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How architecture cheats women: results of the 2017 Women in Architecture survey revealed


When it comes to gender equity in architecture there is still a long way to go, according to the 2017 survey

Would you recommend a career in architecture? According to the sixth annual Women in Architecture survey, 30% of women and almost the same proportion of men say they would not. This attitude varies with age – those in their 20s and over 50s are most likely to ‘encourage a young person to pursue a career in architecture’.

Median full time salary

Median full time salary

In contrast, fewer than half of those surveyed in their 30s and 40s would encourage a budding architect and, strikingly, a third say they would not, with women more pessimistic than men.

Why have architects, and women in particular, lost their faith in practice? Sexism, discrimination and bullying are likely contributing factors. This year’s 77-question online survey, completed by 1,277 women and 340 men, provides insights relating to in-work experiences and out-of-work responsibilities from architects around the world. Some 70% of respondents are based in the UK, 12% in North America, 8% in Europe, 3% from Australia and New Zealand and 3% from the Middle East and Asia. Three-quarters of respondents are in their 20s and 30s, most of whom work as architects or architectural assistants. Overall, 63% of those completing the survey are fully qualified architects.

How frequently do you work outside normal office hours?:

Work outside office hours

Work outside office hours

Architects feel they have little choice but to work late, which is often seen as a sign of commitment

Hours worked in a typical week (full-time):

Hours worked in typical week

Hours worked in typical week

One in eight architects regularly work at least 50 hours per week as standard

More than half of women surveyed (and nearly a quarter of men) say they have experienced discrimination, indirect or direct, during the past year, including sexism, bullying and/or sexual harassment. As shown in last year’s survey, these incidents are more likely to occur in the office than on site. Of women reporting discrimination, half report that they experienced it in practice, and 70% reported bullying in the office. Discrimination most often takes place in meetings – one 32-year-old UK architect describes ‘disgusting comments made about my sex life’ in a room in which she was the only woman. ‘I’ve been hit on by various clients, consultants and management,’ writes a 26-year-old UK architectural assistant, ‘saying no, remaining professional and the pressure of playing it down are not something my male colleagues have to deal with.’

‘I’ve been hit on by various clients, consultants and management … the pressure of playing it down as “no big deal” is not something my male colleagues have to deal with’ - Woman, architectural assistant, aged 26, UK

Sexual harassment is less widespread but, alarmingly, roughly one in seven women participating in the survey report having experienced what is defined as unwanted conduct related to their sex that causes a distressing, humiliating or offensive environment. Many women find these experiences uncomfortable, but they also feel there is little they can do about them. As one 55-year-old American put it: ‘An unwanted touching of a knee under the table, an accident? Nothing that couldn’t be excused or laughed away.’ Most often, women are on the receiving end of inappropriate male banter. As a 45-year-old American administrator writes: ‘I have had to explain to my boss that it’s inappropriate to repeatedly joke about having the clients gang rape me.’

Work balance discrimination

Work balance discrimination

Discrimination bullying

Discrimination bullying

Among women reporting sexual discrimination and bullying, it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by a man or men (83%). While men are also largely cited as the source of bullying (58%), it is notable that four in 10 of those who experienced bullying in the last year say they were bullied by women. The most likely perpetrator is the boss or bosses, named in roughly half of incidents, while peers are named by a third of victims. Clients are also named by more than a third of victims of sexual discrimination, and several women describe being ignored by them: ‘When someone calls up and asks to speak to the owner of the practice, they hang up as I am not a man’, writes a 53-year-old UK director. 

‘I know that, as a man, I am likely often unaware of the myriad, subtle and pernicious ways that discrimination might be present around me, even in my own workplace’ - Man, architect, aged 37, US/Canada

Architectural assistants are especially likely to experience discrimination, bullying and/or harassment. Experiences related in the survey include being excluded, being shouted at, or given impossible tasks. A European architectural assistant, aged 26, describes being told ‘women do not belong in architecture as they bring too much emotion to the subject’, while a 32-year-old UK architect said she ‘had been given stupid tasks to do’ which were presented to her as a ‘challenge’. Several respondents describe being ignored by male managers: ‘My boss ignores the women in the practice and only makes conversation with the men’, writes one UK architectural assistant, aged 24.

Frequency of witnessing sexual discrimination:

Sexual discrimination frequency

Sexual discrimination frequency

Both women and men observe female colleagues being expected to flirt with clients or prepare food and drinks

The survey also asked whether respondents have witnessed any sexual discrimination in the past year, and if so how frequently, by whom and in what setting. Over half of women and a third of men report having witnessed sexual discrimination, such as expecting women to flirt with clients, asking women to prepare food and drink and not male colleagues, and women being ignored or talked over. One administrator says she’s: ‘repeatedly witnessed my boss treat the most senior architect in our office, a woman, like a child’. Again, most of the perpetrators were men. 

Drilling down into the UK responses to the survey shows that when women constitute at least 20% of the management team, the incidence of employees experiencing discrimination, bullying and harassment is half as frequent relative to otherwise similar businesses with all-male management teams. This suggests career progression for women is key to changing the culture of a practice.

But sexism is also revealed by the survey as a barrier to a woman’s advancement. Asked whether their employer provides equal opportunities to men and to women, just over half of women (56%) feel there is equity, compared with over 70% of men. More than 30% of women say their employer favours men, and 10% of men agree. 

Shared responsibility for dependants:

Shared responsibility for dependants

Shared responsibility for dependants

The expectation placed on women to shoulder the burden of caring for dependants is higher than that placed on men

When asked if men and women doing the same work are paid the same by their employer, only 37% of women respondents believe this is the case; 30% think men are paid better, while a third say they do not know. In contrast, two-thirds of men believe there is no gender pay gap in their practice, while only 3% feel men are better rewarded for doing the same job. Very few respondents of either gender thought women are better paid for doing the same work as men. According to the salary information submitted through the survey, there is in fact a pay gap with men earning more at all stages of their architectural career. The fact that two-thirds of men surveyed do not believe this is revealing.

‘Derogatory comments have been made about men taking paternity leave, implying that women should take the burden’ - Woman, architect, aged 31, UK

The survey also highlights institutional and structural issues within the profession that contribute to dissatisfaction among architects, in particular women. Many comment on the long training time required, and the relatively low pay that follows. Among UK respondents, long courses and high fees mean an accumulation of student debt that weighs heavily. According to the survey, the median age architects can expect to fully qualify is eight years after beginning to study architecture, and the median age at qualification is 27, which is relatively old for achieving full professional status – it takes six years to become a solicitor in the UK. 

Age at arrival of first child:

Age at arrival of first child

Age at arrival of first child

Having children later in life will increase the chances of progressing in a career in architecture

The effect of having children on career trajectory:

Effect of having children

Effect of having children

Some women returning to work after being on materninty leave have been denied their previous level of responsibility for years

As a result of the length of training, architectural workers tend to have children relatively late – and the survey appears to show the benefits of delaying parenthood. The median age of women at time of the arrival of their first child is 32, and less than one in 10 had had their first child by 27. (Among men, the median age at the arrival of their first child is 34.) One reason for the delay is the length of time it takes to qualify as an architect. According to the survey, very few women have children before qualifying: among the more than 1,000 UK respondents, only 14 had had children prior to becoming an architect. These 14 women took, on average, 12½ years between starting to study architecture and achieving qualification – four and a half years longer than the average for those without children (a UK mother’s average age at qualification is 34). Interestingly, among mothers based in the UK who have achieved more senior roles (associates, directors, partners and principals), their median age at the birth  of their first child is also 34, two years  older than the average for all women. This suggests that having children later is more beneficial to career advancement. Also notable is that nearly two in five women directors and partner/principals do not have any children. 

Many respondents to the survey believe having dependants can hamper if not halt career progression, in particular because it restricts the ability to work long and irregular hours, and network at evening events. This has an impact on both parents: as a 41-year-old Australian man writes: ‘I haven’t been able to work as much overtime as is necessary to climb the corporate ladder’. 

‘In a sexist, racist system, where opportunities for advancement are few and competitive, some women or minorities, unconscious of their own bias, employ sabotage tactics to undermine colleagues’ - Woman, partner, aged 54, US/Canada

Maternity leave is a flashpoint for women, many of whom report having been made redundant while on maternity leave or shortly after returning to work – one 44-year-old UK architect said she was made redundant twice, both times during pregnancy. Upon returning to work, opportunities and resources are described as withdrawn or restricted. A 36-year-old UK architect writes: ‘Taking time off for maternity leave put me on a back step. When I left for my first child, my partner and I were on the same salary. He is now earning £20,000 per year more than me’. 

Having children is also likely to reduce opportunities to switch between employers, which is a normal route to faster promotion, although some women report finding their way to more ‘child-friendly’ practices. Others have set up on their own to achieve a better work/life balance, although this usually comes at a significant financial cost, as one 48-year-old UK mother explains, ‘I set up my own business so that I could be flexible and look after my daughter. Before that I was a partner in a medium-size practice. I earn less now’. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that most mothers (60%) say having children has had a detrimental effect on their career; this perception was especially high among associates and associate directors.

‘One manager stated: “Well, I had no idea what she (his female boss) meant; it doesn’t matter, she’s just a woman’’’ - Woman, architect, aged 29, UK

The impact of having children is aggravated by the fact that, according to the survey, the burden of caring for dependants, both adult and child, falls disproportionately on women. In the survey, women are twice as likely to report having sole responsibility for dependants and, among those that share responsibility with a partner, nearly 40% of women – compared with just 5% of men – say that they take more than an equal share of responsibility. Almost half of men, meanwhile, admit that while sharing responsibility for their dependants, they do less than an equal share of the caring. Just 8% of women sharing responsibility for dependants do less than an equal share.

Has the building industry fully accepted the authority of the female architect?:

Has the industry accepted the authority

Has the industry accepted the authority

There is a greater acceptance of the authority of women architects by the building industry compared with last year

Is the current system or training in architecture equitable towards men and women?:

Is training equitable

Is training equitable

Training is lengthy and, as a result, many women postpone having children

Another aggravating factor is the long-hour working culture in architecture. In the UK, the number of qualified architects has been growing more rapidly than demand for architectural services, so it is a buyers’ market, both for employers and clients. Architects feel they have little option but to comply with the demands placed upon them, including working long and irregular hours – indeed, working late is often seen as a sign of commitment. As one male respondent puts it: ‘it’s a dog fight once in the profession’. Asked how often they work outside normal office hours, 30% say they work overtime frequently or all the time, while just 6% say never. Of those working full-time, one in eight say they work at least 50 hours in a typical week. Given this, it is perhaps surprising that only two in five survey respondents are dissatisfied with their work/life balance, with women more likely to be dissatisfied than men.

It’s easy to accentuate the negative but, overall, the survey paints a mixed picture. It also shows that many women, probably constituting the majority of respondents, are happy in their work as architects or in architecture more widely. This is a voluntary survey, so there is self-selection among participants and the resulting proportions may be unrepresentative. That said, the responses do provide valuable insight into the experiences of women (and to a lesser extent men) working in architecture and what changes could be made. 

‘A male associate said he was taking a woman colleague on a site inspection because “she was good eye candy”. Being on a temporary contract, she could not stand up to him. We both looked for other jobs because of the incident’ - Woman, administrator, aged 30, Europe

There are no easy solutions, but improvements start with awareness, including of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. Employers also need to be fair and to be seen to be fair, for example, undertaking and publishing pay audits showing no difference in the pay of men and women doing the same job. Past analysis has also shown that women tend to be happier when they can see other women advancing in the practice. There is also a pressing need to find ways of accommodating raising children and career progression by, for example, reducing the amount of out-of-hours work. These concrete steps can be taken by any practice to ensure equal treatment and opportunity, avoid losing talented women to other practices, and make working in architecture a more positive career choice for everyone

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