Friday, 8 March 2013

Introducing a New Guest Blogger Series - Women and the Built Environment

Introduction Rebekah McCabe (PLACE)

Photo by Robin Cordiner
As today is International Women’s Day, we think it’s the perfect 
opportunity to introduce a new series that explores the experiences of women working in the often male-dominated professions of the built environment. With their emphasis on phallocentric structures and ‘master-plans’, these professions can appear inherently macho, which, along with persistent and pernicious beliefs about the spatial perception of women compared with men, can make carving out a career in this field a challenge for many women. And this is before we begin considering the imbalance in how domestic and childcare obligations are distributed between men and and women within many households, and the impact this can have on career progression.

The gender divide is particularly pronounced in Britain and Northern Ireland. In the introduction to her 2009 book Full Irish: New Architecture in Ireland, Sarah Lappin points out that the 11-13% female membership of RIBA compares rather unfavourably with the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland’s 30%.  

So, how is this experienced by women who study and work in these professions? Do women find they have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as their male colleagues, as we hear echoed so frequently across many industries? Do women have to play by rules set by men, or can they pursue fulfilling careers on their own terms? And what is the implication of gender inequality on the output of professional work - does the underrepresentation of women in the planning, designing, and construction of our built environment have an impact on the shapes and styles of our towns, our cities, our homes?

Today, opening the discussion and reflecting on her personal experience as a professional architect, and offering practical suggestions for bridging the gender gap, is Tara Florence of Ard Ciaran Mackel Architects.

Guest Blogger Tara Florence (Ard)

Rocked to sleep as a child to sounds of Three Point Creek in rural Alberta, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, my mother instinctively set my life course to be one that would challenge the roles women had been given in this world, as her mother had with her. Alberta was a province of ranchers and oil men, and one which often paid lip service to gender equality but fell far short in reality.  

We can never underestimate the significance of a strong woman role model in the life of a girl.  These two women were very creative, imaginative, talented, and demonstrative as are commonly accepted traits of their gender.  But in addition to this they were also fierce, determined, ambitious, resourceful and independent, and modeled to me the full range of character traits I would require to be successful as a woman professional.
Photo by Robin Cordiner

I remember my grandmother reminding me that in Canada it was as recent as 1928 that the Supreme Court of Canada took the decision to declare women to be "persons" under the law with respect to the British North American Act.  When I told my mother I wanted to be an architect, she sought out information on the first woman architect. In 1929 Ethel Marjorie Hill received her Bachelor of Applied Science in Architecture from the University of Toronto, and was the first woman to graduate from an architectural program in Canada. I went on to discover that in 1939 five women were registered as architects in Canada: two of whom had been educated in Canada, two in Europe and one who had qualified via apprenticeship.  

It is fundamental that, as young women, we have women role models. This is something that remains a problem within architecture, both professionally and educationally.  It might surprise you to learn that during my entire educational training I only ever had one woman on any of my review panels and likely only one or two women lecturers for modules.  

To change this, in our Architectural education we need to:

  • provide the space for more women to act as visible leaders, role models and mentors;
  • include the history and achievements of women in curriculum material (I estimate over 90% of all material covered in the curriculum features the work of male architects).

As for the Architecture profession - for those who think all is well, and that gender-based inequality issues are a thing of the past, I can report this has most certainly not been my experience thus far.

There remains a discrepancy between the numbers of female architecture students (±50% of all architectural students) and females practicing architecture at the professional level (±13%).

So, professionally we need to:
  • provide flexibility for parental leave and part-time employment;
  • enforce a zero tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination both in offices and on site;
  • publish salary grids to help achieve pay equity;
  • ensure an objective process for promotion and salary decisions.
  • as women’s accomplishments in the architectural field are not well known or well publicized, we need to actively promote women in our profession.

Women entering an architectural practice after completing their degree are not afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts. They are typically given the more menial work and very often not included in site visits, client meetings or discussions in the same way or at the same level as their male peers. This results in an inequity in the experience gained by male and female architects at similar stages in their career, limiting for women the opportunities and timeframe for advancement in the profession.

The majority of professions, industries and organizations have long recognized the need to balance the personal and professional demands placed on women. Apart from maternity and parental leaves, there are other means by which employers can recognize the needs their staff who may be balancing career with child-bearing, parenting and home management, the bulk of which typically falls on women. Flexible work hours and other flex options such as job-sharing and meaningful part-time positions are some of the ways that this can be accommodated.

Due to the frustrations felt by many female architects working in traditional practices, they are more likely to set up their own practice either as an independent, or leave the profession to look for alternative positions in government and education.

As women architects we need to be prepared to both mentor the next generation and continue to stand firm against the ‘constant moderate sexual harassment’ we tend to overlook and ignore as the means of getting on in our jobs.  

It’s our hope that this conversation will extend well beyond IWD; If you’re a woman working in architecture, planning, urban design, engineering, or other built environment professions, (or a man who wants to address the underrepresentation of men in the conversation about gender inequality) and would like to add to this discussion, email [email protected].

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