Dezeen Magazine

Are we making it worse for women in architecture? asks Christine Murray

"By highlighting the problems faced by women in architecture, are we making it worse?"

Campaigning for equality in architecture is at its peak, says Christine Murray, so why is the number of women in the profession still going down?

It's possible that all the talk about women in architecture is making things worse. I realise that's a radical statement coming from me.

Since founding the Women in Architecture survey and awards back in 2012 to raise awareness about gender inequality in architecture, I've written an acreage of editorial on the pay gap and sex discrimination. Sitting in The Savoy for the seventh annual Women in Architecture Awards last week, watching Liz Diller pick up the Jane Drew Prize lifetime achievement award, it felt like we'd reached peak woke.

So imagine my shock to learn, after five years of steady improvement, that the number of women in architecture has dropped by a staggering 10.3 per cent, according to statistics released by the UK government's Creative Industries report by the Department for Culture Media and Sport.

Stranger still, architecture is the only creative industry that lost women as a percentage. Compare that to film and television, and the tech industry, which both posted a 10 per cent gain in women employed.

Have we put women off architecture as a career choice?

The UK is not the only country facing a drop. Poland and Croatia also faced a five per cent fall in women architects, according to the Architects Council of Europe. The percentage of female architects is not tracked annually in either Australia or the United States, so I can't tell how women are faring there.

But in Germany and Italy, where most European architects are based, there were gains of four and two per cent respectively, while Sweden is up by a whopping 12 per cent – architects there are now 58 per cent female.

So, what's the reason for the UK set-back?

Campaigning has never been louder, so I thought it might be the result of bad publicity. Media campaigns, including Dezeen's Move the Needle initiative, have kept equal pay, promotion and recognition consistently on the agenda. From the Guardian to the New York Times, the trouble with gender and architecture is a news feature that recurs with surprising regularity.

Have we put women off architecture as a career choice? The figures say no; female applicants to architecture school have hit a record high at just over 18,000 - a rise of five per cent and a boost of 38 per cent since 2013, according to ACAS, which processes university admissions.

So if it isn't a drop in entrants, then exits must be accelerating. What can be happening that sees more women leaving? In raising awareness about the pay gap, sexual harassment and bullying, have we normalised it? By writing about it, have I even personally, accidentally, in a Trump kind-of-way, promoted it?

This phenomenon has been observed in white supremacy and terrorism, where media outrage inadvertently leads to a rise in recruitment. What if the more we talk about unequal pay, practices feel that it's acceptable, even the norm?

The campaign for change might have inadvertently encouraged a culture of benevolent sexism

It's not a crazy idea, when you consider initial analysis of the UK's mandatory gender pay gap reporting. The government mandate, introduced last year, requires firms with more than 250 employees to publish their male-female wage gap. Early analysis by the BBC has shown that four in 10 private companies' pay gaps actually widened since first reporting last year. Transparency and public shaming haven't made the pay gap go away – at some firms, it's made it worse.

Another possibility is that the campaign for change has inadvertently encouraged a culture of benevolent sexism. This dangerous form of discrimination is not easy to recognise, especially when compared to hostile sexism, because it offers short-term benefits.

Benevolent sexism is when someone positively reinforces gender stereotypes. For example, a boss may feel protective of women employees or idealise their role as mothers. In the context of the campaign for equality, a benevolent sexist might openly support initiatives to protect women from harsh working conditions or promote work/life balance.

Studies have described benevolent sexism as insidious because at first it seems like a good thing: the boss brings in part-time working, for example, but only for mothers. Initially, the women feel supported; but ultimately they've been trapped in a stereotypical gender role – that of principal caregiver.

That part-time job might then disqualify mothers from pay rises or advancement in the practice. The sexist boss thinks he's saving the mothers from promotion to a more stressful position that involves long hours or travel. "It subtly suffocates gender equality by keeping women in occupational 'gender ghettos'," wrote Ivona Hideg and D Lance Ferris in their research paper The Compassionate Sexist?.

Or, if you're the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), benevolent sexism might mean hosting a cookery course to celebrate International Woman's Day, an event cancelled for today after being called out on social media and in a letter signed by prominent architects.

At least the RIBA called it off – one of the challenges of confronting benevolent sexism is that employers struggle to recognise where they've gone wrong. They may not have considered how a cookery course reinforces the gender stereotype of woman as home economist. They probably just thought women would like it.

Celebrating the work of women in architecture is nothing to be embarrassed about

In my new role as editor-in-chief of The Developer, I've met a few benevolent sexists in real estate. They show great sympathy towards mothers and refer to all women as ladies or girls. It's a challenge to confront it, because they're oblivious – benevolent sexism has got muddled up with antiquated ideas about what constitutes good manners.

All this makes running a campaign for gender equality a tightrope walk. If misconstrued as a call for special treatment, any initiative could reinforce sexist notions that women are weak and need protection or help.

As a result, I've started celebrating women instead. As a member of Part W, we called for nominations for an alternative Royal Gold Medal to recognise influential women in architecture past and present.

I can't find any research to discourage heralding the achievements of women. There are papers that call for equal recognition, reflecting on how "when awards show a gender gap, the implication is that men and women are valued differently by society". I hope promoting figures such as Lina Bo Bardi and Jane Jacobs inspire women to persist in their work.

But not everyone feels as certain about the value of awards: at the Women in Architecture luncheon, amidst the speeches, there was some self-conscious naval gazing about whether the awards should exist at all.

The party line was that they were, "sadly, needed". That irked me. The idea that women need their own special awards is benevolent sexism in itself. We don't "need" them. We don't "need" the Oscar for best female actor either.

Clearly I'm biased here, but it was hard to imagine these words blurted out about the Woman's Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize), which proudly recognises female fiction writers.

Celebrating the work of women in architecture is nothing to be embarrassed about. It's neither sad, nor needy.

If these dour statistics prove anything, the recognition of independence, strength and creativity, not more hand-wringing, is what's needed most.

Photo is by Brodie Vissers.