Female architects face the mother of all inequality problems

Denise Chevin at Building Designs explains why juggling an architectural career with motherhood is not getting any easier.

Can women have it all? The issue of combining work and family life has resurfaced in the last few days. The EU has been debating whether to introduce quotas for women in the boardroom; Nick Clegg’s been talking about the coalition’s plans to allow men to take some of women’s maternity leave, after a survey found that mothers felt sidelined at work; and then of course there’s the return of the wonderful Danish TV heroine Birgitte Nyborg, showing what an impossible dream it all is.

The problem of juggling motherhood with architecture is one reason why the number of women in the profession remains low in the UK. Statistics from the schools of architecture show that around half of part I graduates are female; but in the RIBA Business Benchmarking Survey 2012/13, women make up only 25% of fee-earners and just 12% of equity partners and shareholder-directors in practices.

Architecture is not alone in this regard — but compare it with being a GP and you can see who gets the better deal. Female medics generally work more civilised hours, they earn nearly twice as much (which helps cover childcare), there’s not the rollercoaster of the market to contend with and, when you turn up for a meeting, you’re not likely to be the only woman in the room.

For the first time this year, BD’s world architecture survey, WA100, asked practices for a breakdown of their staff by gender. The results are published next month so I won’t give away numbers. But what came across from the women I spoke to was what an emotionally complex and deeply personal issue it is.

Of course it helps to be better paid and have the choice of part-time and flexible working arrangements; but even where childcare was more affordable, and the political climate geared to being more family-friendly, there still seemed to be a dearth of women at the top.

One woman partner in Denmark said that, for those with drive, it was possible to climb the ladder without working all hours… but added that, when architects become mothers, they often lose that ambition.

A female partner in the UK felt women could be their own worst enemies, striving for perfection when it wasn’t necessary or being too timid in not standing up for their rights.

So women may need to be bolder. But if the profession wants to see more women at the helm then it needs to do more to nurture and retain female talent.

New mothers don’t really need quotas, they need a champion who cuts them slack, helps restore their lost confidence and gives them a leg up over the practical problems that inevitably arrive with a baby. Perhaps with the economy picking up, women might feel more able to strike a deal that also suits them better — let’s hope so.

I feel lucky having worked in a profession where being pregnant wasn’t considered a crime, as it still is in some architects’ offices. But like most working women, I’ve had to make some tough choices and have often been riddled with guilt as I’ve missed bedtime three nights in a row.

Feeling contented that you’ve struck the perfect balance is always going to be elusive for any working mother.

Original article can be viewed at: http://www.bdonline.co.uk/comment/opinion/female-architects-face-the-mother-of-all-inequality-problems/5064239.article.

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