By Babita Ram
She nervously announces her pregnancy as her boss congratulates her imminent new arrival – the recent BBC drama ‘The Replacement’ centered on a rather troubled young female architect. What struck me about this series isn’t the architect-turned-crime-detective storyline, but the support that she receives in returning to work. Perhaps not always fully considered in the workplace. Recently, the Architect’s Journal published their annual survey on Women in Architecture, exploring where women currently feel they stand within the world of architecture.
Amongst the various sections, they discuss women’s views on starting a family and how this affects their careers. An interesting outcome of the survey showed that 44% of women felt that they take on an equal share of the responsibility towards a dependent, which almost mirrors the percentage men feel they take on.
This may seem encouraging until you learn that 39% of women felt they take on more than an equal share, and 46% of men feel that they take on less than an equal share. However, this is not an issue which is limited only to the field of architecture, many professions face the same problem.
This led me to wonder why, a century on from the Suffragettes, the rise of feminism and considering we are in the 21st century, equality between men and women is still so distant.
Women generally feel that their career trajectory is halted by starting a family (60% believe it has a detrimental effect1), and this is seen in the number of women who leave their professions never to return, preferring in some cases to start their own business as it affords them the flexibility that many companies do not. This is a rather sad state of affairs, as women leave the workplace we are inevitably loosing much needed talent. And here it is where companies’ culture, and not only policy and systems, can really make a difference. For example, at JRA we have a specific timesheet code called “time off for dependents” that can be used if your child is unwell. Having a timesheet code is a great first step but what really helps is the non-judgmental and supportive attitude of managers in this situation which is confirmed by many of our staff.
We can’t only blame companies for the struggles of returning to work of course. It is societally accepted for a man to place his career as high priority, whereas women are expected to be the main (or only) nurturer when starting a family, and to put their careers on the back burner regardless of which partner is the more financially successful. Evidence suggests that despite companies allowing men greater paternity leave, many feel that taking more than the nominal two weeks leave is seen as a sign of weakness and one that blights their career reputation2. The stereotype that men are not capable of raising a child is worryingly archaic, equally not every woman is the motherly kind. The fact that a woman possesses a womb does not always make her a natural carer.
So how are we to change the state of things? Companies’ culture, government efforts and a shift in societies’ mindset towards gender roles all need to happen in order to see real change. This amount of change sounds daunting but at least I feel reassured to witness that my company is taking steps in the right direction and gives me hope for a more equal standing of women and men in architecture.