Let’s Talk About Sex

“Women in architecture” is getting more publicity than ever, however are we tackling the root of the issue or simply helping the discrimination in the workplace by singling women out?

This article was originally written for 2018 International Women’s Day.
International Women’s Day is upon us and across the industries equal pay and opportunities have been the hot topic. AJ has been publishing a ‘Women In Architecture’ Issue with a dedicated a page on their website to report on “women related architectural news.” Architecture had its own version of “Me Too” movement; #seetheelephant in MIPIM and RIBA held a ladies luncheon, for example. Practices took photos of all their women employees to post on Instagram and like every valid struggle, this too has been appropriated for marketing purposes. Under the new mandatory rules passed by the government, practices have to announce their gender pay gap to be named and shamed. However, what exactly these numbers mean is still somewhat ambiguous. Is it a comparison between the average wage of female employers and male employers regardless of what their role is? Or is it a comparison between male and female employees doing the same job with same length of experience? Is categorising all “women architects” into one really the way forward? Naming “best women architect”, publishing “women-related-news-only content” under a separate category? If we are not categorising Ruskin, Foster and Venturi together why are we categorising Jacobs, Denise Scott Brown and Hadid together under one hat? This is only one example of the numerous “10 buildings that women designed and it actually is good” kind of articles that have been published in the design media. Dorte Mandrup in an interview has excellently pointed out how she is not a “female architect”- she is an architect. Even this seems to miss the point with most and she has been criticised for being from Denmark and not understanding the struggles of women outside the Scandinavian area where society is not as fair. But if it is indeed Scandinavian standards we are seeking, why not start with adopting the Scandinavian way of thinking? As a woman, I do not feel comfortable to be hired for simply being one. Put under the pressure to up their female employee numbers, this is a very real probability that can occur in some practices. We should seek fair treatment, not discrimination. What we should be doing is to look at why the disparity in numbers exist.  It’s all too well for the government to point the finger at the practices but has anyone heard what the practices are saying? There aren’t equal number of women and men in senior positions. Now, could the explanation to this solely be that every office out there is sexist and doesn’t let women rise? I do not think so. Some architects say that it is because in the generation of architects before us there were less women and hence the numbers will improve with the new generation rising up. However, this too misses one of the biggest reasons why less women are found at senior levels or even generally in the profession compared to men. It is because women still often have to choose between their careers or family. The length of the architectural education means that if a woman wants to have kids at the “medically preferable age of before 30”, she would either postpone her studies or have kids right at the beginning of her career. This means being left behind their male peers. If she does decide to go onto practice right away without having kids, she would have to wait to become more senior as it is not possible to look after kids with the long hours and little pay. Most women I have seen in the workplace had their first kids in their 40s, after becoming a director. Nearly no one in their 30s were married in the London office I worked in, most still trying to become architects and living in shared flats as it is the only way to afford a rent in London on an architect’s salary. This problem is due to number of issues, the unreasonable length and pressure of the architectural life being one. The other reason is the still prevalent idea that women are the solely responsible party in raising a child. I was at one of the “Women in Architecture” series talks where the guest was Farshid Moussavi. The woman interviewing her at some point asked, “How do you balance being a mother and work?” She said, “Probably not very well” and blushed a little. I’ve never heard of a male professional being invited to talk about his work asked that question. Why then, is this personal question asked to women? Is it because it is not enough for women to be successful at what she does, she also needs to prove that she is a good mother? Perhaps, we should start asking the question “how do you balance being a dad and work?” to men. Let’s see if they will blush. It is this thinking that is reflected in the regulations regarding maternity and paternity leave. Whilst the mother gets 52 weeks of maternity leave, the father only gets 1 or 2. With childcare in the UK being the most expensive in the OECD countries, most mothers end up being a stay at home parent until their kids are older. This, of course, is not only a problem specific to architecture, however is heightened by the unreasonable hours architects are expected to work. We definitely should not ignore discrimination and harassment in workplace and we should speak out about it. These should not be tolerated. However, perhaps, before demanding top down solutions and pointing fingers at practices, governments and RIBA can do with self-evaluation in their regulations that is stuck behind its time. Meanwhile, good place for us designers to start can be to stop using the term “female architect”. Also, maybe, by not painting the elephants pink and throwing ladies luncheons… It’s not the 1800s, we can go out for dinners.