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What barriers are still in place for women in architecture?

In this professional feature, architect, educator and activist Sumita Singha suggests ways to help women thrive in the built environment.

25 January 2024

Sumita Singha’s book Thrive: A Field Guide For Women In Architecture takes a global look at women’s progress in the profession throughout history, and is a practical guide to navigating the key stop-off points during a career.

It finds that – soberingly – while there has been progress over the years, barriers still exist within the profession for women architects.

In the UK, there have always been women entering the architectural profession, with take-up figures ranging from 40 to 50%. However, among registered architects, the split becomes 31 women to 69 men – in line with a global average of about 30:70. This early drop off between education and practice is a major challenge.

Subsequently, the agenda has moved on from attracting women to the profession, to how it can help them to stay there and progress.

There are far too many instances of women’s interest in architecture tapering off before they have managed to reach Part 3, Sumita argues (Photo: Sumita Singha, author)

What can be done about barriers in education?

Starting in education, chartered architect, teacher and author Sumita, who set up RIBA’s equality forum Architects for Change, says the odds of completing the extended journey to Part 3 continue to be stacked against young women, particularly if they go on to have a child or undertake subsequent child-caring duties.

There are far too many instances of women’s interest in architecture tapering off before they have managed to reach Part 3, she argues. This struggle to continue in more-or-less uninterrupted employment to reach full qualification is even more evident in the US, where the proportion of women obtaining a licence to practice falls to 18%.

One of the other problems with entering into a long course to study architecture is the cost. Regardless of gender, students can accrue tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt as they work their way through the various stages.

However, as women often take career breaks due to caring responsibilities, the financial burden on them is often harder. During her research for the book, Sumita found that some women even move to different cities or countries to soften the financial blow and study cheaper courses.

Certainly, lowering the financial burden could alleviate some of this pressure and enable women to pursue their architectural learning without sacrificing personal or family commitments.

Sumita suggests studying and working – rather than having intermittent periods of work between studies – as a model that might help with limiting large amounts of debt. This greater emphasis on apprenticeships sees the student work part time during the week and study for the remaining one or two days.

She cites the apprenticeship programme at Northumbria University as a successful example while also name-checking the RIBA Studio Programme, the Collaborative Practice Programmes at Sheffield and the London School of Architecture.

Sumita also argues that other aspects of architecture courses need to be tweaked to retain women from studenthood through to full-time employment, including shortening the length of courses and adding different routes to licensing and funding. Mentoring and other support during studies can be beneficial to keep women from leaving the course.

Making education more accessible to women encourages diversity and a more creative, collaborative and equitable profession.

Read more about RIBA’s commitments to inclusive education.

What barriers in the workplace do women encounter?

After coming through the education process, those in practice are still faced with barriers.

A key barrier to career progression is how practices – and the profession as a whole – treat women when they decide to have children. It can be extrapolated to society as a whole – why should women be punished in career terms if they want to start a family?

The big stumbling block seems to be how the profession bridges the gap between taking time off to start or grow a family and coming back to work.

Sumita asks if practices can do better when it comes to helping, especially the reboarding process. Women returner’s courses for architects could be very helpful, for instance, in such reboarding processes.

In her research for Thrive, she found that some Chinese practices offer in-house nurseries and breastfeeding rooms, which help to merge work and home life and, crucially, help women at work when their children are very young.

While installing in-house nurseries may not be possible for most practices in the UK, creative approaches to childcare might be considered instead. A practice could strike a deal with a local, external childcare provider, for example.

Hybrid working can also help to provide a much better work-life balance. A positive outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, flexible working arrangements can help women juggle work and caring responsibilities successfully.

How can architecture practices create supportive environments for those experiencing menopause?

Visibility of women in senior positions as designers is key (Photo: Pexels)

Why visibility is key in practice

Looking at the profile of larger practices, it’s rare to see many women on the board or even in middle management. Sumita has also noted in her research that some women who have risen through the ranks have moved into roles that could be considered more traditionally female, such as HR or finance.

Visibility of women in senior positions as designers is key, says Sumita, especially for the emerging generation of new female architects.

“If you are a female student and you see more women in senior positions, it’s going to show that it’s worth sticking around and going through all the hardship because they can see that there is an end product, and there is a progression.”

Sumita is also keen for female architects to do what they invested so much time and effort training for – to continue to be architects.

She suggests more women ask to ‘shadow’ directors and senior managers, who might be looking for ways to encourage women employees, by sitting in at board and management meetings to provide visibility. However, it is important to make sure they do not accept any suggestions to take minutes, thereby assuming some sort of quasi-secretarial role.

All these ideas and suggestions – from the radical to common sense – prove that while things have improved for women in the profession (for instance, Sumita remembers when the ratio of women in architecture was much lower), there are still barriers to overcome and still work to do in the key stages of becoming and being an architect: education and in practice.

Find out how to order your copy of Thrive: A Field Guide For Women In Architecture.

Thanks to Sumita Singha, chartered architect, teacher and author.

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

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Inclusive environments.

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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