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‘Every year, more and more women design larger buildings, win competitions, run the RIBA and become new role models’

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Women in Practice essay: Barbara Weiss

The buzzword, these days, is ‘confidence’.

In the disarray caused by the current recession, we are constantly reminded that confidence, more than anything else, will ultimately determine the outcome of this turbulent time. Consumer confidence, government confidence, investor confidence… Without confidence, it is impossible to think of recovery. And yet this intangible, whimsical and elusive ingredient remains, when lacking, one of the most difficult to generate and sustain.

It is therefore concerning – and indeed frustrating – to conclude, after many long years of reflection on the subject, that in parallel with the economy, confidence and self-confidence are possibly the greatest determinants for women in their rate of success within the still very masculine world of the architectural profession.

While my generation of women architects, graduating in the late 1970s, saw themselves as a small, privileged, elite cohort destined to infiltrate a hostile and largely uncharted territory, it is obvious to current observers that the glossy new generation of young female architects populating today’s offices is, on the whole, endowed with a new and impressive sense of worth, entitlement and pride in its own professionalism.

Still basking in the – now sadly fading – memories of boom times, when practices were fighting over too few available graduates and salaries were rapidly becoming unaffordable, these successful young women mostly hail from egalitarian academic experiences that saw them excel, often surpassing their male counterparts, and from families where mothers were more often than not already employed in some sort of work activity.

However, cracks in this patina of equality of ambition start appearing when you look at the next few rungs up the career ladder. As many a young woman laments, even if her sex is now much better represented in practice than formerly, the vast majority of project architects and associates are still typically male. Salaries for men are often higher, responsibilities demanded of them and challenges offered to them greater, with career advancement training being much more readily available to the ‘boys’.

While the profession itself does not do enough to monitor and curtail this culture of sexism in its midst, things only get worse when one considers this inequality at the top of the profession, and what might be in store for an ambitious young woman architect aiming at starting her own practice, braving the world of clients, consultants and planners.

As founder and director of a 15-strong, woman-led practice that has existed for nearly 25 years, it is my conviction that there has been, during all these years, an almost impenetrable glass ceiling capping the opportunities afforded to our type and size of office.

Even if, by now, women practices’ own measure of self-worth has risen considerably, nurtured by years of experience and unflinching determination, it is still incredibly difficult to find clients who are willing to match such newly found self-confidence with their own confidence in such practices.

There is a definite sense that women are still typecast as good at interiors (colours and cushions!), houses, maybe even – giddy thought – designing nurseries or primary schools. Most developers do not feel comfortable instructing a woman-led practice, whether to design a project with a large budget or one for which it has no previous track record of the specific typology in hand. Similar caution is not often displayed when instructing male counterparts, as ambitious and inexperienced young turks are seen constantly jostling for position in the rush to become overnight the next great thing to watch.

What we, women architects need is a cultural sea-change among existing commissioning clients; we also need a new generation of women clients who will believe in other women; and we need more women architects that can prove, with their excellent work, that generic preconceptions against them are outdated.

2011 marked the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day and generated widespread debate about the female perspective across many professions. It is fitting, and extremely encouraging, that three women have recently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, that Christine Lagarde is head of the IMF, and that there are women in power in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil and Germany.

In architecture too, things are evolving; every year more and more women chip away at the unfathomable glass ceiling, design larger buildings, win competitions, run the RIBA and become new role models. Their example, and the part they play in mentoring other women, do much to dispel historic insecurities and build self-confidence. There is a lot that still needs to happen, but the feeling fortunately is that the clocks cannot be turned back.

Barbara Weiss founded Barbara Weiss Architects in 1987

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