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The coach: Should we avoid appointing a woman?


How family-friendly is your practice?  And what can a sole practitioner do to keep architectural thinking fresh? Matthew Turner gives his advice

My partners don’t want to employ a woman in her thirties

We are recruiting for an important role that we need continuity for, and I know my partners really want to avoid appointing a woman in her thirties. I guess I am wondering what I should do. I know it is discriminatory, but it’s a real issue for our practice because we have had a number of employees in recent years who became pregnant soon after joining and took us to the maximum maternity leave possible, before deciding not to come back. I think we have been very accommodating of the lifestyles of our employees. But we are a small practice and so the sheer cost of investing in these people is crippling, and business continuity has become a real headache. Sometimes I feel that they have cynically chosen our office only as a way to access statutory maternity pay and our good terms.

THE COACH It certainly can be hard to be a flexible employer within a small office. I also really appreciate your candour. I can empathise with your exasperation, and would even say you have had some bad luck. But it is clear that your judgment is coloured, and not only is what you are planning discriminatory, but it appears you know full well that it is not right.

Talk to others about how they handle this

As we are all aware, architecture is a profession with particularly low retention rates for working mothers. I don’t know your set-up, but you should consider really how family-friendly you are. Perhaps part of the reason you have lost staff is their perception of what you are offering these parents on their return. If you had proactively talked about job share arrangements or flexible hours, you might not have lost those you mention. Having such experience in a way is helpful. So, instead of speculating, you could get in touch with them all and ask about the reason they didn’t stay. It may turn out to be a combination of reasons. You have nothing to lose by doing this, but lots to gain. Also, other practices have made great inroads into balancing work/home needs, and so you could also talk to others about how they handle this.

I say this because you make it all sound so black and white. Though I wouldn’t claim such people don’t exist, your suggestion that people knowingly exploit your office by joining it only to get pregnant sounds like a conveniently simple solution.

Not all women in their thirties are contemplating full-time motherhood. So, rather than let prejudice from past experience colour future recruitment, you should aim to appoint the best person available, and be ready to argue this with your partners.

As a sole practitioner I worry I’m going stale

I am a sole practitioner and I feel somewhat isolated. There are lots of things I would not want to change running my practice: I have clients, and I am proud of my work, though of course I wish I had fewer house extensions to deal with and more substantial projects with repeat clients. But for a number of years I have felt increasingly architecturally isolated – I don’t have anyone I fire my ideas off and to test me. I have employed graduates before when I have been busy and their enthusiasm can be great, but I feel I lack a contemporary. I am beginning to think I am not reaching my potential and I worry about going stale.

THE COACH We architects give ourselves a hard life in many ways. Not only do we want to be successful, be recognised and do ok financially, but we also want work to stretch us intellectually. Architects are idealists, and our training further develops this, by demanding an intensity of commitment that many other courses do not. You may not know or be aware of it, but many other people outside of architecture don’t desire investing so much in their career.

Enter a competition to stretch your mind

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying this idealism is a bad thing, and I applaud your hunger to change things. So I would say the solution is quite simple, yours is a problem that is best solved by action, rather than more navel-gazing. So, look for opportunities to meet other architects and collaborate. You could do this by embarking on a competition to stretch your mind and to test out a working relationship with someone. Many architects find teaching a studio on a university course a stimulating and affirming way to crystalise their intellectual approach and keep architectural thinking fresh. Or you could get involved in a national issue of interest that is related to architecture, maybe get involved in your local chapter of the RIBA or organise a reunion of your college contemporaries.

These are just suggestions. The important thing is to set yourself a goal of widening your architectural circle. I imagine you know an awful lot more about running a practice than many people out there, and so the process of feeding energy from others could be reciprocal.

  • AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. To contact him with your questions, tweet @TheAJcoach or email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com

Readers' comments (6)

  • As a female that was involved in running a medium sized practice for many years I have to say I really sympathise with the writer who is facing the dilemma of whether to employ females that are likely to take maternity leave. I do not believe the system is fair on a practice where continuity on projects can be key. Although I am all for equality in terms of employment opportunity and salary I honestly do not believe long periods of absence are sustainable in an architectural practice.

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  • Well since men can now take / share the year of statutory leave will employers now not employ a man in their thirties?

    However I think that employers need systems in place so that continuity on a project is not an issue. This is one of the big failings in architectural businesses as people feel they cannot take time off or holidays or have appointments as there is usually no cover. It would help employers too so if someone does leave or need some leave for whatever life event things can go on without such big losses.
    Also if employers don't pay enough to cover childcare and offer few benefits to cover living then usually people have to leave. The reality is that I have left architecture to work in childcare where I have less experience as I can earn more to take home working 4 days than 5 days in an architects office.

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  • I support fully the recommendation that sole practioners (indeed those with larger practices too) try to engage with their nearest RIBA branch - you will meet others like yourself and active branches organise talks and visits to keep the creative juices flowing - often for next to nothing or no charge at all (the RIBA has a Local Initiative Fund for branches to apply for for funding). I've also found that networking - in my particular case via the now-defunct RIBA intranet - has led to active project collaboration with others.

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  • Although RIBAnet is defunct, ArchitectNet is alive and well and a good source of information and advice from fellow professionals. It is open to all ARB registered architects and you can find it here http://architecture.boardhost.com/index.php.

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  • What parents and prospective parents want is flexibility. For that you will get loyalty and high employee retention.

    As a parent of a pre-school aged child, I am looking for a job that allows me to accommodate my role as a mother with my professional role. This is a deal breaker for me, and for plenty of other parents (not just women, although they will no doubt make up the greater portion). The sooner architectural and landscape practices recognise this the better. There is a great resource out there (aka unemployed (mostly female) architects) that is being underutilised because of practices' fears of parenthood.

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  • I can relate to both articles here. I am a sole practitioner whose business and workload is seeing lots of growth. Another body in the office would be ideal from a workload perspective and also a contemporary to bounce ideas off.

    As a parent of a young family I appreciate the flexibility required and I am thinking that a mother returning to work but only wanting part-time or flexible hours may suit the bill.

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