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Why I felt I had to quit BDP after maternity leave


I found the practice’s attitude to my flexible working proposal offensive and demeaning, says former BDP project architect Pepper Barney 

Is the profession really committed to the changes needed to help women succeed?

I ask because I’ve had to resign from a stable job, put all my personal savings into setting up a company, and stick my head above the parapet to call for change in an industry where everyone knows you have to be careful who you piss off.

I wasn’t always so sceptical. In the third year of my degree course we hosted a dinner for the school’s external examiners, who at the time included Ruth Reed, then campaigning for RIBA presidency. I was asked ‘Why do women leave architecture?’ I’d never thought about it, and eloquently blurted out: ‘Dunno, I’m still here.’

This remained my attitude until a few years ago when I began to suspect it was something to do with having babies. Now, I’m pretty sure it’s got a lot to do with having babies.

I fell pregnant not long after joining BDP, which was not ideally timed, career-wise.

However, I wanted to maintain my reputation for getting stuff done, so I set a target (as part of a small team) to deliver the contract/construction package for the new £45 million school I was working on before I went on leave. An excellent technologist and I, with a few spare hands when required, hit the deadline. I went on maternity leave feeling like, however small, I’d made a positive contribution to the company.

I used my first Keeping in Touch (KIT) day when the baby was 12 weeks old to attend a full-day design team meeting on the school, which was firmly on site. I loved that day; getting to be my former architect self. There was no question but that I’d return to work.

When my daughter was six months old, I realised that I wouldn’t go back to my old work pattern. It was important to be to be around during the most formative first two years. My husband (a sole practitioner) and I agreed we’d aim to do a four-day week each. Time was now more important than money.

After doing some quick maths on the impact to my salary, I concluded that a return to work could be financially viable if I worked a four-day week compressed over 3.5 days – three long days in the office (nine hours on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday) with the remaining three hours worked from home, so avoiding a day’s worth of commuting. 

By establishing ‘remote working’ I’d also be able to make myself available across all five days of the week and maintain a job-running role. I put this into a formal flexible working request to BDP.

The company’s Flexible Working Policy said I’d be invited to a meeting within 28 days of that request. So, after not hearing anything for a month, I started to suspect that my return to work was not really on anyone’s radar. I got called in after six weeks, already unimpressed.

I started to suspect that my return to work was not really on anyone’s radar

The only element of the request that was acceptable to BDP was the four-day week. But these four days had to be done in the office and I couldn’t really get a good reason why.

About the same time, BDP’s Gender Pay Gap report came out, with poor results and a swashbuckling statement about ‘commitment to change’, ‘understanding barriers to the progression of women’ and taking action to ‘break down those barriers’.

I appealed, citing the report while re-presenting my request: ‘This is a barrier … this is how I’d like to break it down’. I copied in the chief executive to make sure he knew I was addressing his own statement in the company’s report. He didn’t respond.

I got invited to a further meeting. Mostly it was a box-ticking chat, but I did get a hint on why I had to work in the office when they asked: if I was at home, how would they know I was not just watching Grand Designs?

I responded: ‘Well, I’ll either hit deadlines, or I won’t, and if I don’t, you can challenge me in a review.’ After all, I was an experienced professional employed as a project architect on a £45 million scheme at the second largest practice in the UK. I didn’t get there watching telly on the job.

The appeal was turned down.

I resigned, stating that I had found their reasons for disallowing home working ‘offensive and demeaning’ and that I was disappointed in the lack of foresight that many of the barriers I faced were only relevant for the next two to four years.

The only response I got was a template ‘Sorry you’re leaving’ letter, with information about accrued holiday pay and pensions.

I also got an exit interview form that said: ‘Your feedback is important to us […] our aim for asking for this information is to improve as a company.’ I didn’t bother filling it out.

So could I humbly request the reintroduction of integrity into architectural prose?

It’s literally Rule 1 in the ARB Code of Conduct. If you’re not committed to changing and understanding and taking action – don’t say you are.

I am not alone in my experience but, for fear of appearing ‘difficult’ and harming future employment prospects, my peers keep quiet.

If we’re really committed to changing the industry, the first step is to bravely, honestly, and openly discuss real-life experiences so we can work together to design a solution.

Isn’t that what architects are for?

BDP’s response

We are very proud of our progressive and transparent flexible working policy. Anyone in BDP can apply for flexible working and our policy currently benefits over 20 per cent of our staff who are in flexible or part-time employment. It is one of our main goals to enable employees to find an appropriate work/life balance, whilst ensuring that the company is adequately resourced at all times to be successful and profitable.

While we cannot comment on individual cases, requests for regular flexible working arrangements are formally made with reference to our flexible working policy. All requests are considered fully and fairly in accordance with this policy on a case-by-case basis. There may, however, be circumstances when BDP is unable to accommodate an employee’s desired work pattern, in which event we will always seek to identify a compromise arrangement. If a workable compromise arrangement cannot be found, the request may have to be declined. All requests that are declined are reviewed by the chief executive.


Readers' comments (25)

  • Interesting & timely article. Like many of my female peers, I too set up my own practice, in my case after baby No 3. Luckily, I have been able to continue to have a challenging career in architecture, albeit only possible with the support of my husband who is also a fellow architect.
    Jane Paterson of Paterson Architects

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  • This is just one of the many reasons that architects need to join a union. Forget the RIBA. Most cannot just resign casually when offended. Join a union and collectively fight for these rights or resign and be replaced by someone younger with fewer commitments who will resign when it's their turn to have babies.

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  • I find it very disappointing that you weren't able to have a balanced conversation with a practice which should be (needs to be) an exemplorary leader on this critical issue of retaining women in architecture. A large practice often builds an tranche of unpaid overtime into an employees profile eg 37.5 hours in the contract but 45 hours expected ie +20%. If you do 4 days work within 3 or 3.5 days attendance they don't get their assumed 20% extra. This assumed unpaid overtime needs to acknowledged, debated and disposed of.

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  • Industry Professional

    I am not an architect and nor am I am a female. Nonetheless, I will try to be sympathetic. I am not going to excuse what happened either and I would like to think that a compromise could have been found.
    However, I wonder if there was a bit of a trust issue bearing in mind the Architect had not been with the firm that long despite the work mentioned on a large project.
    There is also the matter that client's or other team members can demand (need) meetings at short notice. I was recently on a 2 day training course and a contractor who was also on it had to leave after 1.5 days because their Client demanded a meeting, resulting in the person's 1.5 days being wasted. Could it not have waited half a day?
    There is also the degree of interaction with colleagues that is required for the work being done. One would have thought that 3 days a week would have been enough. In my experience, problems often arise when people hardly meet up at all, such as when CAD is being produced in a different office somewhere else in the country to the designer.
    I would be a bit wary of someone working days that are regularly rather long. There is a lot to be said for getting the life-style balance right nearly every day rather than just averaged over each week.
    Anyway, I wish the original writer well in her own work.

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  • This story is endlessly repeated across the industry. It is the reason many parents leave employment. Working for yourself is very challenging and stressful but ultimately, I have found, the ability to control my hours, place of work and work load has paid off. I have a good work life balance, I spend significantly more quality time with my children. We are fortunate as a profession to have the option to become self-employed.
    If Architectural Employers want and more critically, need to, retain talent, a more open minded and truly flexible approach to when and where people work, will be adopted. I think any change will be slow because there are plenty of, talented and experienced Architects, who can commit to working, long hours, in an office. It is a complex picture because some of the most loyal and hard working employed Architects are parents. In fact one is my family’s principal bread winner. The loss of parents from practices is currently part and parcel of the general turnover of staff.

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  • I sympathise with this case, but this sort of attitude is not exclusive to women following maternity leave. I resigned from a large multi-disciplinary design consultancy practice recently after more than fifteen years with the company. I had negotiated working on a part-time basis as I became more 'senior', but was given poor performance ratings for my final two years without any reason nor any opportunity for discussion until afterwards. I was also regularly asked about my plans for 'retirement'. Despite formal grievance proceedings and an appeal, no satisfactory action was taken to resolve this appalling treatment. Fortunately I am now thoroughly enjoying my enforced 'retirement', but I would have liked to have continued my valuable contribution to the architectural profession for longer. I am sure there must be others who have found themselves in a similar position. It is a very poor reflection of the integrity of the architectural profession.

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  • We have employed a lot of women, on equal pay, and like their contribution. Women are different than men and it enriches us.
    Just one example that should be factored in is the greed of some mothers who want to have it all, putting work commitment the last in their list of priorities, forgetting that its work that funds their lifestyle and desires. For previous generations without such a welfare state safety net work had to take precedence, no matter how much it screwed them around.
    Millenials require all manner of accommodations once they have children; the feminists want to have it all and shudder at the thought of being a stay at home mum, notwithstanding housing cost making them have to work anyway. They demand wage parity with male workers who in contrast stay late at work until the job is done. We are usually on a fixed fee with minimal margins and at pressure points or if it goes wrong, we have to expand the hours in the day without overtime pay to get by on the same costs or on time. The mothers may work a clean 7.5 hour day 4 or 5 day week, going home every afternoon in time to pick up their children from childcare or school. Unlike men who remain on the job for the duration and shun sick leave entitlements, the mothers often use up all of their sickies with bugs caught from the childcare or caring for sick children and are almost never available when most needed, ie, to drag a job back after hours or to cover when the pressure occurs in the mothers day off in her 4 day week (our clients don’t pause in that day and don’t expect us to either). Phone calls to manage the child increase, distraction often occurs and errors in the work increase. We have only ever judged, employed and paid people by their ability. But quite frankly it just costs us and wears us out having to step into the breach to get responses out in time or to give cover on the days off. Rare is the mother who has so much commitment that she will put put in hours late at night or at the weekend on remote access to catch up. To manage this we have to expect less from mothers, irrespective of ability. A recent occurrence, a Friday deadline. The child had to be taken away from Nursery 3pm Thursday. It was sick Friday. The mother had to stay with it (husband abroad on work). We very nearly lost the job. In a small practice on competitive fees we have little tolerance for such events. Yet we are not allowed to ask about family plans or commitments at interview. Or about the intentions of childless women to have children. So we occasionally get suckered, because in a small business there are no “less-critical roles” that women can be employed in. Unfortunately, to get the same pay as a man, your work needs to be equivalent to a man’s.
    For an interesting insight into this, watch the Jordan Peterson – Cathy Newman interview on YouTube.

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  • Industry Professional

    Atticus, tut tut

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  • There's always one. In this case, it's Atticus. Very poor form, but telling that you reference the right wing agitator, Jordan Peterson, to somehow validate your outdated and unhealthy views.
    Fortunately, I work for a company with an excellent maternity & paternity policy and (as far as I understand) parity in gender wages, therefore I can only empathise with Pepper. It's certainly a topic that needs to be discussed further or risk women being discouraged from entering a career in architecture.

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  • Barry Valley/Industry Proffessional. The Jordan Peterson is a worthwile starting point for any debate on equality in the workp[lace. If you could watch it and say what you disagree with it would be worth discussing. For my part I agree with all of what he said. If you believe him to be aright wing ajitator, you cannot have watched much of his content, as he is distinctly a-political, and basing his points of view on fact born out by experience, research and a very perceptive mind. For my part, I agree with all he said in the interview, as do many others. Ifhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54&t=33s

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