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Ethel Day: AJ student survey shows women are put off practice at university

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Early findings from the AJ’s student survey show that significantly more women than men are being put off going into architecture before they even start in practice

Almost nine out of ten (87 per cent) of the nearly 500 UK-based students who took the survey said they had planned to become an architect at the start of their course. This figure is similar for male (88 per cent) and female (85 per cent) students.

However the proportion of full-time female students who said they still intended to become a fully-qualified architect once their course had begun falls markedly – to just 63 per cent. 

According to the poll, this means that more than a quarter of the women who had wanted to become an architect before university, changed their mind once they had started their studies.

A typical answer from one female respondent was: ‘I’m thinking of becoming a mum one day and I’m worried that with this stressful pace of work and little money I’ll not be able to do it.’

In contrast 79 per cent of men said they still intended to go into architectural practices following their studies.

What’s more, when compared with last year’s data, fewer women than ever seem willing to embark on a career as an architect. Results from the 2016 AJ student survey show that 71 per cent of female respondents said they wanted to qualify as an architect after starting university. 

This year’s research also revealed that nearly half of women students (47.7 per cent) said they had experienced some form of gender discrimination. The survey showed that the biggest form of discrimination was based on gender – ahead of race, sexuality, age, disability, and religion or beliefs.

The announcements of the survey’s initial findings coincide with Ethel Day – which celebrates the architect Ethel Mary Charles’s life as a pioneer of architecture, and also campaigns to recognise and highlight the achievements of women in architecture internationally. 

Commenting on the discrimination figures, RIBA president Jane Duncan said: ‘It is absolutely unacceptable that even now, 120 years after Ethel made such progress, women are experiencing gender discrimination during their architecture education and careers. This will not be tolerated.

‘The architecture profession must be a place where any talented person can thrive, regardless of any aspect of their identity. I encourage the entire profession to play an active role in challenging discrimination and helping to drive it out.’

In comparison to female respondents, just 11.7 per cent of men in the survey reported some form of discrimination based on their gender. The 47.7 per cent figure for women is slightly less than last year, when exactly half of women in the survey said they had experienced sexism at some point.

Fionn Stevenson, head of architecture at the University of Sheffield said that the results show ‘everyday sexism is clearly still alive and well in our UK architectural system, which is hugely disappointing’.

‘Check out how many all-male panels, juries, et cetera, still exist despite so much hard work by so many to change the male architecture culture we still operate within,’ she added. ‘This shows just some of what we are still up against.’

In 1898, Ethel Mary Charles became the first woman to join the RIBA. She faced discrimination throughout her career because she was a woman and was barred from going to the Architectural Association. 

Harriet Harriss, senior tutor in interior design and architecture at the Royal College of Art, said her own research project, A Gendered Profession, had shown that while a third of UK architecture faculty members are female, only 2.5 per cent (a ratio of 1:40) are in a head of school or dean role.

She compares this to the USA, where she says a quarter of architecture deans are female. ‘It’s clear that this lack of parity is contributing to how poorly women are both perceived and valued as they enter professional practice,’ she said.

This objectification singled me out as different within the male dominated environment. I don’t think my male counterpart would have experienced the same treatment

But she added: ‘This is about more than a lack of female representation. Sexism condemns men as well as women to a set of expectations around stereotypical behaviour – in the classroom as well as the office, not just on site.

‘What’s urgently needed is a policy-level discussion on the subject of architecture and gender – a discussion that should involve women, men and those who prefer other categories too, or we will never find a meaningful solution.’

Helen Berg, a Part 2 student at the University of Sheffield, said that the gender discrimination figure ‘seemed worryingly high, but perhaps not all that surprising in what remains a stereotypically male industry’. 

Berg added that, while she has never experience a gender bias herself at university, she has had a different experience on site trips.

‘When on site, I’ve sometimes felt uncomfortable, and once overheard builders making comments about my appearance as I carried out surveying work,’ she said. ‘This objectification singled me out as different within the male-dominated environment, perhaps affecting my work as I sought to leave as quickly as possible.

‘I don’t think my male counterpart would have experienced the same treatment, and it made me more reluctant to return to site by myself.’


Readers' comments (5)

  • Not sure this is really a 'shock'

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  • @Nwola Uduku: it should be, that ratio of 1:40 particularly. Not many professions still do quite so badly.

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  • The reason for the drop out is quite obvious and not peculiar to the Architectural profession. It is the lack of high quality affordable child-care and Parental as opposed to maternal leave. There are onlt two wealthy countries where the situation for women is worse in this regard which are USA and Japan.
    As practice has come under increasing commercial pressures, since neo-liberal economic thinking came to dominate our politics, so the status and authority of the profession has declined and become subjugated to the cost- and fee-cutting demands of the developer.

    This climate of cut-throat competition, is a situation in which work-life balance is sacrificed to naked ambition and exploitation. The long hours (often unpaid) present women in particular with impossible choices. So right now in UK we are regressing. There was a fall in women registered from 25% to 19 % in 2010 & their earning on averaged 7% less than their colleagues. Though there has been recent signs of recovery.
    When the public sector, in which about half the profession worked, offered a more humane working environment, there was a restraint on the long-hours, family-unfriendly culture, particularly intolerable for women. In verification of this, a woman interviewed for the RIBA 2003 report, on “Why Women Leave Architecture” said that, when pregnant she moved to a L.A. & felt she had died and gone to heaven, when on her first day all her rights and benefits were explained to her.

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  • @Judith Martin... did you really need to 'splain that to the first correspondent...

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  • @heavenairport - Sorry to keep on 'splaining but in the absence of an ironic typeface, which Nwola Uduku and I both maybe needed, it's the difference between shocking and surprising. So these findings are shocking but not surprising.

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