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Why do women leave architecture? Because it’s a diseased profession

Christine Murray

Unequal pay, the glass ceiling, bullying, sexism and long hours are leading to women quitting architecture. Good news: you can change this, says Christine Murray

If there is a silver lining to the bleak newsreels of the past two weeks – from the racism of the travel ban to the utterings of Trump on how women should dress – it’s that equality and diversity are firmly on the agenda, and a rise in grass roots activism, powered by social media, is provoking change.

Recent successes include huge global turnouts for women’s rights marches and protests against the US-imposed travel restrictions; the petition to prevent Trump’s state visit, which will be debated in parliament on 20 February following nearly two million signatures; the #deleteUber campaign, which saw Uber’s CEO step down from Trump’s advisory council; and major retailers dropping Ivanka Trump’s fashion line after a boycott.

The majority of architects have been quiet in recent years when it comes to politics, perhaps too fearful of being blacklisted or scaring away clients.

But the profession is growing louder, if the crowd at the RIBA Gold Medal dinner is anything to go by. Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s impassioned acceptance speech called on architects to build a new world, no less. He called for equality of the sexes, an end to racism, and a halt to the colonialist attitudes that have tainted politics for the past 300 years.

David Chipperfield also took to the stage to speak out against the ‘unelected’ prime minister and her violation of EU citizens’ rights, calling on May to stop using people as bargaining chips and guarantee their status. The conversation at my table rarely strayed from politics all night.

This stood in stark contrast to the Stirling Prize party in October, when the speeches avoided politics, the profession politely ignored the rising clamour of protesters on the pavement outside, and fears of Brexit were whispered, if mentioned at all. 

This week, we reveal the growing crisis of sexism and unequal pay in practice, with half of all women surveyed having suffered discrimination, bullying or harassment in the past year, and a worsening pay gap, which sees male partners earning £55,000 a year more than female counterparts.

It’s no longer a secret why women leave architecture – it’s simply a worrying symptom of a diseased profession

As the cover of this week’s issue suggests, after six years of the campaign, we can now confidently say it’s no longer a secret, or a bemusing mystery, as to why women leave architecture – it’s simply a worrying symptom of a diseased profession. Low pay and high tuition fees, unequal pay and an impenetrable glass ceiling, a bullying and sexist culture, long hours and a lack of accommodation for parents.

Women's march london garry knight

Women’s march london garry knight

The good news: it’s within our power to change all this. Employees (male and female!) can rise up and demand an internal pay audit, and call out discrimination when it happens. And, in response, practice leaders can take action. Change can come: the survey reveals that practices with at least 20 per cent women in senior management saw half the frequency of discrimination, bullying and harassment as otherwise similar businesses with all-male management teams.

I hope the profession regains its political voice and stands united, not only demanding action on national and international issues, but setting its own house in order. The future of the profession depends on you not falling silent again.


Readers' comments (6)

  • So much of this is spot on, but sadly I find the final point way too optimistic for now.

    For real change to happen there needs to be a lot more support for those who do point out discrimination. It's all too easy to overlook the every-day battles that are being fought (and lost) by female and ethnic minority Architects. These are often the people that end up leaving after years of trying and failing to change their situation in a famously-slow-to-change profession.

    Part of the reason for this slow change is the lack of any kind of unity in our highly competitive profession. Uniting against Brexit is a very different thing to uniting against your employer, particularly when the fight is 'not yours'. Speaking out against problems across the world has always come more naturally to the profession that doing the little things that would make work and life more bearable and a little fairer for those around you.

    On the plus side, if enough of us leave, will the skills gap left behind be enough to force some sort of reform?

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  • This type of gross inequality is a symptom of the business model of architecture and a profession under extreme stress.

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  • To effect change, different business models need to be developed and reform in education that is singularly failing to give a clear picture of the realities of being an architect in this era. The model developed by Lisa Raynes - 'Pride Road' is a great example of how this inequality can be addressed.

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  • The problem is due to the fact that architects are not unionised. Unions look after member well being, salaries, employer abuse, over-time, etc. The RIBA could not care less about employee satisfaction or about the culture of suffering in firms and expectations of martyrdom.

    Instead of joining or forming unions to protect their interests and bargain collectively, architects like to bellyache to each other about low salaries and show off about working 30-50 extra hours per week for free.

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  • It should be a condition of RIBA Chartered Practice Membership that firms commit to these things - equal pay, reasonable hours, banning "internships", etc. Not only do these things result in inequality, they also suppress fees.
    An anonymous "hotline" should be provided by the RIBA to report miscreants, and the threat of removal of Chartered Practice Status should be a genuine one.
    So why become a Chartered Practice?
    Entry to the RIBA Awards, eligibility for public tenders and so on should be open only to those practices which have earned this status. This would require reform both of the Chartered Practice programme and public procurement generally, but both are achievable.
    Standards need to be raised.

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  • The majority of these issues are relevant across the industry; low pay, high tuition fees, glass ceilings, bullying, long hours, lack of accommodation for parents. It would be interesting to see the figures of people leaving the industry across the board and tackle ALL the issues as a profession.

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