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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)

  • Barry Valley - As Atticus points out, Jordan Peterson is no right wing agitator, he is lazily labelled as such by people who have often never listened to anything he has said. The Cathy Newman interview is an absolute classic, she made an utter fool of herself and then tried to invent some kind of right wing hate campaign to make her the victim. My wife is the Senior Partner of a professional services company and has reached more or less the same opinion as Atticus with regard to employing Millenials. In many cases they are selfish, workshy and entitled. The women are worse as soon as they have children, they expect the entire organisation to change to suit their new circumstances, she has got sick of the term 'work life balance' which is trotted out every time somebody is expected to do any actual (well paid) work.

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  • Good article generated interesting opinions. From where I stand as a former bricklayer and now an architect the problem is rooted in the building trade itself . It is a precarious existence. At the present there's work about but we forget this boom is temporary and when the next recession hits these arguments will be a luxury..
    We need to make the industry more sustainable and have consistent employment laws through out that apply to the site labourer male or female as well as the project architect. Only when we can truly control and plan for all our futures will we be able to have justice and fairness throughout..

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  • Great example of the Bullshit Macho culture from a large practice clearly paying lip service to their own employment practices. I would suggest that they would have got more output from Pepper than they were getting when she worked 5 days a week for them!! They were just too stupid to work that out. Clearly BDP's flexible working is not that flexible unless it works for them.

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  • I was purposefully provocative and wrote from personal experience. Nobody could be any more accommodating than me. What the snowflakes on here have missed is that my practice goes to great lengths to accommodate parenting architects, male and female, but in the end too many of those who we try to accommodate with contrivances of flexibility just dump us in the poo. And its usually unavoidable from their part. But we still end up in the poo. A point that none of the self righteously myopic "have it all" respondents have acknowledged. Whats interesting is the fathers who have worked tight hours to do the school and nursery runs for wives with more distant commuting jobs, have all made up any time lost to inconvenience and child sickness by making up later in the evening or weekend on our remote access computer network. To a one, the women haven't. This is just fact, not a fictitious slight against women. Jordan Peterson bears this out by quoted statistics. Men tend to work harder and have greater conscientiousness. And as one respondent noted, I was careful to qualify with "some women". I've known extremely conscientious women architects who've outpaced their male colleagues and risen to the top because of it. You get out what you put in. Its a meritocracy, not a socialist state legislating for equality of outcome and all the unproductive consequences that entails.
    PS, the AJ survey of equality of employment based upon pay alone doesn't pass first base as a scientific study because it doesn't take into account all the complex issues at play in its topic. So as to end in a constructive note, it would be really interesting if a survey of a comprehensive list of issues that influence equality in the architectural workplace were to be carried out. That may throw light on how the profession can best help...or not... But I fear that would be too "logical" as facing up to logical arguments seems to be avoided at all costs by the liberal / feminists on here. It might lead to a Cathy Newman/Jordan Peterson style "Gotcha" moment.

    Ps, the arrogance of the previous comment is unbelievable " Clearly BDP's flexible working is not that flexible unless it works for them." Well why else would they do it? Because it doesn't work for them? Get real.

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  • I think the key issue here, regardless of gender, is whether a company considers three 9 hour days and one 3 hour day an acceptable substitute for four 7.5 hour days. I can understand why many wouldn't.

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