Attrition rates for women architecture graduates are high – many bright graduates leave the profession early to pursue other careers and life options. Diana Griffiths ponders this lost legacy. What could have made them stay, and what might the built environment look like had they contributed to it?
There’s something about reaching the middle of your career that finds you looking back to where it all began. Twenty years ago I graduated with an architecture degree from the University of New South Wales. Thinking back to my younger self, I’m reminded of her confidence and ambition. At that time the university was graduating almost equal numbers of men and women and I felt privileged to be a part of the architecture profession and was keen to find a place in this brave new world.
But 1992 was not a good year to be graduating. In many ways it was the worst of times, a time of recession and low employment. Few of my classmates found jobs on graduating and we floundered in a profession experiencing little demand. Over time we found a way in and started to build our knowledge and skills.
Recently, however I have found myself wondering, where did all my female classmates go? Who are the success stories? The women who have made it through the ranks to be successful directors and award-winning architects? In many cases this generation of women architects do not exist and their lost legacy is striking.
It is easy to see how it might have happened. Forget what you have seen in the movies – Architecture is not a well paid profession. Design skills do not command high fees, salaries are poor, bidding is ruthless and undercutting is common. So, given this environment, how does the profession survive? The unwritten truth of many architectural practices is that profits are made from the unpaid overtime of staff. In small partnerships, directors work many unpaid hours and in larger firms employees are paid for a 38-hour week but are expected to work a 50-hour week. It is this unpaid work that can take a job from unprofitable to profitable.
So how do women with family commitments fare in this system? Unable to contribute the hours demanded and unable to employ help on their low salaries they gradually fall behind, failing to gain promotions or to be given responsibility for important jobs. One friend was told she could not expect promotion while she only worked four days a week. Others dropped out completely – a number of my friends became full-time home makers, and I know of one who became a massage therapist. One even gained an MBA and moved to join the world of banking.
If family commitments were the only barrier to success then women architects without children should be thriving. Given their ability to commit the long hours they should be flying though the ranks, but even here many have struggled to find a way through. One friend, frustrated by the lack of opportunity, gained two masters degrees before finally becoming a director of a small architecture firm. In my own case I’ve moved sideways – out of the profession – in search of more interesting roles.
I watch the next generation of women arriving in the workplace. Like my former self they are confident, eager and ambitious. Will the architecture world they are joining treat them fairly? Will they be paid less than the male graduate sitting next to them? Will they find themselves in backwater jobs because their gender makes them different? Will they struggle to get the good jobs or the promotions because they can’t commit long hours for low pay? Will they become discouraged and leave to find other roles where they are more valued?
Not every architect has the capacity to be outstanding, but it is not possible to discourage a generation of the rank and file without also losing the next generation of leaders and award winners. The theorists tell us men and women look at problems differently, work differently and value different skills. If we can create a profession where female architects thrive surely this diversity will broaden how our buildings and cities are designed? It may not be a better world but it would be a different one. I for one would love to see the result if we can find a way to protect the legacy of the next generation.