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Female architects respond to gender survey: "It's getting better but far too slowly"

After our survey revealed a lack of gender diversity in the world's biggest architecture firms, five prominent female architects from the UK gave us their views on what's gone wrong and how it can be changed.

The survey, which looked at the 100 biggest firms from around the globe, revealed that only one in 10 senior positions are occupied by women, and that 16 per cent of firms have no women in their management teams.

We shared the results of the survey with five high-achieving women who run their own small or medium-sized firms.

Sadie Morgan, co-founder of dRMM and winner of this year's Stirling Prize, said she was "disappointed" by the findings. "My hope is that it shows a lag in the rise of women to the top of our profession rather than a full stop."

"Women architects are not being recognised in these large commercial firms, which is a loss for both," said Angela Brady, director at London studio Brady Mallalieu Architects and past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Dara Huang, head of architecture studio Design Haus Liberty, said the survey showed that large firms are "old-school in their thinking".

However Amanda Levete, founder and principal at AL_A said she was optimistic for the future. "Our government is led by a woman, as is our police force and our fire brigade," she said. "It can't be long before the conversation about gender in architecture becomes irrelevant."

"It is improving," agreed Jane Duncan, director at Jane Duncan Architects and past president of the RIBA. "There are more and more savvy young women architects coming into the workforce. Once some break through the glass ceiling they become role models for others on their way up. It's inevitable."

But things are improving at a glacial pace and larger practices effectively have a glass ceiling in place, preventing women from rising to senior positions, they feel. One of the key reasons for this is an outdated attitude to childcare, which women are expected to do alone, according to the architects.

"The most obvious reason for losing senior woman is their choice to leave work to have children midway through their career," said Morgan. "We have to be much better as a profession to offer a culture where women can return to work and balance childcare with a demanding professional career. It's totally possible and there are many good examples of practices who do so."

Yet all agreed that firms that do not strive to improve their gender balance will increasingly be viewed as out of touch and will lose out commercially.

"Men are not any better at design and management than women," said Brady. "Women are very good negotiators and listen well to clients to develop the brief for the best type of architectural outcome. Men and women working together and sharing their skills make the best architecture."


What does our survey reveal about attitudes to gender balance in architecture today?

Sadie Morgan: I am always disappointed to read surveys that show such a disparity of female to male representation at a senior level. There is enough credible evidence now showing that a better and more diverse senior team makes for a more successful business. It seems counter-intuitive for practices to continue with an outdated mode of working and not try to address this issue.

Angela Brady: Women architects are not being recognised in these large commercial firms, which is a loss for both. The day-to-day business of architecture, particularly in these large firms, is very competitive and men are simply better at putting themselves forward in competitive situations, where being pushy is rewarded with salary increases and job promotion. They are regarded as more ambitious.

However research in the US has shown that having more women at board level and at the top of firms brings in more business and makes for a more friendly working atmosphere and, I would add, better and more thoughtful design outcomes. Certainly of the many boards and advisory panels that I have sat on, the level of conversation has been better when there have been more women.

Many of the men in these large firms leave the majority of the child rearing to their other halves, thus preventing the women from earning promotion. Men need to accept their fair share of child-raising duties. They need to be encouraged to do this by their firm and by society as this is one area that holds women back.

Firms need to recognise that for a very short period in the life of an architect, children's needs can make a temporary change to their work-life balance. But as an architect works for 40 years on average, and they get better with age, it is foolish not to support them for a short career break.

It is no wonder that most women choose to work for smaller firms with a better working environment or set up on their own or with a few colleagues.

Dara Huang, head of Design Haus Liberty, said the survey showed that large firms are "old-school in their thinking"

Dara Huang: It doesn't surprise me that progressive cities with higher gender equality such as Stockholm show a greater gender balance, because there are more government incentives to help women go back into the workforce.

I experienced similar equalities working in China, where childcare is very accessible and there was no stigma attached to pregnancy. Also it doesn't surprise me that Japan leads the way in zero women at the top levels because again, culturally women in Japan are expected to leave their jobs when they are pregnant, and if they don't they are fired immediately. I use to live there and it's a very sexually segregated culture with huge gender discrimination.

I think that making changes in the workforce needs to start with a cultural shift and also government support, otherwise it's virtually impossible to be a working mother when the typical architect in London gets paid circa £40,000 and a live-in nanny is £30,000.

There is this fear that if a company hires a women in her mid 30s, she's going to disappear for a decade to have children. They don't realise that's because they have not set up a system that gives women more choices.

What management needs to do instead is to create flexibilities and build long-term relationships with their female staff. And men and women could be equally committed to childcare and receive equal pay.

Amanda Levete: My experience of being a woman in architecture today is an extremely positive one. I've been in practice now for over 30 years and seen huge changes for the better during that time. Personally, I've never encountered any barriers to practice and the women starting their careers at AL_A will never be prevented from fulfilling their potential. The message I want to project is that there is no limit to achievement in our discipline for anyone.

At AL_A, the gender balance is close to 50/50, as it is at director level. We've certainly had more women applying to work with us in the last few years, although interestingly they have been almost exclusively from the EU. I do think having a good gender balance in the office encourages more women to apply and having two female directors probably makes a difference too.

We always take the very best people, so widening the pool of talent available can only be positive. I'm proud of everyone who works here – as a studio, we've never been more productive and creative, and balance plays a part in that.

The majority of people at AL_A are relatively young – they are making London their home and starting families. So creating a supportive culture is very important, but it is a culture not driven by gender.

I'm optimistic for the future. Our government is led by a woman, as is our police force and our fire brigade. It can't be long before the conversation about gender in architecture becomes irrelevant.

Jane Duncan: I suspect it is no surprise to women in architecture that the survey has revealed such a dearth sure of women at the top of these large companies. It takes years, decades probably, for bright young women architects to be recognised and assisted to reach the upper echelons, and then only with the backing of proper proportionate equity policies, embedded within practices.

It also takes bright management to understand that their companies will prosper if these positive policies are not just created and nodded at but acted upon in mind, spirit and body by all staff.

Sadie Morgan, co-founder of dRMM and winner of this year's Stirling Prize, said she was "disappointed" by the findings

Does the lack of women at the top of architecture firms imply there is a glass ceiling in operation?

Jane Duncan: Of course it does. In the past, and in some cases in the present, firms without flexible people-friendly policies inadvertently or blatantly discourage equity of participation and seek board members like themselves – i.e. men. This will change only when these firms see others with better attitudes doing better financially.

Sadie Morgan: My hope is that it shows a lag in the rise of women to the top of our profession rather than a full stop. Since I entered the profession 22 years ago, I have seen a steady increase in the number of female graduates, architects and women in senior positions. I would suggest that we need to find ways of accelerating that trend. If there is a glass ceiling in place, the best way to break it is by the sheer pressure of numbers pushing from underneath.

Angela Brady: To me, the lack of women at the top implies a prejudice within firms, which is easy to spot. So my advice to the larger firms is to redress the balance and add talented women architects to your senior levels. You will benefit in many ways. If you don't, you will be regarded as old fashioned and not great people to do business with.

Dara Huang: Yes I do think that there is an unspoken attitude towards women in the workforce. It's a ceiling that is set by the culture of each individual practice though and there are ways to break away from it. I noticed that practices run by men will have more men in the practice at various levels, while practices led by women such as mine or Amanda Levete's have more women.

What practices don't realise is that they can set examples. If they promote a woman who exudes confidence, this becomes inspirational for other women to step up and have their voices heard. I've had women who've worked for me saying that I've changed their perceptions of themselves. I have also have many female role models who have inspired me in my career, including Farshid Moussavi and Christine Binswanger [senior partner at Herzog & de Meuron]. These women walked, dressed and exuded confidence, which had a knock-on effect on me.

I try and set that example to the women I work with now because it's such a male-dominated industry. It's important to find that voice within and it does take practice – I wasn't always so confident in my twenties. We should embrace our differences as a positive force and learn how to be empowered by gender rather than being pushed back by it. I think we're coming to a point where personality creates a brand and it's much better to be unique and stand out than to melt into the status quo.

Angela Brady, director at Brady Mallalieu Architects and past president of the RIBA, said the lack of recognition for women in large firms is a loss for both parties

What are the reasons for the increasing gender imbalance the higher you go up a company's hierarchy?

Dara Huang: Probably because the top 100 practices are old-school in their thinking. For some offices it might take generations before we see gender equality taking place. It's not that women are less capable; it's a cultural attitude thinking that women and mothers are ineffective employees, are less committed or not as strong. This further shuts out women in the organisation.

Sadie Morgan: The most obvious reason for losing senior woman is their choice to leave work to have children midway through their career. We have to be much better as a profession to offer a culture where women can return to work and balance childcare with a demanding professional career. It's totally possible and there are many good examples of practices who do so.

Angela Brady: An old-fashioned attitude to women and equality, lack of judgment and prejudice against promoting women. As more women enter the profession there should be more in senior positions, but it needs a change of attitude and maybe a campaign to promote it.

Jane Duncan: This doesn't happen in all firms of course. But attrition has long been an issue preventing promotion. A long-hours and poor-pay culture just doesn't work for most people, and particularly women who still handle the majority of childcare or indeed any care. This results in huge numbers of women leaving the profession when they start having families, or ageing parents to care for. If they are not helped proactively to stay in touch, keep their skills up and be encouraged to step back in when it suits them, they will not return.

Amanda Levete, founder and principal at AL_A, said she was optimistic for the future

How can this be changed?

Jane Duncan: This is simply a business imperative. Firms spend fortunes training staff in their working methods, establishing collaborative working relationships with colleagues and clients. It costs huge amounts to find replacement staff and lots of time to train up successors. These firms just need to appreciate that staff who are appreciated and treated well, irrespective of gender or any other consideration will be loyal and productive.

Angela Brady: Promote women to board level. It's easy. Make more women associates and partners at the next office meeting. Workforce diversity says a lot about who you are as a practice and clients are taking notice of this. There are also more women clients giving out work than ever before.

It is no surprise that many successful small practices are those in husband-wife relationships where there is equality and mutual respect and support. Also women leaders like Grafton Architects' Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara or indeed Zaha Hadid, who fought hard to be recognised in a man's world by producing world-class architecture.

But things are changing slowly for the better, with more women graduating than ever before. Women now make up 25 per cent of architects in practice.

Men are not any better at design and management than women. Women are very good negotiators and listen well to clients to develop the brief for the best type of architectural outcome. Men and women working together and sharing their skills make the best architecture.

Ask for a pay rise if you think or know a man at the same level is being paid more than you. Don't be afraid to check this out and ask. Men have no problem asking. Shout about how good you are – the lads don't hold back! Help more women coming through the ranks by encouraging and supporting them. Be a mentor to boost their confidence.

If you feel you have been overlooked for promotion, ask a director for an explanation and threaten to move on if it continues and you will be appreciated elsewhere. If there is ever sexism in your office, confront it immediately. Report it and ask management to deal with it ASAP. There is no place for sexism in any office today.

Dara Huang: I think change is closer to us than we know it. We don't have to wait for laws to pass or generations of people to replace current management. Heads of companies should come up with strategic ways to make both sexes more equal in the three pillars which segregate us: childcare, pay and support.

Upper management is usually older and therefore either have families or will have families soon. Therefore it's more male-dominated because women had to make choices about their careers based on their family. If men and woman are entitled to the same paternity/maternity leave and the same pay, then change will inevitably happen. Also I think that women should have female mentors and be able to have someone in the field they can use as a role model. Perhaps more female organisations in large corporates and support systems is a good idea.

Sadie Morgan: As a profession, we need to set a precedent in which we highlight best practice. Embedding the importance of diversity at the early stage of every project, brief and commission in the studio. But it's not just practices that need to work harder. From speaking engagements to articles, juries to panels, the industry must make sure that all aspects are representative of a wider and more diverse workforce. We have to lead by example.

Jane Duncan, director at Jane Duncan Architects and past president of the RIBA, said that the situation is improving

Do you think things are getting better or worse?

Sadie Morgan: It's getting better but far too slowly. Every new survey shows an inability for the profession to act quickly, we need to be light on our feet and adapt quicker.

Angela Brady: Things are getting better slowly. But in a recession, women get hit the hardest. So with Brexit on the horizon, improvements may slow again, although I hope not.

Jane Duncan: It is improving. There are more and more savvy young women architects coming into the workforce. Once some break through the glass ceiling they become role models for others on their way up. It's inevitable.

Dara Huang: If you look at history, it's obviously much better than before. But I'd be interested to see how steep the curve on progression actually is, because it does feel as if it has flat-lined. I wouldn't be pessimistic about it though because again I realise it's a culture that's been hundreds of years in the making, and it only takes a few progressive thought leaders to fix it in their own office environment, not just in architecture but in all professions.