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Breaking the bias in architecture: Gender gap in architecture and construction

The gender gap in architecture is unacceptable - here are some suggestions for ending it

10 January 2024
5 minutes read
Female architect with curly brown hair and a black cardigan reviewing BIM architectural drawings on a large white iPad with a black case whilst holding an apple pencil.

Let us walk through a small scenario.


Imagine this: The year is 2024, and it is a technological age where everything is moving at extreme speeds.


Life-changing innovations are born in moments; space travel is at its farthest; inventions are springing forth in every corner; old unproductive ideologies are being dismantled and replaced with much better concepts, and the world seems to be at its most advanced stage.


Yet, in architecture, one simple ideology remains unmovable and unchangeable no matter how many innovations happen. The stone age stereotypical depiction of what a typical architect should look like still remains firmly planted in the world's mind.

The architect's image

The image of the architect as a male, dressed in a black suit and on a coffee overdose, is clearly wrong and is a bad representation of the long-overdue industry and needs to be stopped.


In an article by Dorte Mandrup, a Danish architect, “I am not a female architect. I am an architect,” she wrote:


“Rarely are women known as female accountants, female lawyers, female taxi drivers or female journalists. But ‘female architects’ seems to be an unshakeable phrase.”


“When we talk about gender, we tend to talk about women. Men do not really have a gender. They are … neutral. Non-gender. That is why you do not recognise the term ‘male architect’. It just goes without saying.”


The stereotypical image of an architect has led to special recognition sections in magazines called ‘female architects,’ which is a prestigious initiative, but of course, misplaced.


The idea is born of the misconception that architects are naturally male, and therefore being a woman in the architectural and built environment sector is something worthy of recognition. If indeed these women were worthy of recognition, why were they not added to the general architecture section?

The gender gap in architecture

The gender gap in the architectural industry is glaring and is a major concern and evaluation of how archaic values are being imposed on women in society today.


It is estimated that around 30% of UK architects are women as compared to other occupations like accountancy which is about 44% female, while in medicine it’s 45% and law 47%.


At Urbanist Architecture, we are privileged to lead the way in addressing the gender gap in architecture. More than 60% of our consultants are women, which far exceeds the industry average of just 30%.


We make objective and evidence-based decisions, treat everyone fairly and create an inclusive workplace that we are proud of. We are proud that our people are the driving force behind our success and our continued leadership in our industry.

Cultural norms: Traditional career vs non-traditional career

The idea that architecture is a male career is wrong, but its persistence in our society has made life harder for women. One example is the story of Teresa Borsuk, who as an eight-year-old child, was already looking forward to becoming an architect.


But this gender misconception made her teachers mount pressure on her in an attempt to make her switch to a more gender suitable profession like interior design.


Although she did not move out of her professional interest, she was terribly drained due to the resistance to her gender during her first London practice. She found it so draining that she decided to resign and join another company.


This gap is due to popular misguided opinions that women should not work in certain jobs, and they supposedly contribute less to the workspace due to their personal responsibilities in the home front, necessary maternity leaves and special gender benefits and considerations.


How did you perceive that? Did you see it as normal? Well, however you did, one question that might continue to nudge at the mind is how did all these start?


It all probably started at the early stages of life when gifts and toys were bought for children. It seems completely normal that to buy gifts for boys, you needed to buy trucks or building blocks, while dolls were the go-to choice for the girls.

Although this might seem quite trivial and not related to the concept of architecture, it is from these little things that the outlining of so-called ‘acceptable interests and career paths’ were formed. And this ‘trivial thing’ created long-reaching consequences into the future and narrowed down the career and aspirations options depending on gender.


Now, for a female to successfully break those barriers and access the opportunities that lie on the other side of the gender block, she has to change from the typical behaviours of a woman and start to act as a male would have, which of course, is a terrifying thing that is now seen as normality.

“Young” and “female” architect

This ideology has also caused many men to feel women should not be superior to them in the architectural industry.


At one time I was looking for an architect for our practice, an application I received caught my interest. The applicant was a RIBA chartered architect with more than over two decades' experience in the industry. On paper, the applicant seemed to be a strong candidate for the role until I read the following on his CV.


In the description of their previous workplace, they indicated to have worked in a small team of three with the added description that the team was led by a younger female architect as well as working alongside a younger female technician.


The emphasis on ‘young’ and ‘female’ sounded inappropriate and strange. It was obvious he did not think it was normal for females to be architects and work under their supervision. That alone sufficed me to reject his application.


Unfortunately, what we are still witnessing is a short-sighted mindset that is pervasive throughout architecture practices and among architects.

The discrimination De Angel faced

Let’s continue with other examples…


After almost two years working at an architectural firm in England, Yanel de Angel got pregnant. Of course, it was something beautiful for which she got her congratulations, but what followed was devastating news.


Her boss said that “for the sake of continuity and service to clients, she would be removed from all of her projects, lest they be inconvenienced by her maternity leave.”


Yanel de Angel was not a novice in the industry. She had been practising for almost ten years when this happened. There was clearly no valid reason for her relegation, yet it happened. Within a few months, she started to spend her entire days running checklists, documenting credits, and of course, quite unhappy with the profession.


“It made me feel penalised as if my brain contributions were dismissed due to the physical changes in my body,” she said. “It made me question if I could have a career and a family.”


This situation is a vivid description of what happens to women at the midpoints of their careers and one of the major reasons they struggle to get to partner or leadership roles.


Clearly, architecture is a field that demands very long hours of work and requires a hundred percent commitment, but changes in the workplace and culture should be made to accommodate more women.

Although this might sound trite, the onus of change is on men, but that does not mean women should sit back and fold their hands, waiting for the change to occur.

Building a strong and sustainable talent pipeline

At Urbanist Architecture, we see the difference between males and females as an advantage to our architecture firm as they both bring different concepts and ideas. Diversity and inclusive leadership have always been essential for our practice to be successful. Without a doubt, our focus on a diverse workplace has created more innovation, greater efficiency and a culture of excellence.


I believe that the prevailing gender gap needs to be tackled as it is one of the major factors that facilitate the waste of much-needed resources in the built environment sector.


The female gender has been known to be one of the most resourceful talents to have, and firms that fail to admit or understand the importance of women in the workplace put themselves at a serious disadvantage when competing with those who do.


The research by the Center for Creative Leadership proves that gender diversity was the key to having successful businesses, they showed that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their boards financially outperformed companies with low representation of women.

They also discovered that having a team with a fair mixture of men and women leads to higher amounts of sales and profits as opposed to teams of only men. Besides, it would be greatly beneficial to increase the talent pool based on the admittance of talents and not based on gender.

In late 2020, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture carried out a research titled ‘Where are the Women: Measuring Progress on Gender’ and found that there was a steady decline in the number of women in the profession as they moved up the career ladder.

In another report by The Missing 32% Project titled ‘Equity in Architecture’, they surveyed women in architecture in a bid to find out why they were leaving as their careers progressed. The major reasons were the problems of attaining leadership roles.


These data show that it is hard for a female to get a ground in the industry, but there is a massive leak where the women pour out as they move forward. There are only fifteen to eighteen percent of female senior leaders.
How do we fix this?

Recommendations for architectural practices

The fact is successful companies increasingly rely on diverse teams that combine the collective capabilities of women and men, people of different cultural heritage, and younger and older members.


Therefore, a holistic approach to inclusive leadership is essential for high performing organisations. Here are the key steps leaders should take to tackle inequality at work and articulate authentic commitment to diversity:


Set a target for 50% of shortlisted candidates for recruitment to be women.

  • Introduce transparency to promotion, pay and reward processes.
  • Review your employee lifecycle to ensure your HR practices are fair and inclusive.
  • Demonstrate a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of discrimination and harassment.
  • Offer enhanced maternity, paternity and shared parental leave pay.
  • Set a target for 50% of board-level directors to be women.
  • Demonstrate an open mindset, treat all team members respectfully and fairly, and make sure they have a sense of belonging and are psychologically safe.

Join the debate

I would like to hear what you think - join the debate by posting your comment on the LinkedIn article here.


Perhaps you have an example to share about the gender gap in architecture or a recommendation to make to fight against gender inequality.

Ufuk Bahar, Founder and Managing Director of Urbanist Architecture
AUTHOR

Ufuk Bahar

Urbanist Architecture’s founder and managing director, Ufuk Bahar takes personal charge of some of our larger projects, focusing particularly on Green Belt developments, new-build flats and housing and high-end full refurbishments.

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