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Women in Architecture survey: 9/10 women say children hinder careers

WIA
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More women feel they are being heavily penalised for having a family, according to this year’s Women in Architecture survey

The results of the annual Women in Architecture survey make for a sobering read. Since the pan-industry poll was launched four years ago little seems to have changed.

The glass ceiling is firmly still in place, levels of discrimination remain miserably high, and women continue to be heavily penalised for wanting a family.

More than 90 per cent of female architects in the UK believe having children hinders their careers – a shock five per cent increase on the 2015 results.

In comparison, men worry significantly less about whether having a family will affect their career, yet 58 per cent still fear it will disadvantage them professionally. And most of the male architects surveyed agreed that women were right to be concerned. Three quarters of men believe that the career paths of their female colleagues are disadvantaged when they have children.

The fact that only a third of the female architects polled had children is therefore unsurprising.

Inflexible hours, childcare costs, maternity leave and the time it takes to qualify and progress to senior positions were all cited as factors that deter women from starting a family.

Last year’s Woman Architect of the Year, Teresa Borsuk, admits that having children ‘can be a career bruiser’. She says: ‘[The results] clearly demonstrate that we are way off from gender neutralism and in challenging and changing the conventional business model; a model that presupposes a linear, unbroken career path.

‘They show that the combination of work and domestic responsibility weighs heavily. Generally, it is women who remain at the centre of family life, and the statistics corroborate that many women are told – and so believe – that they cannot manage it all.’

What kind of trajectory did your career path take after having children? 
Responses from UK-based female architects

What kind of trajectory did your career path take after having children? Responses from UK-based female architects

What kind of trajectory did your career path take after having children? Responses from UK-based female architects

Just 23 per cent of the UK female architects surveyed went back to the same job after having children – a situation that compares poorly with the rest of the world.

In Europe a third of women returned to the same job, while in the US and Canada 38 per cent went back to their previous position after maternity leave.

Almost half of female architects in this country returned to work but reduced their hours, with many respondents stating that the profession’s long working hours were incompatible with raising a family.

And while more than 60 per cent of female architects said they were able to work flexible hours, nine out of ten said they were expected, at some point, to work nights or at weekends.

One respondent commented: ‘The industry is inflexible and fails to understand the needs of parents. Early and late meetings combined with long working hours, often at the demands of a client/project manager/contractor who expects availability at all times, make it particularly difficult with young children.’

Disturbingly, the survey found that after having children, 16 per cent of UK female architects returned to work part time with lower pay and seniority. And four per cent were even made redundant while on maternity leave – the highest percentage of any country in the world.

But there is a silver-lining for a few: six per cent of UK-based female architects were promoted within six months of returning to work after having children, compared to just four per cent of men taking paternity leave.

Of the UK female architects surveyed, 16 per cent decided to set up on their own after having children, citing greater flexibility as a key reason. The results show a similar figure for men (12 per cent).

Commenting on the results, architect and lecturer Harriet Harriss, who is editing a book on gender in the profession, says: ‘Sexism in architecture condemns men – and not just women – to a set of expectations around stereotypical behaviour.

‘For example, dads as well as mums are punished by our endemic long-hours culture. Good parents – those that want to see their kids before bedtime – are often accused of lacking professional commitment, and are passed up for promotion. We talk about the need for “ethical practice”, so let’s start with making our own practice environment ethical.’

To allow this, changes need to happen in the workplace. Yet just one per cent of all UK women said their workplaces provided on-site childcare. The best place to work for childcare was the Middle East and Asia, where nine per cent of women said their offices provided it.

Around a third of female architects working in the UK said their workplace did not provide any child-related benefits, further exacerbating the difficulties experienced by those trying to balance working in practice with bringing up a family.

One respondent commented: ‘I do have young children, and the only way I can support my return to work financially is to spend my evenings doing private work as a self-employed architect. If I didn’t do this my nursery fees (for two children aged three years and under) would be higher than my monthly income. I could stay at home to look after them as that would be cheaper, but I do not want to sacrifice my career by taking such a long break.’

Another said: ‘A key issue is the cost of childcare relative to salaries within the architectural industry, and I believe that this is a key reason why many female architects struggle to make it viable to work and have a family.’

The percentage of women who say they have experienced discrimination while working in architecture 

The percentage of women who say they have experienced discrimination while working in architecture

The percentage of women who say they have experienced discrimination while working in architecture

According to the poll of nearly 1,450, carried out by the AJ’s sister title The Architectural Review, women architects are also still experiencing discrimination. In architecture practices little has changed, with 61 per cent of UK female architects claiming to have been the victim of gender discrimination.

And four out of ten of the UK’s female architects said it was their bosses who were responsible for this.

But things do seem to be improving on construction sites, where the number of women reporting discrimination has dropped from 50 per cent last year to 39 per cent.

Where are you experiencing discrimination?
Responses from UK-based female architects

Where are you experiencing discrimination? Responses from UK-based female architects

Where are you experiencing discrimination? Responses from UK-based female architects

The survey continues to show there is a way to go before women feel equal in the profession, but dissatisfaction among women is lower in practices where women form a significant share of the management team – around a third or more.

But practices where women make it to the top are far and few between. Just 22 per cent of UK female architects said they worked in a practice where more than 50 per cent of the senior management is female.

Women are also happier in practices where mentoring and regular career development reviews are carried out.

What percentage of the management level of your practice is female? 
Responses from UK-based female architects

What percentage of the management level of your practice is female? Responses from UK-based female architects

What percentage of the management level of your practice is female? Responses from UK-based female architects

Comments from UK-based female architects 

On pay

‘Salary and payment don’t often fully reflect experience. Male colleagues tend to be promoted sooner, so salary comparison is not a true representation.’ 

‘The pay inequality that is so endemic in the profession sickens me; I find it unacceptable for this day and age.’ 

On childcare

‘As a mother of two young children, I feel as though I cannot contribute as much as before starting my family. The resourcing on our projects is definitely geared towards individuals who do not need to leave at 5pm every day.’ 

‘Many practices still believe in presenteeism – just staying late in the office for no other reason than to look busy. It is assumed that women without children can stay late because they have no dependents, and women with children are usually running around like mad trying to do it all.’

‘With good childcare arrangements and a supporting partner who shares the load of working and having a family, it is perfectly possible to have a healthy work/life balance in architecture. A key issue is the cost of childcare relative to salaries within the architectural industry. This is a key reason why many female architects struggle to make it viable.’ 

On discrimination and bullying

‘It is easier to demote or dismiss women if behaviour doesn’t fit in with male preconceptions. Expectations are still that women are less senior, and it is sometimes hard to be heard – a communications issue rather than one of discrimination mainly.’ 

‘A colleague at the same level as me deliberately undermined me while I was pregnant in order to advance his own career over mine by implying that I would no longer pull my weight.’

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Of course it hinders their careers. Have you ever worked in an architecture practice?
    Architects have an absolutely revolting work-life balance and are not unionised, and the RIBA continues to heap praise on the likes of Zaha and Fosters. Who has ever met anyone who works at Zaha or Fosters and isn't a miserable wretch? How about the RIBA starts to rank and praise firms based on worker happiness and sense of self-worth?

    Architects are little more than indentured servants. Having children and hobbies is detrimental to our careers and everyone knows it.

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