A Quest for Equality
This spring, Eileen Gray’s life as a pioneering modernist architect in the 1920s and 30s is explored in a new film, The Price of Desire. But for decades until she was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1970s, her achievements, including the iconic E-1027 house in the south of France, went largely unrecognised. Le Corbusier’s defacing of its walls with murals when he stayed there as a guest said it all.
Nearly a century on, how much has really changed for women in architecture? On the face of it, a huge amount. Nowadays coming up for half – 43% – of all architecture students are women. There are plenty of high-profile women in academia, such as Sarah Wigglesworth and Irena Bauman, as well as in practice, notably Alison Brooks, Farshid Moussavi, Amanda Levete and Sheila O’Donnell to name just a few. In the last decade, three women have been elected RIBA president. And of course there is Zaha – surely the most famous living architect on the planet. Like Beyoncé, her surname long ago became unnecessary.
And yet that’s not the whole story by a long way, as the Architect’s Journal (AJ) discussed in its recent Women in Architecture awards and survey. While student representation may be healthy, women continue to drop disproportionately out of the profession after their studies and as they progress in practice. As a result, only around 15% of RIBA members are women, the percentage dropping as seniority rises. Norman Foster, no less, said recently that overlooking the talent and skill that women bring to architecture is shortsighted. But it is clearly still rife.
The AJ survey gives some insight into why women are not staying in the profession. Some 76% of respondents said they had experienced sexism at work, and 41% reported bullying, tellingly not so much on site but from clients and colleagues. The gender pay gap, though closing, is still there, especially at more senior levels. There are signs, however, that this is a generational issue – the trend is certainly moving in the right direction, just very, very slowly. Meanwhile, the flow of women out of the profession continues, along with, says the AJ, a significant trend for women to leave large practices, with a sense of defeat, to work for smaller firms with less rigid working cultures.
Why is this still happening? The answer is no secret: a combination of the family-hostile long-hours working culture that still prevails throughout the profession along with the reality of childcare responsibilities falling disproportionately to women rather than men. In the AJ survey, 87% of respondents said that having children disadvantaged them in the profession, but 87% felt it didn’t disadvantage men. Women architects who return from maternity leave and feel their position has been eroded often have little recourse to assistance when they are most vulnerable – unlike teachers, this is not a strongly unionised profession.
Faced with these circumstances, having more control over your working environment by setting up on your own is bound to be highly tempting, however drastic the move might be. According to the AJ survey, some 19% women architects set up on their own after having children compared with 13% in the previous year’s survey, presumably in order to find a more family-friendly way of working.
Over a couple of decades of writing about architecture and design, I have been greatly heartened to see a significant increase in the number of practices set up by women. The rise of women-run or co-run practices is a huge positive, and I suspect is the best way forward for women architects wanting some semblance of work/life balance.
But while plenty of women architects set up on their own for the same reason as men do – to have more control over their work as well as their working culture – not everyone wants to run their own practice, and this should not be the only way to continue working. Plenty want to retain the opportunity to work on the large-scale projects found at large practices. It’s a huge shame that many feel that there is no alternative but to move away.
Clearly what’s needed is for these large practices to make the change and provide a working culture with more family-friendly hours – one that is therefore better for everyone whether man or woman, parent or not. While this is of course far easier said than done, it is more possible now than ever before as mobile technology drives the growing acceptance of out-of-office working. It’s a chicken and egg situation: there need to be far more women at the top of large firms in the first place to lead by example.
Even when they are practice partners, women architects can still get a raw deal when it comes to acknowledgment of their role. Just last year. the BBC series The Brits Who Built the Modern World was criticised for paying little attention to the significant contributions of Patty Hopkins, Wendy Cheeseman and Su Rogers; instead focusing on their husbands.
With women in architecture no longer a rarity, I’m a little wary of the idea of Urbanistas, the exhibition on women working in urban design, now on at the Roca Gallery in London. Many of the practices featured are high profile, such as Alison Brooks Architects and Muf Architecture/Art. Is it useful to group them together simply because they are women working in urban design? Is that really still such a novelty? Sadly, for many visitors to the show especially those outside the profession, it probably still is. And while this remains the case, perhaps there is still a reason to showcase their work separately, and in doing so, promote these women making their name in urban design as role models.
But as good as it is to celebrate the work of women architects in awards and exhibitions, I look forward to the day when such segregated occasions, however interesting, don’t need to exist. Nearly 40 years after Eileen Gray’s death and well over a century after women were first allowed into the RIBA, we’re still waiting.