Architects: last of the die-hard sexists Elitism lurks behind liberal facade

Joanna Watt
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:02

ARCHITECTURE is one of the last bastions of male elitism. While other professions, including medicine and the law, are now the preserve of both men and women, the architect is nearly always a man. According to a new survey, a mere 9 per cent of B ritain's 30,000 architects are women.

Research published in the latest edition of the monthly magazine Perspectives on Architecture reveals that at the top of the profession,the dominance of men is even more marked. Of 24 leading architectural practices it questioned, only one had appointed a woman as a senior associate and only three had women partners or directors. The figures appear particularly low when architecture, once considered a liberal profession, is compared to more conservative ones. Today, 30 per cent of doctors are women, as are 31 per cent of solicitors.

"Architecture is riddled with sexism," said one woman architect. "Women are not regarded as people who can take the strain." Women who have surmounted the odds and become successful architects blame the chauvinism of the wolf-whistling construction industry as well as traditional architectural working practices for the dearth of female architects.

They say that lengthy professional training deters many women from choosing architecture as a career. "By the time you are qualified, you are about 27,'' said one woman architect. "A few years later your biological clock is ticking and you haven't even had time to establish yourself as an architect.''

The profession's practices, such as the tradition of staying at the drawing board as deadlines approach until the early hours of the morning, also conflict with women's family commitments.

Concern about the difficulties which women face in the architectural profession have been highlighted by the case of the Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, who won the competition to design the new Cardiff Opera House. Her design also won substantial plaudits from architectural critics.

But Ms Hadid then suffered the indignity of having her design put to one side while the selection panel made the unprecedented decision to ask her competition rivals Sir Norman Foster and Manfredi Nicoletti to re-submit their own plans. Ms Hadid has blamed the selection panel's failure to back her on racism and sexism.

Sir Norman Foster's own practice employs just three women out of 100 architects. Richard Rogers Partnership, award-winning architects of the Lloyds building, employs 11 women out of 55 architects.

Nancy Cogswell, an architect who now runs her own firm, believes architectural schools are partly to blame for not preparing women for the sexism they will inevitably encounter. Although 23 per cent of architectural students are women the drop-out rate is so high that fewer than 10 per cent of architects registered in Britain are female.

"There's no doubt that men have more initial credibility and don't have to prove themselves at the outset. Women, by contrast, have to demonstrate their competence at once, " said Ms Cogwell.

The survey reveals that architecture makes few allowances for women who take career breaks to have children. "Women are seen as a risk. If they are going to take time off, it's assumed they aren't committed to their jobs," said Jacqueline Davies of the GMW Partnership.

If women do take a break, it is almost impossible for them to return to the same position. "Career breaks set you back. Because of rapid technological advances, there is a great deal of ground to be regained," said Sally Kirk Walker, author of Women Architects, a report commissioned by the Women Architects Committee of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and York University.

Nigel Woolner, senior partner with Chapman Taylor Partners, acknowledges that women can face problems in forging careers: "Organising part-time work is difficult with live projects." Patty Hopkins, who with her husband Michael Hopkins designed the highly-praised Mound Stand at Lord's Cricket Ground and the new Glyndebourne Opera House, is wary of introducing legislation designed specifically to help women. "I know, as an employer, that measures like flexitime don't work with deadlines."

Women have launched schemes to promote architecture as a profession for women. Gail Waldman, an architect, founded Women as Role Models four years ago to encourage schoolgirls to enter the construction industry. Women In Construction Alliance was formed in 1993 to "bring about equality for women in construction" and three universities - North London, South Bank and Liverpool - run "Access Courses" in architecture to encourage women.

But the onus for providing equal opportunities, say women, must come from RIBA. Unlike the Law Society and the Royal College of General Practitioners, RIBA has yet to adopt an equal opportunities or sexual discrimination policy.

Two years ago the institute's women's steering committee recommended in a report that RIBA should adopt policies to help working mothers, prepare a "good practice guide", promote the work of women architects and ensure that suitable schemes of professional indemnity insurance and CPD (continuous professional development) are available. So far, none of the measures have been implemented. Last night RIBA president Frank Duffy pledged that he was "prepared to do anything" to encourage more women architectural partners.

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