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No mothers need apply

Will Hurst

This year’s Women in Architecture survey should make you angry, writes Will Hurst

The results of the fifth Women in Architecture survey should make your blood boil.

When the AJ launched the survey in 2012, the most shocking facts concerned the pay gap between men and women and particularly that existing at director level. Today, the Women in Architecture programme and survey are run by our sister title, The Architectural Review (AR) but the numbers reveal the same old story.

The most successful women in architecture – directors, partners and principals of British practices – are earning a full twenty grand less than their male counterparts. Even worse, the glass ceiling seems to be being rapidly reinforced, given that the difference in top-tier salaries has actually increased by more than 50 per cent from last year’s gap of £13,000.

Positions in many architecture practices would no doubt be advertised with the condition ‘No mothers, no prospective mothers’ if the law allowed

While raising awareness of this injustice, as the Women in Architecture campaign has done, is valuable it is obviously not enough to change something so entrenched in architectural working culture. And, while the causes are manifold, it seems that having children is perhaps the primary reason for the pay gap and many of the other barriers that female architects encounter.

Back in the 1960s, bigoted landlords in London and other big cities would commonly advertise rooms with the caveat ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’ as the former home secretary Alan Johnson recalled in his brilliant childhood memoir This Boy.

Today, positions in many architecture practices would no doubt be advertised with the condition ‘No mothers, no prospective mothers’ if the law allowed. Indeed nine out of 10 of female architects surveyed said that having children hindered their career, with many resigning to seek more flexible work following maternity leave and some even being made redundant while on it. One woman recounted how a contemptible male colleague undermined her while she was pregnant by ‘implying that I would no longer pull my weight’ in order to advance his own career prospects.

Architecture is a particularly harsh environment for anyone not willing or able to devote all of their time to it

To be fair, most male architects do acknowledge the latent discrimination against their female counterparts and are themselves affected (to a lesser degree) by architecture’s anti-parenthood stance. After all, more than half of the male architects surveyed said they feared that having a family would disadvantage them professionally.

To some extent, all of this is understandable. Of course, there is bound to be at least a short-term trade-off in having children and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. On the other hand, architecture is a particularly harsh environment for anyone not willing or able to devote all of their time to it. And this is despite the fact that this goes directly against the ethical approach that the profession aspires to.

As architect and lecturer Harriet Harriss comments in our news analysis, ‘Good parents – those that want to see their kids before bedtime – are often accused of lacking professional commitment, and are passed up for promotion’. This attitude hurts the individuals themselves but also the profession as talented women withdraw from their work and brain drain sets in.

Fixing this shameful state-of-affairs will not be easy. While the strategy of more role models and better reporting of pay and bonuses by gender advocated by the RIBA is a start, we also need to consider the impact of long and expensive training and how to make the job of an architect more profitable, less speculative and less dependent on the long hours culture.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Chris Roche

    I recall attending an RIBA Small Practice Conference some years back where one of the speakers was an employment law solicitor advocating that small practices do not employ women as they become pregnant at a cost to business. I was shocked and alarmed, particularly as there were female members of RIBA Council in attendance who chose to ignore rather than challenge these comments. I never attended another. I subsequently introduced a motion to RIBA Council to provide free membership to members on maternity leave. It was rejected, however I secured a compromise with a "Reduced Rate" for members on Maternity Leave - RIBA wanted to call it a "Hardship Rate" which I rejected as sounding the language of the Workhouse not a modern institute. I'm proud of this achievement, however it cost me dearly as the then executive took exception.

    Chris Roche / Founder 11.04
    X RIBA Council Member

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  • J Burden

    It helped me out a great deal to have the reduced maternity RIBA subscription when I had children and was struggling with finances due to childcare costs and reduced earnings.
    So THANK YOU Chris Roche.

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