Even a liberal profession like architecture is guilty of perpetuating a problem so entrenched we miss it, says Martyn Evans

Martyn Evans portrait

Talking to female friends and colleagues it’s clear that most women’s experience of sexism in the workplace is not about rape and serious sexual harassment but the boring, relentless daily grind of dismissive senior male colleagues, thoughtless slights and exclusion from boys-club, informal decision-making processes, all supported by the still-inexplicable problem of pay differentials.

The architecture profession seems to me like it would be a little more enlightened than others, my own included. At annual property industry awards ceremonies, mute young women in skimpy dresses still bring awards on to stages for, predominantly, men to give to other, predominantly… men. Official industry information and stats are hard to come by – put the word “gender” into the RIBA website’s search function and it auto-corrects it to “tender” and throws up a huge amount of advice about how to win work.

If we believe that opportunities for women are getting better in the profession – more senior women; pay differentials evening out; more women-owned and female-run practices than ever before – it’s not in these most high-profile shifts where life for most women in the workplace is going to change.

In daily office life, there’s still too much opportunity for prejudice to hide its ugly face in whispered, private conversations in the pub after work, shuffling of CVs after an interview process and boardroom decisions about pay and promotions.

Formal changes to laws and workplace practices may move things on in leaps and bounds but where minority and disadvantaged groups are concerned it takes much longer for cultural shifts to happen that truly change the nature and experience of a workplace.

To make change here, we need to sweat the “smaller” stuff (not that for the people involved it’s remotely small). As I write, the leaked private phone conversation between John Humphrys and his colleague Jon Sopel, where Humphrys makes light of Carrie Gracie’s resignation over pay differentials, is being reported. Gracie’s actions might be the reason the BBC changes its policies but it’ll be a long time before men like Humphrys realise that even to joke about it is to perpetuate the reason it’s a problem in the first place.

I can’t remember a time when a man (employed specifically to do so) brought me a cup of coffee in a meeting at an architects’ practice. Nor can I recall being greeted by a man behind a reception desk at any practice I’ve visited recently. In the last large development company I worked for, not unusually for the property industry, the entire team of executive PAs, catering and office management assistants were female. That’s not to denigrate the role of the women who perform those functions, but simply to question why it might be so. I suspect that it might be because, deep down, young men think those kind of jobs are beneath them. If this is true, then even though women in those roles might have perfectly fulfilling, well-paid jobs that they love, those jobs will always be seen as women’s roles that men think less of.

If we are going to make a serious difference to the experience of women in the workplace, we have to look not only at the gender balance towards the top of our companies and differentials in pay, but also at the type of roles in lower-paid positions that are typically held by women and ask, even in enlightened, liberal professions like architecture, whether we are perpetuating a fundamental imbalance in gender equality by overlooking something right under our noses.