Posted: 8 March 2023
“On International Women’s Day 2023 it is important to celebrate women’s achievements and the increasing visibility of women in our profession while calling out inequality. At Native Architects we have built a workplace where women thrive alongside the valued men in the practice and embrace equity in the profession. Our current gender ratio is 70% women 30% men and represents probably one of the highest proportions of women in RIBA Chartered Practices. Since the start of the practice in 1997 this gender bias has remained more or less constant over the past 25 years.
Thirty-one years ago in 1992, I published a landmark report to show how many qualified female architects there were in the profession and I presented an insight to their patterns of work. The research for the study was commissioned by the Women Architects Committee, a sub group of the RIBA Membership Committee at that time and was financed by the RIBA Research Committee and the Continuing Education Committee of the University of York. The objectives were to inform the RIBA about the range of difficulties women experienced in practice and how these needed to be reflected in the strategies of education, practice, membership and marketing. At the time there was concern that the costs to train women to become members of construction professionals was not a good investment, remember this was before tuition fees were individually funded. Retention of women in the construction team was also considered to have the wider benefits we recognise and celebrate today. Some interesting facts about the cohort in the 1992 study are as follows, 73% of the group were married or living with a permanent partner and 50% had an architect for a partner. 40% of women architects with two children under 17 years of age were in full or part time employment. This study followed a major recession in the industry in 1991 and a significant proportion were considering re-training or specialisation as a consequence for better financial rewards. There was a very high level of job satisfaction with 80% who found their work challenging, most problems recorded were associated with an unmet demand for childcare.
Following this study I completed further research in 1997 for the RIBA Trust Research Awards, to find out who was entering the profession and who stayed on by analysing and comparing data from established sources including The Higher Education and Research Association and Universities and Colleges Admission Services, (UCAS) and by contacting the heads of UK Schools of Architecture and their alumni organisations. There was no intent to look at gendered bias but had the sole aim of evaluating whether the successful completion of a recognised course led to a career in architecture by comparing intake with registration with the ARB. This research had a different aim to the 1992 study of working women but both showed that compared to alternative careers architecture remains a popular career choice and places at school of architecture are oversubscribed every year. The 1997 study concluded that only 41% of students entering a Part 1 course will pass Part 3, and only 10% more women drop out overall than men surprisingly.
There is no doubt that the debate about women in the profession is complex and enduring but surprisingly UCAS data showed that in 2021 more women than men started an architecture course in 2021 with 2,900 students accepted at places at architecture schools compared to 2730 men – a demonstration of equality? However, despite this growth at the start of their career the latest figures from ARB show that only 30% of the UK profession are women. Any women or man embarking on a career in architecture with enough determination, sense of purpose and love for the profession has a good chance of success but choosing the right workplace, undoubtedly makes a big difference. As teachers, mentors and employers our duty is to guide emerging architects and to prepare them for the challenges and realities of everyday architectural practice, and to try and nurture their original expectations of a rewarding career in a challenging world.
Michael Allford, RIBA president remarks that the drop off of women mid-study and mid-career remains a key issue that the profession needs to continue to address. A profession that better represents our society is better able to serve it, an appropriate challenge to think on for International Women’s Day .
In this era of climate crisis and with all of our concerns for the environment and social challenges perhaps it is time to radically rethink what it means to be an architect of any gender and consider what the role of the architect is or can be.
Sally Kirk Walker, Director