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Alexandra Hagen of White: ‘In our practice we value professional skill over gender’

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In the run-up to this year’s Women in Architecture Awards on 2 March, we asked architects to tell us about their career, inspiration and how to make the profession more welcoming to women

Alexandra hagen foto jenny leyman

Alexandra hagen foto jenny leyman

Where was your first job and where are you now?
My first job was as a junior architect with White Arkitekter, I joined the practice in 2000 and have remained here since. Over time I’ve had the opportunity to work on different projects and in different positions. As of 1 January this year I’ve taken on the role as chief executive officer for the company. We operate out of 15 offices in four countries and have 950 employees.

What inspired you to go into architecture?
Architecture is the beautiful combination of natural science and humanities. I love both. I believe architecture to be the one field of art that affects almost all people in their everyday life. Architecture shapes the spaces where human life happens.

Is there anything you would have done differently in your career so far?
I can’t think of anything that I would want to change. Even though it’s been tough sometimes, I’ve had a great time at work for the past 18 years, and still do.

What impact do you feel your gender has had on your career?
I don’t think that my gender has been of any importance to my career. I’ve not been treated any different because I’m a woman. In our practice we value professional skill over gender.

What could be done to make the architecture profession more welcoming to women?
On a political level, provide affordable and good quality daycare for all parents who want to work. Make it easier for men to be active fathers while also developing a career, support them in sharing parental leave and responsibilities for child care in general. If men help with kids, women can go to work. Children who have close and secure relationships with both parents benefit greatly from this. Stop seeing family life as an obstruction to performance in the workplace. Just because you become a parent doesn’t mean that you lose your skill as a professional.

Select a partner who will support your career and share the responsibility of raising a family

Companies should review methods for recruiting for senior positions. Are you really giving the job to the applicant with the best skill? Or are you letting predjudice and assumptions connected to gender and parenting set the agenda? Set all meetings during office hours when people with young children can attend. I could go on for ages but I’ll stop there.

What advice would you give to any young woman who is about to start a career in architecture?
Remember that nothing comes for free. Be prepared to work hard, really hard. Select a partner who will support your career and share the responsibility of raising a family. Choose employeer with great care. Understand that combining parenting and a senior position will always be a tough challange, even if you have a supporting partner and an understanding employer. You have to love it to find the strength to do it. Finally, believe in yourself – if you want it, go get it.

Who is your role model or mentor?
I have many role models but I would say that the women in my family have had the greatest impact on me. My mother, who is a pediatrician, and both my grandmothers, one a mathematician/chemist and the other a writer/journalist, all set the example that there is nothing strange about women taking on challanging jobs and senior positions.

What is the most exciting scheme you are working on?
Our practice is working on a number of exciting schemes, such as the low-carbon Climate Innovation District in Leeds where we in close collaboration with Citu, the developer, are converting an industrial area into a walkable, healthy, family friendly environment with timber framed housing.

We are also working on award-winning Skellefteå Cultural Centre in northern Sweden. It is a model for sustainable design and construction that celebrates the spectacle of cultural production in all its forms. Enabled by the latest advancements in engineered timber technologies, the centre is constructed entirely from wood and will be the Nordic region’s tallest timber building to date.

Alexandra Hagen architect, partner and chief executive of White Arkitekter (and mother of two children aged 13 and 10). White Arkitekter are a partner practice to the Women in Architecture programme 

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