"The motherhood penalty should be addressed in every architecture practice"

Architecture needs to get serious about addressing the issues that are causing women to leave the profession, writes Grace Choi.

Anyone tired of seeing a lack of diversity at senior levels of practice? Why do we gradually lose women after they have children and why is progress to change this pattern so painfully slow?

Bias and discrimination in architecture take various forms throughout a female architect’s working life, intersecting with and compounded by factors such as race, disability, sexual orientation and social demographics. We need to examine the systemic obstacles that women encounter, which worsen with age and are often ingrained in tradition and habit. How can we create an environment that enables women to stay in the profession for longer?

We are at risk of losing valuable talent, insight and experiences as women progress through their careers

Gender inequality within the architecture profession is not accidental. It is a collective outcome of the decisions we make and the opportunities we create for others to follow. Our universities initially showcase diversity in the early years, but we are at risk of losing valuable talent, insight and experiences as women progress through their careers.

The Architects Registration Board’s (ARB) survey of the profession in 2022 reported that 31 per cent of architects in the UK identify as female. While this figure demonstrates a slow improvement, it remains significantly lower than the UK’s female population, which stands at 51 per cent, according to the 2021 census data. Women are comparatively under-represented in architecture.

Furthermore, female representation decreases with age. ARB data is incomplete, but it indicates that women over 50 make up only a tiny proportion of UK registered architects, while those under 30 are much more prevalent. This striking pattern of loss demands our attention and calls for understanding and intervention.

At Part 1 stage, it’s encouraging to see that female representation is increasing. Over the last five years, more than 50 per cent of all applications have come from female students. The RIBA Education Statistics report indicates that female new entrants to validated Part 1 courses represented 55 per cent of the total in 2020/21.

Even though, overall, female students achieve a higher pass rate at this stage, a lower number later return to commence Part 2. We are not maintaining equal gender representation beyond this point. The percentage of returning female students at Part 2 stage in 2020/21 was 48 per cent.

A significant number of students also take a few years to return to Part 2 studies. The RIBA Students Destinations Survey, carried out from 2012 to 2019, tracked the progression of students from several UK universities. The survey identified a “lack of confidence” as a recurring reason for female students leaving architecture.

Inflexible workplace cultures have failed to accommodate the realities of parenting and caring duties for too long

Statistics show that mothers are less likely to be promoted, less likely to be hired compared to women without children, will earn lower salaries and will be judged to higher standards than fathers or women without children. Coupled with skyrocketing childcare costs, the financial impact of lower salaries often makes it unviable to work for so little financial reward.

The motherhood penalty should be addressed in every architecture practice. The UK government has recently announced childcare reforms, including an increase in funded childcare for children from nine months to three years old, which will potentially provide some additional financial help to mothers who want to return to work.

However, inflexible workplace cultures have failed to accommodate the realities of parenting and caring duties for too long. It’s time to offer flexible working to everyone, parent or not.

Working from home, part-time working, achieving work/life balance does not imply any less commitment, skill or ability. We need to confront the outdated mindset that persistently working long hours is a sign of commitment. It is rather a warning sign of imbalance, encroaching burnout and poor resource planning.

Furthermore, government research has revealed that the long-term financial impact of the motherhood penalty, also combining the impact of lower earnings in comparison to men, results in women’s private pensions being typically worth 35 per cent less than their male colleagues’. Collective efforts of government, employers and the profession must be made to address this issue, from lobbying and campaigning to influencing policy change for equality.

The architecture media celebrates the young architect, defining architects as “up and coming” until the age of 40. We feed a narrative where getting older has negative implications. Being a caregiver or mother can impact career progression and discourages women from staying in the profession. What we need is a change in the definition of success, the value system we perpetuate and, ultimately, the inclusive shape of our practices to create an alternative option to leaving.

We need those in positions of power and influence to set aside self-interest and ego

The Fawcett Society carried out a survey in 2022 revealing that 77 per cent of women experience one or more menopausal symptoms that are “very difficult”. Some 44 per cent of working women said their ability to work was affected. Disabled women were also affected more by menopause symptoms, with 22 per cent leaving work.

As a result, women are leaving their jobs in their thousands. This is an alarming statistic, considering that most women experience the menopause between the ages of 45 and 55 years old, with the peri-menopause beginning earlier.

Disturbingly, 41 per cent of women witnessed the menopause being treated as a joke. Menopause is a natural stage of life and should not be treated as a deficiency or an embarrassment. We need to remove the stigma and shame associated with being female.

Architecture is an art of harmonising many differences, involving a careful choreography of listening, understanding clients’ needs and shaping visions into built forms. As the field rapidly evolves, we need to be courageously adaptive, collaborative and creative. Not only do we need to apply this to the architecture we create, but unashamedly to the way we practise.

We need those in positions of power and influence to set aside self-interest and ego and actively address the trigger points of loss. We are best placed to create a progressive blueprint for the future, to challenge outdated behaviours and actively foster an environment that encourages women to forge ahead in the profession and stay for longer. Let’s get on with it.

A longer version of this essay appeared in the book Inclusion Emergency: Diversity in Architecture, edited by Hannah Durham and Grace Choi and published by RIBA in June 2024. Choi is the founder of Grace Choi Architecture, co-chair of RIBA North East and a member of the RIBA Journal editorial panel.

The photo is by WOCInTech via Unsplash.

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