Some of the best known women architects in the country - and none with enough work. If Zaha Hadid, Eva Jiricna, Elsie Owusu and Sarah Wigglesworth were men, they would all be run off their feet, and opera would be drifting across Cardiff Bay: this was the consensus of the speakers at Westminster University's 'Four women architects' event last week.
'Architecture is an institution designed by white men for white men,' said Owusu. At the aa she remembers a tutor talking about 'Sitting by the river with your girlfriend (were we all gay?)', and it went on from there. Women are excluded from the club. Wigglesworth agreed: the male mafia with 'money, power and patronage go to professionals who reflect their values'. Chairman Max Hutchinson asked whether 'men trust women to spend their money?'
However, Jiricna wasn't aware of being badly treated as a woman, though this may stem from her roots in communist Czechoslovakia where girls doing 'boys jobs' were taken for granted. She described the nicest part her job as 'being to work with people who make', and talked about the pleasure of seeing a design brought to fruition on site or in the workshop; 'Working together to get out of trouble'. She said that she has never had a bad experience on a construction site.
But why do female architects make up only 11 per cent of the architects in Britain? Wigglesworth explained that there is a drop-off from 34 to 19 per cent after Part 2, when students come face to face with the 'construction industry, its adversariality and the driven nature of office life'. She feels that 'there are not enough choices of how you define your roles'.
Describing herself as a 'dragon lady' in the office, Hadid claimed that as much as 90 per cent of her time is spent creatively. For Jiricna it is 25 per cent, and Owusu and Wigglesworth between 5 and 50 per cent, depending on the team and job stage.
Hadid asked for a 'better distribution of work' and Owusu talked of 'patrons' - an increasingly odd word for the customer to whom the architect supplies a service.
For Hadid 'architecture is a very difficult profession to do well'. Jiricna agreed that architecture is hard, comparing it to marriage, but said she enjoyed 'every single day', and is 'Totally grateful; never bored; it is so much better than 99 per cent of jobs'. Architecture for her is about 'finding ways to communicate - to tune into the right wavelength'.
But the question remains: Why so few women architects (indeed conductors, or world class artists)? Is it prejudice? Do they lack that highly developed ego some say is necessary to push that building up off the ground? Do they get side-tracked with the responsibilities of child-rearing? Or could it just be that architecture these days is such an impossible profession that women are too sensible to get sucked in?
... and education is excluding minorities from architecture
Architectural education and culture is excluding women, ethnic minorities and the poor - and the riba is partly to blame. This was the message from Leonie Milliner, director of education at the riba, speaking at the ninth Edge symposium on the subject: 'Designing tomorrow's designers'.
Milliner said, 'The answer is not about objectively defining qualifications. It is about people - about who we want.' And, she added, 'Professional institutions are about exclusion.' Comparing architecture with other disciplines, for the multidisciplinary audience, she admitted that so far architecture does not experience the recruiting problems that are prevalent in engineering. But she warned, 'the profession cannot be complacent and must continue to invest heavily in the promotion of architecture as a career, as well as provide meaningful career routes for those architecture students who do not wish to continue in the profession.'
She cited the decreasing number of people taking Part 3 as a warning sign that for growing numbers 'chartered status is perceived as either an irrelevant or an impossible ambition'. Fewer women (176) became chartered in 1998, she said than were murdered.
She warned that architectural education 'transmits less obvious social practices in the form of the confessional design tutorials, public critiques and intense studio culture. Anecdotally, these informal practices exclude many that should be pioneering the new mainstream - women, ethnic minorities, those from low social economic backgrounds - as well as approaches to architecture.'
So far, said Milliner, these factors are having little impact on recruitment to the profession, with applications to courses dropping by only one per cent in 1998. But, she said, 'Long working hours and poor pay simply do not equate with the £10,000 debt that most architecture students leave higher education with today ... Not only will students need to be persuaded that culturally and socially they can succeed as architects, but also that the economic rates of return are appropriate to the investment necessary to join the club.'