Architect Julie Humphryes, who recently won a £250,000 payout after a court ruled she had been the target of sexist bullying, talks exclusively to the AJ about her experience
Last month the mother of two made national headlines when an employment tribunal held she had been was forced out of her job at YOO - the property company founded by designer Phillippe Starck. Humphryes, who had worked at YOO for nine years before her departure in 2013, claimed discrimination on the grounds of her sex and pregnancy or maternity, victimisation, constructive, unfair and discriminatory dismissal.
So has it been worth it and what has she learned?
What made you stand up against your employer?
I knew what they had done was incorrect and I felt compelled to put the matter before a judge to ascertain whether it was unlawful. Many people suffer from employers wilfully ignoring the law and if we accept that premise nothing will ever change in the future.
How much did it cost you to take the action? And how long has the case been going on?
The case started in 2010 with the first protected act. So the issues have been going on for five years and are still continuing while we await the decision that they may appeal if the law has been misapplied. My costs are exceeding £420,000. In employment tribunals awards for costs are not applied.
Would you do it again – knowing what you had to go through in court?
I would never do this again [due to the] suspension of life, invasion into private life that the court arena has access too, stress, and length of time. Energy is best spent doing what you are best at – in my case that is creativity and developing architecture. I still have not [received] the damages.
How many women were working in the practice? Was it happening to more than just you?
I can’t comment on other people in the business as I don’t know – a compromise agreement with a colleague on maternity before myself was disclosed in the liability hearing. There were no women executives or members of the board at Yoo when I was employed – in the senior management group there were a few women. In the non-leadership roles there was a bigger percentage
Do you hope that the result will make other women come forward - both at YOO and across the industry?
Yes of course - not only women – people who are discriminated against for many reasons.
Do you think the RIBA needs to do more to stop practices from discriminating against women?
Yes – it should be part of being a chartered practice not only to be equal opportunity accredited through management skills but also to have a good track record in practice.
Have you ever experienced discrimination before?
How did it feel to not get credit for your own work?
Shocked. It is unacceptable to take credit for work solely – if you are not the sole author for the creation of the work. It is a fundamental career progression aspect to our profession. Your body of work and portfolio is what you represent. If that is applied to another individual – how do you convey your credentials?
You were called a ‘supermum’, how did this make you feel?
While John Hitchcox maintains that his discrimination was ‘well intended’, my view echoes Sean Jones QC who explained discrimination quite succinctly to me during the internal procedure. Which I recall in precis - if you were a dad coming back after the birth of your child – it would be inconceivable to suggest that he was a ‘superdad’ by wishing to continue the role he had held before the birth. Gender stereotyping is endemic and subconsciously applied – but in my case it was a direct discriminatory assumption.
Why do you think it’s so difficult for women in architecture?
While plenty of women architects set up on their own for the same reason as men do – to have more control over their work as well as their working culture – not everyone wants to run their own practice, and this should not be the only way to continue working. Plenty want to retain the opportunity to work on the large-scale projects found at large practices. It shouldn’t be difficult to create flexibility or family friendly working hours (or even a typical working day of 9 – 5 as a basic expectation). In my case it was none of these issues.
I was more than able and happy to maintain the role I had enjoyed after one child. It was the employer who sought to introduce a new structure which saw me reporting to my former peer and my junior being given lots of my former responsibilities.
What do you think needs to change in the industry to stop this from happening?
It’s a cultural shift that has to happen and not only systemic in our profession – but in other industries too. I have made some suggestions about how to tackle it once the issues are presented but to make changes requires change in behaviour and standards before it reaches this point. Publishing gender pay differential as a statutory company requirement should assist discussion of the topic and cause outrage in some industries. This would have an impact on creating a levelness to opportunity and prevent inbuilt bias.
Similarly, as access to justice is too costly - efforts to reduce the time for conclusions and a capped cost for legal support need to be redefined as I can’t see how employees can be protected otherwise or change the current problems people face.
Do you think there are enough opportunities for women at the top of architecture firms?
There must be the same opportunities for all people so yes they are certainly there – the question is why are fewer women achieving them?
What stops women reaching the top?
I haven’t read one compelling reason or answer to this question. It must be down to perception. Women are ambitious, creative and motivated. So opportunities probably aren’t hard fought as success as a prospect may feel elusive – aiming for a leadership role may be discounted immediately for failure to overturn a cultural condition or that the perception that is isn’t a level playing field. A slow pace of change is confounding and to reverse this gender pay disparity has to be transparent and published within a company structure so it is visible where discrimination is taking place.