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The parent trap: AJ survey shows architecture struggles with flexible work culture

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The AJ’s first parenting survey shows that juggling work and family remains a challenge, but more parents are pushing for change. Ella Jessel reports

Managing a successful career in architecture while raising a family remains a major challenge, according to the findings from the AJ’s first-ever dedicated parenting survey.

The survey, which drew 600 responses from an even split of men and women across the UK, provides a fascinating but troubling insight into the realities architects face juggling work and parenthood.

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Despite huge parent demand for greater flexibility – respondents named it as the second biggest issue after crippling childcare costs – the picture is of an industry struggling to move away from traditional working culture. 

While some practices are adopting family-friendly policies, a large percentage of employers are still entrenched in an uncompromising culture of long hours and presenteeism. The survey found 28 per cent of requests for flexible working from parents were either unsuccessful or only partially successful.

Echoing previous AJ surveys, where 90 per cent of female architects said being a mother put them at a disadvantage, gender inequality persists. Of all mothers, 45 per cent said they felt they had been overlooked for a promotion as a result of requesting family-friendly working. 

In the wealth of previously unheard testimonies about life as a parent in the profession, concerns were aired too that the industry’s glacial progress on improving working conditions for parents will lead to the loss of talented architects.  

As one survey respondent wrote: ‘I left the practice due to their response to my flexible working request. Even if they had then granted it, I wouldn’t have stayed as I didn’t want to be in a place that treated people like that.’

The sea change in my studio only occurred once the younger men started working flexibly around their childcare responsibilities – as soon as it became normal and not a ‘woman issue’, more and more staff took up the option.
Anonymous survey respondent
My former practice said it would not entertain the idea of flexible or part-time working when my partner wanted to return to work as a teacher. It was just non-negotiable. Time off forsickness of a child was frowned upon very heavily – even when the hours lost were more than made up for by working nights and weekends. Generally the attitude was ‘having kids is women’s work – you’re a male architect, you need to be at your desk’.
Anonymous survey respondent

But amid disheartening stories, there are signs of an attitude shift as a new generation of parents push for greater equality. 

Indeed, 79 per cent of fathers stated they would have taken more parental leave if it had been offered, while the findings also reveal 10 per cent of parents applied for Shared Parental Leave (SPL) – above the national average of just 1.2 per cent.

So what hurdles and difficulties are parents facing in the profession today? And will practices adapt before it is too late?  

Flexible working

The stories shared by many survey respondents reveal a lack of understanding surrounding flexible working, an umbrella term which may include compressed hours, working part-time, or hours tailored around school days or care arrangements. 

Of all parents, 33 per cent said they had not been made aware by their employer of their rights on the policy.

The 59 per cent of parents who applied for the policy were broken down into a gender split of 68 per cent women and 43 per cent men. Out of those requests, 72 per cent were successful.

One respondent said the lack of flexible working at her practice had led to her leaving her London-based employer to work for a developer. ‘I often feel trapped in a role that is far less creative than what I am trained to do,’ she said, adding: ‘Architecture is still in the dark ages when compared with working arrangements in many other creative industries.’

We need to make a cultural shift to allow childcare responsibilities to be more balanced between parents. The months I spent with my boys were super-intense – parental leave isn’t a holiday, it’s really hard work. Keeping In Touch (KIT) days were really important for me during that time, I needed them to keep my architecture brain active. What we’ve talked about [at Morris+Company] is formalising flexitime hours and introducing a formal child sick day policy. In some practices at the moment, you get docked leave if you have to look after your kids when they are sick. This can be hard on mums if they are seen as best-placed to stay home when this happens, and eats into precious holiday time that is best spent getting away from the pressures of work.
Keir Regan-Alexander, director, Morris+Co

Their concerns echo the experience of Pepper Barney, who last August wrote in the AJ about how she felt she had to quit her job after failing to agree a flexible working arrangement with BDP. The piece clearly struck a nerve, becoming the most-read story ever on the AJ’s website. 

Tim Burgess, of Cove Burgess Architects, says Barney’s story resonated because his children were born when he was employed in a ‘regular office’, where he says he came to feel like ‘an outsider’.

‘The culture was still rooted in a macho putting-the-hours-in mentality, and the little digs of my fellow employees showed it: “It’s all right for the part-timer”; “Are you off already?”; or “Oh, I forgot that you don’t do weekends”,’ he says.

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Another father said he requested part-time working and flexible working but the response was an ‘instant, flat “no”. No consideration, no discussion, just that it wasn’t possible for a small practice. I had to resign.’

One associate at a high-ranking AJ100 practice, who last week began her maternity leave with her second child, says despite generally feeling supported by her workplace, she would have liked to have been given the choice to work flexibly. 

‘I wasn’t given the option of flexible hours. I had to take holiday from the previous year and I took every Friday off for around three or four months. Also, days off to care for a sick child were deducted from my salary.

‘Flexible working hours would really work if [they were] allowed.’

She says working hours at the practice were recently shifted from 10am -7pm to 9am-6pm, which she says hugely improved her ability to manage childcare with work. Her practice also offers an enhanced maternity package. 

The majority of parents who took the survey – 64 per cent – said that their practice offered statutory maternity, with just 33 per cent benefiting from an enhanced package. For fathers, the figures were worse, with just 27 per cent of fathers receiving an improvement on the statutory pay and leave.

The average time taken off by mothers was 41 weeks, with fathers taking an average of three weeks of paternity leave. 

Career trajectory

The majority of parents (90 per cent) returned to work after having their child but for many the transition back to practice was patchy. Many mothers – 34 per cent – felt unsupported on returning, while others said they found they were being treated differently as a parent.

One senior architect from Surrey took a part-time role at a leading practice when her son was one year old, but feels she was sidelined on projects despite requesting to work more days and take on more responsibilities.  

She recalls: ‘They said in a meeting, “we know how difficult it is to juggle a career and kids”. I was completely shocked – leave that to me to establish. It was condescending and disappointing. I felt I didn’t have any opportunity to progress.’

Asked if the problem was specific to architecture, she says the profession still suffers from an all-or-nothing mentality. ‘There is a culture that you have to be fully committed. Your job is your life. For a young architect, you fully appreciate it – and like it, even.’

Nine years ago, with a two-year-old and a newborn in tow, I jumped ship. Full of frustration, without the first clue how to run a business, I set up on my own. And now, my business partner and I run a practice that employs others. At the outset we set the aim of creating “the type of practice that we wanted to work for”. We embrace flexible and part-time working, which can be for childcare, or because you teach classical piano for a day a week (yes, really). And we found you can hire heavyweight experience and talent for the cost of a Part II if they work a three-day week. It shouldn’t take a busine ss genius to see the benefit of this.
Tim Burgess, Cove Burgess Architects 

It is not just mothers. Among dads, 20 per cent felt they had been overlooked for a promotion. ‘It was all just done so begrudgingly and I was expected to take a real back seat on my return,’ one father wrote about his flexible working request. ‘But partners subsequently made clear they weren’t happy about it – and it subsequently impacted my career trajectory from being project architect on an £11 million project to CAD monkey.’

But there are positive stories too. Suzi Winstanley, a partner at Penoyre & Prasad, was promoted from associate after she had her son in 2016. ‘You either take off or take a back seat,’ she says. ‘It was really full-on because I wasn’t getting any sleep, it was crazy. On balance it would have been better to go a bit slower but those opportunities are hard to turn down.’

Winstanley points out that, for women, it often depends on when they choose to have a child. ‘In your early thirties it’s just the point you’re doing a project when you’re proving yourself,’ she says. ‘My son was born when I was 38 and I was already an associate at the company.’ 

Shared parental leave

Of the men surveyed, almost 80 per cent said they would have taken more time off if they could have.

This desire from fathers to take an equal role is perhaps reflected in the survey results on Shared Parental Leave (SPL), whereby parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave (37 weeks of which are paid) if they meet certain eligibility criteria. 

Introduced in the UK in 2015, the policy has had a slow take-up (around 1 per cent) among parents nationally, blamed on outdated attitudes to men and childcare, and the fact couples may need the higher earner (often the father) to keep working. 

But 10 per cent of architects said they had applied for shared parental leave, with the majority of those – 81 per cent – having their request granted by the practice. 

‘I think SPL is a brilliant idea,’ says Louise Regan, senior project architect at AHMM, who split the leave with her husband, also an architect, after the birth of both their sons. ‘It’s so important the burden is shared between men and women, both at home and at work. 

Sarah Shaw, associate, Adams & Sutherland
The cost of childcare is crippling. For us as a family, at the worst time we were paying £10,500 a year on childcare for two preschool children – this was the majority of my monthly take-home salary upon returning to work. Returning to work (or not) should be a choice for everyone. Being able to work flexible hours that suits school hours and/or available childcare makes happy employees.

‘The cost of childcare, especially in London, is so high that we feel even more committed to our careers. There is a lot of pressure on both of us to provide for our family.’

Her husband, Keir Regan-Alexander, a director at Morris+Company, says practices should look at improving parental policies to enable more men to take up SPL. ‘The introduction of the SPL policy did trigger a bit of a change but it’s very slow and gradual,’ he says. ‘Dads have said, “great, but we can’t afford to do that”. 

‘The dads usually take the second half of leave so generally the mum has taken up any enhanced pay entitlement and the dad is left with only statutory pay between six to nine months and no pay thereafter. It’s a big ask of a family to sacrifice that income, and that causes many dads not to avail of SPL.’

He adds that firms need to get away from the ‘factory mentality’ of people clocking in and out, and move towards models of flexibility, autonomy and trust, as well as combat the long-hours culture. ‘We have a culture of working late [in architecture generally],’ he says. ‘Being a parent means you have to manage your time with precision. In my case, I’ve found this has made me more efficient and focused during work hours.’ 

I am disappointed in the profession for the lack of ambition and trailblazing in this area – if a project architect must be available throughout the week, why can’t jobshares be more actively accepted? Architecture is still in the dark ages when compared with working arrangements in many other creative industries.
Anonymous survey respondent

Attitude shift

Many parents echoed Regan-Alexander’s point that embracing family-friendly policies is just one part of a wider shift in working culture that needs to take place across the profession.

‘Family-friendly working hours do not appear to align with historic cultural values of practice this generation of management have been brought up on,’ one respondent said.

Winstanley points out it is still ‘part of the culture’ that if you’re going to be successful as an architect you’re going to have to make sacrifices. ‘To overcome that we have to be better business people. There’s a business case for treating people better.’

Echoing Winstanley, Paul Chappell of 9B Careers says rather than looking at how architects can fit into current working practices with long hours and over-servicing of clients, firms should consider changing the way they operate.

‘A chance to refocus on the profitability of projects and improved processes may lead to an industry more resilient to financial downturns and hopefully more opportunities for flexible working arrangements,’ he says. 

Our flexible working policy is for everyone – staff work a 7.5-hour day with core hours 10am to 4pm, which means anyone can start early and leave early or start late and leave late. Sometimes people start early and leave late – we do our best to minimise that and make up for it when it’s unavoidable with time off in lieu. The big challenge for flexible working is if it affects what you’re paid but not what you produce. Will we reach a point in architecture (as we’ve seen in progressive new media companies) where the norm is to work a productive four-day week without a cut in full-time pay?
Suzi Winstanley, Penoyre & Prasad

He also warns that practices must adapt quickly to avoid losing more talented staff – the survey results showed 45 per cent of parents had considered alternative employment as a result of their treatment. 

Chappell adds that there is also a potential skills shortage on the horizon due to the high numbers of EU architects quitting the UK over Brexit. 

‘Firms not willing to look at more flexible working arrangements will therefore be missing out on a large group of well-qualified potential employees,’ he says.

Kate Marks, an HR consultant and former HR director for global practice Gensler, thinks the profession is at a transition period. ‘It’s as if there has been a perception that to be an architect is to follow a calling, and so the low pay and long hours can be ignored in the pursuit of creativity and design ideals. 

‘However, I believe this is changing – slowly but surely.  There has been a noticeable increase in shared parenting and a breakdown in the assumption that childcare is largely a woman’s role,’ she says.

For many though, change is simply not happening fast enough. For a ‘progressive, dynamic profession’ – as Angela Dapper, partner at Denton Corker Marshall, points out – the results are dispiriting. ‘We should be leaders in work culture and staff welfare. These are really disappointing results, as it shows the opposite,’ she says. ‘As architects, we can do better.’

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Readers' comments (1)

  • No comments on this topic? Further testament to the ridiculous and outdated attitude of the architecture industry.

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