Rather than just ‘celebrating’ women through social media posts, leaders in architecture need to implement real change, writes Siri Zanelli

Siri Zanelli cropped

Siri Zanelli

8 March is the day when every architectural studio with a social media presence and a conscience digs into its company image folders to post images of the women that work for them in order to“celebrate” them.

“Look, our industry has women.”

The majority of them are often Part 2s and 3s. Tricky subjects like the pay gap or whether they will be able to hang in there if they have children, or struggle through their menopause, or have an elderly relative to care for, or simply want to have a life, and not just a career, are best not discussed. Your Instagram feed will be filled with companies rolling out the International Women’s Day pedestal. But, what, exactly, are they celebrating?

The architectural profession has well-documented issues with gender balance, including the lack of females at senior level and the pay gap. There is also an enormous drop out rate amongst women as a result of unsocial working hours, certain practice cultures and the cost of childcare.

So instead of using 8 March to state the obvious - that half of the world’s population is female and might not identify with Le Corbusier’s Le Modulor - let’s spend the day calling for best practice. In the spirit of this year’s International Women’s Day theme of ‘Inspire inclusion’, let’s share ideas and positive stories from those that are the change we want to see, and move closer to creating a more inclusive world where its designers better represent those that live in it.

At Collective Works, we championed flexible and part time working from the outset. For many people a standard 40-hour working week is a myth, but we - as managers - have the agency to challenge this number which everyone takes for granted.

At some stages in life, spending more time at work, meeting colleagues, learning and seeking to progress, might be what you’re looking for. At other points, working 30 hours a week could become your upper limit. Currently we invite our staff to work everything from three to five days per week.

And to every male ally that is about to start their celebratory International Women’s Day posts: tell us exactly how this celebration inspires inclusion

We find that it is the experience and skill, as well as commitment to our business, our aspirations for beautiful and responsible design, our projects and our clients that is important - not the hours. Flexible working kills presenteeism, and opens the door to better work-life integration.

As a small business, our gender balance can quickly get heavy on one side, and we have made female only hires to make sure that we are at least 40% female. Choosing excellent women has not been a problem. When hiring, we hide names and clearly state that we do not want images with applications.

The process isn’t perfect, but we do our best to park all our unconscious biases, and only look at portfolios when we’re making the first sift of applications. When choosing consultants in the male-heavy construction industry, we deliberately try to reach out to female engineers and contractors.

Maternity leave alone isn’t what’s going to move the needle in this industry. The true celebration of women in the workspace is the promotion of paternity leave. It still usually takes two parents to have and raise a baby, but we never hear that fatherhood is not compatible with a career in architecture. Women will be stuck with the expectation of being primary carers until men are required, and allowed - by their partners and their workplaces - to pull their weight at home.

This summer one of our senior architects took eight weeks paternity leave at the arrival of his daughter, and one of our Part 3s is currently two weeks into his six weeks paternity leave after the birth of his son. Of course it would be easier to stick to the statutory two weeks for dads, but this is where we, as business leaders, need to be the change we want to see.

If we want an inclusive, kind, equitable world, then that is also how we must run our businesses. My call to action is to every female leader in our industry. It’s a bit lonely and windy at the top - so dare to be better and louder than those that championed you on your journey to where you are today. And to every male ally that is about to start their celebratory International Women’s Day posts: tell us exactly how this celebration inspires inclusion.

There are a lot of female allies in architecture that know that we’re actually all in it together - and inclusion has room for those that do and don’t identify with Le Modulor. If you’re unsure, just ask. The point is, women don’t need to be treated differently, put on a pedestal, or celebrated. We are just asking to be treated as people with lives. Men have lives too. Inclusion will benefit everyone.

>> Also read: To design for a better world we must have more women architects

>> Also read: We’ve come a long way, but women architects still don’t have equality