A hundred years ago Ethel Charles overcame opposition and prejudice to become the first woman to join the RIBA. Her pioneering spirit is as important as ever, writes Clare Devine.

Today the RIBA launches an international social media campaign to highlight the achievements of women in architecture. This campaign, spearheaded by RIBA’s regional offices and international chapters, is aptly dedicated to Ethel Mary Charles, the first woman architect to join the RIBA in 1898.

Charles’ professional journey to becoming an architect, a RIBA member and a practitioner was one of early attainment and thwarted ambitions. With her sister Bessie, Charles articled for three years in practice to the partnership of Ernest George and Harold Peto, only to be denied entry to the Architectural Association School of Architecture, in 1893.

Undeterred, she continued her professional training and, in 1898, Charles passed the RIBA examinations and was nominated by Ernest George for membership. Despite a campaign led by RIBA member W Hilton Nash to obstruct her entry – on the basis that “it would be prejudicial to the interest of the institute to elect a lady member” – Charles was registered in 1898, followed by her sister Bessie in 1900, effectively opening women’s access to the institute. This was some 30 years before women attained equality of voting rights in 1928.

Like most of her female contemporaries, Charles’ determination, talent and recognised skills failed to translate into a successful professional career. Working in partnership with her sister, her work was mostly restricted to a limited number of domestic projects, often commissioned by female clients. In 1905, the same year she was awarded the RIBA Silver Medal, Charles won a prize for the design of a church in Germany, beating 200 competitors. It remains untraced.

In 2009, more than a century after Charles’ admission, Ruth Reed became the first female RIBA president, followed by Angela Brady and Jane Duncan. Significantly, Brady and Duncan have made equality, diversity and inclusion core to their presidencies, publicly voicing women’s under-representation in the profession. Duncan has noted that, “Gender inequality has no place in our profession and we will not allow it to hide.” She remains committed to championing diversity, fair pay and flexible working conditions.

Diverse workplaces are more creative, responsive and innovative

Over the last 20 years increasing numbers of women have entered the profession. Yet lack of progression, equality in pay and sustainable working cultures are forcing them to leave it. In many other sectors, this obsolete state of affairs would be headline news. It is unsustainable.

Within 10 years, global connectivity, smart machines, new media and emerging technologies will dramatically reshape the workplace, the nature of work and the skills required. Already, digital and data sets are providing us with a growing understanding of the rapidly changing needs of people and communities in the UK and globally, highlighting increased concerns about health, wellbeing and an ageing society.

All this is driving a focus on user-centred services and businesses across the globe, with public, private and third sectors recognising the need to create integrated and responsive products, services and built environments in which citizens are actively engaged, and in which their needs more readily and effectively met. Inevitably, a diverse workforce, with diverse skills and abilities, will become essential. Observation, communication, empathy and an understanding of user needs will be crucial.

Organisations, city leaders and commissioners across the globe are recognising that diverse workplaces are more creative, responsive and innovative, creating more resilient businesses, products, services and places for people. The appointment of Anne Stenros as chief design officer of the City of Helsinki in 2016 shows that this seismic change is already underway.

In this context, lack of diversity and inclusion in our profession will soon be perceived as a severe limitation because it will prevent access to an arena where collaboration and cross-disciplinary competencies will be the norm, moving from multi-disciplinary to inter- and even trans-disciplinary design.

An empathic understanding of people and an ability to actively engage and collaborate with them, to recognise their experience, diversity and needs, will be key to providing truly integrated and inclusive design.

To respond and remain relevant in this rapidly changing working world we must foster diversity and inclusion in our profession, and we must do this together – women and men. To quote Emmeline Pankhurst: “We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half.”

We must work together to create a truly diverse and sustainable working culture, one that allows us to be responsive collaborators and creators in this new working world.

We must, like Ethel Charles, become pioneers for change – now.