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?
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.