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Why flexible working is essential to equality in architecture

23 January 2020

In discussions of the gender imbalance within architecture, it is often pointed out that plenty of women complete their studies and enter the profession; it's retention and career progression that is the problem.

Statistically speaking, women do not remain within architecture as long as men do, and they are nowhere near as well represented in senior roles.

“One of the most common obstacles is parenthood,” points out Grace Choi, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion champion for RIBA North East.

“Many women ask themselves the question: ‘is the stress, workload, inflexibility and low pay worth it?’. Many leave practices or set up on their own. Hence the lack of representation at senior levels.”

In 2019, the RIBA launched the Close The Gap pledge, asking practices to commit to improving gender diversity, broadening access to the profession and ensuring that career prospects and progression are independent of gender, race or social background. Choi suggests there are many common-sense solutions to architecture’s lack of gender balance.

“We need to provide options of flexible or part-time working to everyone. Allowing parents to leave work at 3pm, in order to pick up children, can work. Providing part-time roles will provide more opportunities to women to stay in the profession.”

Flexibility over hours should be on offer to all staff and all genders.

“It should not feel unusual for practices to accommodate real life within the working world,” she insists. “Both men and women should be able to share childcare. Clear practice values and policies should reflect this.”

Jo Bacon, Managing Partner of Allies and Morrison, echoes this sentiment and is keen to point out that flexible working should not solely be offered to parents. She believes flexibility to be important for the wellbeing of all staff, and that employees’ healthy lifestyle is integral to a healthy practice.

Both Bacon and Choi stress that part-time work does not equate to part-time commitment. Allies and Morrison allow staff to return to work three days per week after maternity leave, should they wish to, with a view to building up more time in the office if and when they feel ready.

“We encourage parents to share any caring opportunities and we support varied working patterns where we can. We do so for mothers, fathers, those with caring responsibilities or those who simply want to pursue other interests,” she explains.

Nicky Watson reveals that staff at JDDK, where she is Architect Director, have used flexible hours provisions to assist with childcare responsibilities, but also to make their lives less stressful. It has allowed staff to pursue personal interests such as surfing, cycling or rock climbing.

Opening up flexible working to all is crucial to gender equality, Watson states, as it removes the likelihood of bias against those requesting it. Historically it had only been women within the practice who had asked. Feedback from the female staff who were already working flexibly highlighted that bringing in the policy made them feel validated in a way they previously had not.

It also changes the culture that too often discriminates against the employment of women, consciously or unconsciously, as a ‘risk’, Watson believes, as flexible working becomes normalised.

Working hours, whether flexible or not, are a commonly cited pain point among architects.

“I entirely refute the suggestion that it is not possible to run a successful architecture practice without a long hours culture,” Watson asserts. “This will always be a significant contributor to women, and some men, leaving the profession.”

Flexibility over working hours is key to ensuring gender parity across architects’ careers. RIBA North East is sharing advice between practices to ‘Change The Record’; © Grace Choi.

One simple strategy to promote healthier and more inclusive working is to ensure the office officially closes in the early evening.

“The JDDK office opens at 8am and is closed at 7pm,” Watson explains. “It is very rarely open at the weekend.”

This encourages staff to work efficiently and collaboratively to get what needs to be done within their paid hours. If someone is working much more than that, it is a sign that something is wrong and needs addressing, Watson warns.

Grace Choi is sharing information and practical advice between RIBA members in the North East via the Change The Record group. On Friday 20 January, Choi will host the first in a series of ‘JEDI talks’, entitled Can you have your cake and eat it?, discussing issues of flexible working, returning to work, and the work-life balance.

“In the North East there are practices that were historically male dominated that are now, encouragingly, adjusting practice policy to attract a more diverse staff," she explains.

"Hopefully this will be monitored and discussed within practices regularly. Every practice should be looking at their top tiers of directorship. If women are not represented at senior levels, questions should be asked about how they can actively address the issues."

“Previously we have hosted events for women that attract very few men, and failed to reach the wider profession, where the impact is really needed. Rather than provoke arguments and finger pointing, we want to promote understanding and encourage change through collective constructive debate.”

Thanks to Jo Bacon, Managing Partner, Allies and Morrison; Grace Choi, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion champion for RIBA North East, and Nicky Watson, Architect Director, JDDK.

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

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