Dezeen Magazine

BIG's only female partner defends company's gender balance after Instagram attack

Sheela Maini Søgaard, the only woman among the 12 partners at BIG, has spoken out about the architecture firm's male-female balance after a social media backlash.

Søgaard defended the diversity at BIG after founder Bjarke Ingels posted a photograph on Instagram of all 12 partners, captioned "BIG BOYS&GIRL" – highlighting the gender imbalance at partner level.

She said that 50 per cent of BIG's managers are women, and 60 per cent of its directors are female. In total, across both the firm's New York, London and Copenhagen offices, staff are 40 per cent female.

"Gender equality and equal opportunity is something that is truly central to how we think about leadership at BIG," she told Dezeen.

Ingels' photograph – taken at VIA 57 West, the firm's tetrahedral tower in New York – was shared with his 273,000 Instagram followers and attracted 126 comments.

Some criticised BIG for the lack of women, while others defended the firm and suggested it was indicative of an industry with a huge gender gap.


A post shared by Bjarke ingels (@bjarkeingels) on

"Where are all the female architects gone? At home with kids and husband after their frustrated work experience in the architectural world?" asked a commenter called Fischer_nada.

Another commenter, Keiruuhhh, wrote: "It's not cute, nothing to be proud of. Either their unconscious biases prevent them from hiring qualified women, or there isn't really a pipeline of women in design."

But according to Søgaard, gender equality is pivotal to the way BIG operates. She claimed that, although she is the only female partner, the firm is admirable in promoting equal opportunities for women.

"I personally, along with the rest of my partners at BIG, have dedicated much time and focus in these past years to fostering and promoting female talent," she said.

"I feel confident in having created a pipeline of diverse talent, which is the best insurance for diversity trickling up into the partner group."

BIG ranked at number two on the inaugural Dezeen Hot List – a countdown of the most newsworthy names in architecture and design.

Sheela Maini Søgaard has been with BIG since 2008. Her background is in business development, and her role is general management with a particular focus on finances.

She said that BIG's retention rates are, on average, higher for female staff than for male staff, because the firm enforces exemplary wage equality and maternity/paternity leave policies – among the "best in the industry".

"Securing an equal opportunity workplace is an ongoing effort and we are committed to developing our team to match our inherent conviction that talent resides in equal measures and quantities across genders, ages and races," she said.

"We acknowledge that this is a conversation not to be undertaken lightly or briefly, and one that requires time and collective effort from individual, corporate, institutional and governmental levels."

The lack of women continues to be a major issue in the architecture industry, particularly women in senior positions.

The recent Women in Architecture survey revealed that men are paid more than women across the board and pay disparity is widening.

David Adjaye is among a number architects that have spoken out about the issue. On the day that so-called Women's Marches took place internationally, Adjaye said the industry still doesn't provide the same opportunities for both sexes.

Similarly, the American Institute of Architects came under attack recently for the lack of female keynote speakers at its annual conference.