Legislation is coming but most practices are too small to be affected. The RIBA should step in to change that, argues Grimshaw partner Mark Middleton

Mark Middleton, Grimshaw

Mark Middleton, Grimshaw

Recent press coverage has provided a timely reminder that being a woman in the architectural profession is a tough place to be. Challenging issues regarding pay, promotion, discrimination and starting families jump from the pages.

The simple message is things aren’t great and we need to make them better. It would be tempting for the profession to begin an atrophying period of self-loathing in response to the headlines, but I believe we need to see this as a call to action. This is a great opportunity for the profession to take a great leap forward.

I recently read three recommendations for ways to improve gender balance in architecture. The first encourages practices to be more transparent about salaries. The second is around starting an office-based mentoring programme and the third is to have women take up 30% of senior management positions. These all seem not only sensible but eminently workable solutions. Introspection and change start at home, and in our practice we are about to do the first, have already implemented the second, and acknowledge we still have a way to go on the third. It is my hope that practices take these recommendations seriously and make a commitment to follow them.

This information would not only give female architects the confidence they were paid equally, but also the chance to vote with their feet

In terms of pay transparency, new government legislation means that gender pay differences will need to be made public by 2017. Unfortunately this only applies to businesses with more than 250 employees, which means only 13 of the top 120 practices in the UK will be obliged to publish, resulting in a minimal impact on our industry. In response to this I believe the RIBA should make it compulsory for all registered practices, beyond single practitioners. Making this mandatory could eradicate the real and perceived pay difference in the profession. This information would not only give female architects confidence that they were paid equally, but also the chance to vote with their feet, moving to practices with better records and forcing the remaining employers to address the issue.

While a number of recent headlines have focused on the pay disparity at partner/director level, arguably a more disturbing trend is the attritional effect the profession has on the total number of female architects. At university the gender split starts at roughly 50:50. But by the time we get to five years post-qualification only 35% of architects are female. It’s important to recognise it’s not all doom and gloom. The RIBA recently reported there had been a 5% increase in the number of females working in the profession during the last five years. However the loss of skilled architects and role models for younger female architects is worrying and to my mind is where more effort should be focused.

At university the gender split starts at roughly 50:50. But by the time we get to five years post-qualification only 35% of architects are female

Retention is a complex issue for female architects and, although it’s not limited to them, there are specific challenges for women when they wish to start a family. I highlight this because the statistics show not all women are returning to the profession after having children. We all need to be progressive and use this as a prompt to look at our policies. Greater flexibility over working hours, part-time working and enhanced terms for maternity pay might begin to chip away at this statistic. I would also suggest the UK government could play a part by improving support for maternity pay. Scandinavian countries have a much higher proportion of female architects at all levels and, most significantly, in leadership roles. This is in no small part thanks to the government support given to families and working mothers.

Perhaps some think that architects like me – a 40-something, male partner of a large architectural practice – are part of the problem and not the solution. I disagree. Partners/directors are precisely the people who should be evangelical about this issue. We should spearhead initiatives that support women, and act with purpose to lead the change. If for no other reason than the pursuit of the highest standards in the quality of our architecture.

Without greater gender equality how can the profession respond intelligently and adequately to represent half the world’s population? While this will not happen overnight I hope that the profession as a whole sees this as its most important issue, uniting practices, the RIBA and the broader industry to act fast to make a difference.

Put simply we all have to be better, so let’s start today.