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How to retain female talent in your practice

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There’s a brain drain going on in architecture because of the pressures women in practice face. Teresa Borsuk shows how your business can buck the trend

In her essay ‘Room at the Top: Sexism and the Star System’, Denise Scott Brown wrote: ‘Some young women in architecture question the need for the feminist movement, claiming to have experienced no discrimination. My concern is that, although school is not a non-discriminatory environment, it is probably the least discriminatory one they will encounter in their careers.

By the same token, the early years of practice bring little differentiation between men and women. It is as they advance that difficulties arise, when firms and clients shy away from entrusting high-level responsibilities to women.’

She wrote this in the 1970s (though it wasn’t published until 1989) and in 2015 it still rings true. If you are in a position of leadership in a practice, you can help to promote women and help stop the haemorrhaging of talent that takes place, year in, year out. Having more women in senior roles will help to improve the quality of work life for everyone.

Making things better for women will make things better for men

We know from numerous surveys – including the AJ’s 2015 Women in Architecture survey – that large numbers of highly qualified women drop out of architecture. Only 1 per cent of respondents to the survey working in large firms said that their office’s management team was split equally between men and women.  There are many reasons why this is a problem but above all it’s a waste: a waste of time spent studying and a huge waste of talent.

So what can practices do to keep their female staff?

Support women who have children and women taking maternity leave

The AJ survey found that almost 90 per cent of female architects say having children puts them at a disadvantage – the ‘motherhood penalty’.  Women remain at the centre of family life. The combination of work and domestic responsibilities weigh heavily.  We know that women generally take leave around the childbearing and child-rearing years. But the conventional business model presupposes a linear career path with no space for a career break. So there’s a stigma for taking a break from architecture and women lose confidence as a result.

So acknowledge this difficulty: encourage the idea of both men and women sharing childcare and consider how to support them. Undoubtedly it’s easier and more comfortable to come back to an environment where that is the norm, where there is support, where someone encourages you to have your foot hard on the pedal.

Tackle the long hours culture

This is widespread in architecture – equating commitment with unfailing availability. But are long hours really necessary and the only way to succeed?  Should they be considered the norm?

We all acknowledge that the practice of architecture is demanding and requires inordinate amounts of time and commitment. But it’s also a business and a business has a responsibility to manage, sustain and maintain its workforce.

We try very hard at Pollard  Thomas Edwards not to advocate a long hours work culture and definitely for it not to be considered the norm.  We believe that a balanced working environment benefits all staff.

Accommodate part-time and flexible working

Working part-time, because you are caring for children, is widely seen as a ‘career-bruiser’.  Working part-time for study or other professional commitments is looked on more favourably.

Of course, it may be difficult to work part-time as an architect on certain projects, and someone’s part-time or flexible working cannot be another person’s burden. But there are clear business advantages for practices that do accommodate part-time and flexible working, and many have shown how both men and women in this position can make a serious contribution and have a fulfilling career.

Equality in the workplace is good for everyone. Making things better for women will make things better for men. We need to help retain women in the profession and the outcome will be more women in senior and leadership positions.

Ultimately, we should be aiming for gender neutrality – for a profession where gender is simply not an issue.

Teresa Borsuk is a senior partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards and AJ  Woman Architect of the Year 2015

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