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Too many women are slipping through the net

Jennifer sale
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Faced with the profession’s long hours and low pay, it’s small wonder that many women architecture graduates are taking their talents elsewhere, says Jennifer Sale

It’s no wonder that aspiring architects find it easy to go on to build careers in other industries. Young graduates of architecture enter the working world armed with a substantial and diverse set of creative and problem-solving skills. They are attractive hires to the wider working world and, in turning away from architecture, they leave behind a profession renowned for its extreme hours and low pay. 

I was one of them. Having worked for four different practices, I left architecture in 2012 after completing my Part 2. I was disillusioned by what the profession had to offer and wanted a new challenge. After five years gaining experience in the jewellery, film and media industries, I was eager to return to architecture. But this boomerang of a career journey isn’t the case for many. Unlike most of my male architect friends who have stayed on the same path, the majority of my female friends from university have gone on to pursue careers in other fields such as PR, graphic design and charitable trusts. 

Most of my female friends from university have gone on to pursue careers in other fields such as PR, graphic design and charitable trusts

It’s not surprising that there is such a huge disparity of gender diversity in senior management positions when so few women continue to professional qualification and practice. At RIBA Part 1 level, numbers are roughly equal between the sexes. After that, the number of female practising architects drops significantly. The profession needs to tackle the issue of women falling through this huge gaping architectural net. 

I have been fortunate to gain experience within a series of high-profile architectural practices. Yet, to date, I have only met a handful of women in architecture who have risen to the highest echelons of this industry, and whom I can aspire towards. 

As a profession, we need to acknowledge this problem and take steps to avoid losing talented women early on in their careers. While there may not be a quick fix for resolving this issue, improvement needs to start with awareness and setting clear objectives with trackable actions. We need to highlight the positive and rewarding aspects of progressing a career in architecture to our young female graduates. Celebrating the achievements of women through initiatives such as the Women in Architecture Awards is a positive way to draw attention to the strengths and successes of female contributions to architecture. 

Universities play a pivotal role in retaining women in the profession. They should provide mentorship to support female graduates move into practice following each stage of their education. Practices need to nurture their young female staff and encourage them to find their voice in a male-dominated workplace. 

Ultimately women must become proactive and play their part too: 

  1. If you know your male colleague equivalents are being paid more, negotiate harder.
  2. If you need flexible hours to achieve a better work/life balance, ask for it.
  3. If you aren’t receiving the support or the training you need, demand it.

We should be embracing all the wonderful qualities women can provide to the industry, in addition to what their male counterparts offer. Architecture needs to provide a positive and supportive work environment where women can build their careers and flourish. 

Gender equality in architecture is not just a headline, it is a boardroom issue that requires urgent attention and action plans. It is within the profession and our individual powers to make a change. 

Jennifer Sale is a design manager at Plan A Consultants

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