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 firstname.lastname@example.org