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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)

  • Hi ATTICUS, I would love to know the name of your practice if you don't mind.

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  • Would love to hear about the name of the company that you own Atticus.

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  • Being a full time Architect and single mother this article resonates with me and I wish Pepper Barney all the success she deserves. However it is not her tale that has prompted me to comment but I have to respond to Atticus whose narrow minded, chauvinistic, sexist comments have made my blood boil.

    I will not go into the details of my personal situation but it is men like you who are a disgrace to this profession and men in general. This is not a #metoo rant, more like a #f*Ukyou.

    I have been an architect for 20years and have always been very aware that the construction industry is a boys club. I'm not complaining, its what I chose to do and accept it for what it is. However since becoming a mother 5 years ago (with some maths you will work out that I am not a millennial, nor a feminist for that matter), I have been appalled by the attitude of some men towards my new found status as mum and a single one at that (hands up in horror).

    I have never once dropped the ball on a job as a mum or prior, nor had to get someone else to step in for me at a critical moment. I work full time and I take work home and come in at weekends as required by projects.

    When a man leaves early to pick up his kid he is congratulated for being a great hands on dad...... I am a great hands on mum and architect and my work is not below the standard of any man in office and I would challenge anyone who though so.

    It is thanks to men like ATTICUS that women like me are under the impression that they must work harder than all the men in the office just to prove I can still do the job i have been successfully doing for 20years.

    So dear ATTICUS I do hope you do not have any daughters as what an example as a father you would be setting for them. May you have a terrible weekend. Shame on you.

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  • ATTICUS I might be able to help with your 'problem' here. tell your HR team to start hiring Fathers instead of all those 'Men' you have there working for you. If after this you still find it difficult to cope with the situation then I suggest you buy yourself a ticket for the next train to 'the 21st century'. Let us know how it goes please.

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  • ATTICUS succinctly nails the matter. Selfish women, wanting to enjoy the same experiences as most other women of a certain age - ie having a family and enjoying an income - without realising they waived those rights when they embarked upon 7yrs+ training and education to become valued members of the profession.

    How are we to weed out such women, who will insist upon leaving our intrasigent practices high and try when they have the temerity to become pregnant, if we can't interrogate them at interview as to the status of their reproductive systems, relationship status and financial standing?

    Best course of action is to not employ women who have the lack of personal ambition demonstrated by allowing themselves occupy ages 20-45. Or, if you simply must employ them, don't promote them. Or give them positions of responsibility. They'll only let you down.

    Put your money where your mouth is, Atticus, and name your practice.

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  • What a sorry state of affairs – for Pepper, who is left feeling so angry that she needs to expose the graphic detail of her resignation to the world, and for BDP, who no doubt believe that they have followed watertight procedures and probably feel a little queasy at the idea of this story being spread across the pages of the AJ.

    I understand Pepper’s anger: she clearly doesn’t feel that she was treated as a responsible human being but I also sympathise with BDP’s concerns about her proposed way of working. The sadness is that they were unable to resolve what is not an uncommon problem in a constructive and amicable manner. Strip away the emotional content, and there are some really important issues here; some to do with gender but mostly around flexible working, which is not a gender issue.

    Actually, nobody works full time. We all (yes, even men) take holidays, attend office meetings, do CPD, undertake admin tasks, work on more than one project and even, on occasion have to deal with an emergency or take sick leave. As employers we accommodate this; part time working is a little more complex but it really is no different, and it should not be beyond the wit of man (or woman) to sort it out.

    That said, as an employer, I would not want any of my staff routinely working a nine hour day. There are good reasons why 7.5 hours is recommended – not least to ensure that people have time to refresh for the following day’s work and maintain some semblance of an enriching work/life balance. The fact that many architectural offices expect their staff to work longer hours does not change this and, frankly, I would worry if one of the largest firms in the country was writing 9.0 hour days into a contract.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of regular working from home either. Being in the office is not just about doing the work. It is also about creating a culture, learning from colleagues, being part of a team. Occasional working from home is fine but, in my experience, if done regularly, it cuts people off from the osmosis of being in the office: it often becomes isolating.

    Looking at the trail of comments that this article has received (rather than the article itself), it is worth noting that any employee, male or female, needs to be reliable, to turn up to work when expected, and to do their work to the best of their ability but, it is just as important that employers don’t over step the mark and routinely expect people to go the extra mile. Trust, respect, understanding, and therefore a degree of flexibility, are crucial in any relationship: people really don’t like it if they feel someone is taking the piss – whether they are a man or a woman, an employer or an employee.

    Good luck with your new venture Pepper. Remember this experience and be sure to be an exemplary employer when the time comes.

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  • Phil Parker

    When I ran a practice we had a a number of people on an existing project who for various reasons requested arrangements such as a four day week with one day working at home, etc. We agreed to all the requests but the client insisted we re-resource the project. It was a live job with a full time client, full time contractor and full time consultants. None of them wanted to be told that you can no longer meet the architect on a Tuesday or it’s been worked on now but can’t review it in full as Ralph is at home today.

    Others in the office were reluctant to have to fill in to compensate.

    Whilst architecture practice can be a flexible entity in some situations, there are many critical phases in a live project where this sort of flexibility cannot be built into such a project/ team based entity where we are needed to give direction to a wide group of people. In the end it was the people who were here all the time that to step in to do all the crucial last minute changes and meeting attendances that are inevitable on a dynamic, fast moving live project.

    In other professions where there is limited external interaction, there is clearly more scope for flexible working. But not in intensive team working project based environments. It just doesn’t work.

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  • I've been made redundant twice, due to having kids, and I walked away quietly. before going on to set up on my own. Well done for naming!

    I have since set up Pride Road, an architectural practice franchise, with the aim to provide support for working mums and dads and anyone who wants a better work life balance.

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  • Breathtaking condescension and arrogance Atticus.

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  • Industry Professional

    To play devils advocate - Atticus did say *some mothers*. Some other points in there worth discussing such as running a practice on minimal margins highlights an industry wide problem that doesn't allow this type of flexibility. Another point mentioned was the demand on certain jobs requiring constant attention - For some reason we just cant say no to clients. It's an old profession that for many haven't quite caught up with the times yet.

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