Could this seismic change be a good thing for women in architecture? – by Rossana Miles

April 16, 2020

In August 2019, the newly formed ADAM Architecture’s Women in Architecture group sat around a table for our first debate. The subject of discussion: flexible working practices, and their impact on the retention of female architects in the workplace.

The starting point of the discussion was that, despite a 50:50 gender split of students coming out of universities, the balance at senior level within the profession is still heavily skewed towards the male representation. Women leave architecture, the research suggests, during their child-rearing years and before they could rise to senior levels.

We pondered over the data emerging from the 2017 AJ Women in Architecture survey, where the lack of flexible working practices had been identified as one of the key factors leading  women to leave architecture.

We were concerned by the 45% of mothers who, responding to the AJ’s The Parent Trap survey in November 2018, said they felt they had been overlooked for a promotion as a consequence of their request for family-friendly working.

Architect's Journal survey

We were angered by the story, published in the Architects’ Journal, of the female project architect working for a well-known firm, who had to quit after being refused her application for flexible hours and working from home. In the words of her managers, how could they know she was not just watching Grand Designs?

Then March 2020 came, and in the arc of two weeks everyone has switched to working remotely and flexibly. No one is asking if it could work - we are making sure it does. This shift has a revolutionary potential, but to ensure it proves feasible for both employers and crucially (but not exclusively) for new mothers returning to work, there are a few adjustments that need to happen, and to a degree are already happening: in our technology, in our society, in our office culture.

We are adapting our IT infrastructure to suit remote access to networks, and at ADAM Architecture we are now set up to use CAD and pretty much every other software from home with very little trouble. We’re conducting meetings on Zoom, inspecting sites on Skype and using 3D cameras, talking a lot on the phone. It’s not ideal at times, and there is certainly room for improvement, but the need to make something work pushed everybody’s inventiveness. I mean, 3D cameras for site inspections!

Virtual site visit

I am a mother of two and a project architect, and as everyone else in the office I am now working from home five days a week. I share home schooling and childcare duties with my husband, who is also working full time. Our responsibilities are shared in perfectly equal measure. It is difficult, but the way we are sharing the load means that we can both keep working to the same productivity levels as before. When we return to normality, I am hopeful more and more fathers will consider joining the ever raising numbers of men equally sharing their parental responsibilities with their partners. The sooner society moves on from the idea of mothers having to naturally take the lion’s share of childcare, the better for gender equality.

From my experience of working from home while looking after small children, I have found that a set routine helps me establish the times when I am or I am not available for work, and communicating these slots with my colleagues - on shared calendars or even in an out-of-office message - helps them know when my replies might be delayed. I found that, at a time when interruptions from hungry toddlers might be frequent, keeping a record of my productive time - be it by writing it down in a notepad or by using time tracking apps - is crucial. I found that choosing a home-office area with a door that can be shut to indicate that no interruptions are allowed helps concentration and sets boundaries. I learnt that the mute function on Skype truly is a blessing. When we are on the other side of this, the tools we have given ourselves will help build the case for productivity outside the old office boundaries.

My home-office area

If working remotely and flexibly becomes common practice, imagine the number of female architects that could decide to stay or come back to architecture, instead of being written off, or writing themselves off, as unsuitable candidates for a  9 to 6 working day in the office. Imagine the number of fathers who might reconsider their own working arrangements, as they realise their physical presence in the studio is not that important after all. Imagine gender balance in the architectural profession, moving at a painfully slow pace for the best part of four decades, suddenly accelerated by a global emergency that forced us to rethink and reinvent our ways of working.

By Rossana Miles, Associate at ADAM Architecture, April 2020