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Architecture and parenting: how practices can help aid the return to work

A culture change is needed to help new parents navigate the challenges of juggling workload and new responsibilities at home.

11 May 2023

Architecture continues to struggle with large numbers of designers leaving the profession after years of education and training, and according to research, some women are most likely to leave at the point of starting a family.

At a recent Women in Architecture event held at RIBA, Katie Jecks, who has researched the impact of starting a family on women in the profession for her Masters of Architecture at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University, presented a study showing that more than three-quarters of those surveyed had considered leaving the profession.

Key reasons given were salaries and the long hours/overtime culture, alongside the gender pay gap and starting a family. A separate finding also showed that over 80% of women feared that starting a family would impact their career development.

Other speakers at the event included Kevin Poulter, Partner at Freeths LLP, and Lisa Delaney, Head of People and Culture at tp bennett.

New parents face physical, emotional and financial challenges when returning to work. (Credit: iStock. Stock photo, posed by models)

What are the key challenges for new parents in architecture?

Also at the event, Pippa Jacob, Associate Partner at London and Ipswich-based NJ Architects, shared her own lived experience of becoming a new parent with all too familiar tales of site visits while pregnant, inadequate statutory maternity pay, the high price of childcare, and the monumental struggle to cope after returning to work.

One of the key shifts Pippa recommends concerns the often reported culture of working late, something that is established back at university.

So entrenched is the design team culture of long hours and overtime right from day one of studying to become an architect, there is now an unwritten expectation that working late is a given in the profession. Pippa says that turning her back on overtime left her with an unexpected feeling.

“Life in practice as a new parent is really tough,” she admits. “Everyone works overtime, but since I’ve had my son it’s just not the case anymore. I have to leave at 5.30pm because I have a half-an-hour window to get to nursery for a 6pm pick up. Consequently, I’ve had to accept that I can’t work late anymore and, strangely, that has made me feel that I’m not as good an architect now as I was before I had my son.”

Pippa does, however, count herself relatively lucky that on returning to her practice, she was able to agree a flexible working arrangement of four days, with the day off being movable. She is also set up to work from home, though she prefers being in the office when it is practicable.

“I understand that practices feel they cannot raise fees without losing work, which gives rise to the long hours' commitment, but this will always leave women at a disadvantage when it comes to career progression,” she continues. “We need a culture change, not just for new parents, but for everyone’s general wellbeing and mental health and to prevent burnout.”

What are the financial worries for new parents?

Pippa says she has friends who have left the profession due to stagnating wage levels and the high cost of childcare, explaining they felt that they were working just to pay for someone to look after their child.

This gap between wages and the cost of childcare is not a problem specific to the profession, of course, but after spending much of your twenties training to be an architect, finding difficulties in paying for childcare can feel deflating, Pippa says.

When it comes to going back to work after the maternity leave period, larger practices are likely to have maternity and parenting policies in place, and in some instances are able to offer enhanced maternity pay during leave. However, the suspicion is that there are large numbers of small practices with no policies in place until circumstances force their hands.

What needs to happen to help new parents returning to practice?

Returning to practice after becoming a new parent brings with it lots of physical and emotional challenges; challenges that should be acknowledged by members of the management structure. Changes in the ‘working late’ culture are recommended by Pippa, along with other measures and policies that new parents in the profession would find valuable.

Pippa suggests that a pre-leaving meeting with senior managers that could establish how much contact you would like to have with the office during leave would be welcome. Some practices, such as Pippa’s, make arrangements for keep-in-touch days during maternity leave designed to prevent staff members from feeling isolated and losing touch with work.

Another measure she recommends is a 'reboarding' strategy for returners that eases staff members back into work and supports them in catching up with any changes to teams, working practices, and so on.

A commitment to open dialogue with managers during the leave period and after the return to work, so that personal or financial struggles can be talked about and accommodations made, is also recommended.

“Talking about any struggles you may be having is really important,” Pippa concludes. “Certainly, in our practice, I am sure that if anyone were struggling the team would want to know and would explore ideas to find a solution.”

RIBA is currently exploring further ways it can help practices to support new parents.

Thanks to Katie Jecks, Architectural Assistant, Clear Architects; Pippa Jacob, Associate Partner, NJ Architects.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Health, safety and wellbeing.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as a RIBA Chartered Member.

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