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Letter from London: Actions as ever speak much louder than words

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We need to find out why more women are not making it onto architecture’s career ladder, says Paul Finch

When I entered the world of magazine journalism in the early 1970s, I naturally joined the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), and eventually spent several years as ‘Father of the Chapel’ as well as serving, for a brief period, as honorary treasurer of the union’s magazine branch (an encouragement to become a monetarist if ever there was one).

When we successfully negotiated union recognition, maternity leave was high on the agenda, though we only managed to negotiate it for employees of two years’ standing – not an entirely unreasonable condition it seemed to me (please don’t write in to complain, it was Life on Mars).

In my subsequent career as an editor and publisher, I was responsible for the appointment of the first woman news editor, deputy editor and editor (three of the latter) on magazines where I had influence. In all cases the judgement was made on merit, not the result of so-called positive discrimination.

Unlike the subjects I was writing about back in the 70s – property and architecture – the world of magazines could not have been more genderneutral. At least half of the NUJ branch members were women, largely because of the huge number of women’s-interest titles, then as now.

There were innumerable women editors and publishers, and it seemed rather peculiar that this condition did not apply to the professions too. Back in the 70s, although the occasional woman architect held public office, for example Jane Drew on RIBA Council, and later Marina Adams as president of the Architectural Association, it seemed to be a largely male world, with the golf course/club/cricket invitation not very far away.

How things have changed. When Jane Duncan takes over at Portland Place later this year, three of the past four RIBA presidents will have been women. Sadie Morgan is president of the AA. Zaha Hadid is a world figure.

Women architects are habitually shortlisted for significant competitions. And yet … despite the more or less equal number of women students in architecture schools, the available figures suggest that many more women than men drop out of the profession before they are really in it.

It appears that pay inequality still exists, though I am never entirely convinced by the evidence presented on this subject. Again, before complaints flood in, let me say why I am not convinced, as a one-time pay negotiator who toiled at the coal-face of industrial relations.

This issue is essentially about job descriptions and the right/necessity of employers making judgements about the value of individuals to their business, as opposed to the idea that everyone should be in a command economy where job-title equality is all.

This applies equally to men and women, of course. The idea that ‘people doing the same job should get the same reward’ only makes sense if they really are doing the same job, and assumes it is impossible to distinguish between a hard-working, excellent employee and someone who is coasting. You know what I mean. In both cases, the employer who pays coasters the same as the good people is not too smart.

Architecture is a lifestyle choice – you are not (these days) a civil servant. There should of course be no gender discrimination over salaries and conditions, but the more important point is that terms and conditions are decent, allowing for a proper life for all outside the office.

Finally a question: do women leave architecture school for other jobs because it is a long slog to qualification, after which financial rewards can be modest? Can anyone throw any light on this?

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