in attitude towards gender and working conditions. In the meantime, I would recommend taking
matters into your own hands.

Jude Barber is a director at Collective Architecture

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