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Where are all the women?

Jonathan Schofield talks to Rachel Haugh and Lisa Raynes over female-free architecture

Written by . Published on April 23rd 2010.


Where are all the women?

Architecture lacks something.

It's lacked this since architects became 'personalities', named and famed, from the Rennaissance onwards.

It lacks women.

As a sex we're much more thoughtful, less inclined to jump in. This can be a profession where those who shout loudest get on quickest. It's a very aggressive business which suits the male character.

A Manchester architect who has broken through the glass ceiling (for once this clichéd phrase seems justified) is Rachel Haugh, who is the lead partner with Ian Simpson, in Ian Simpson Architects. This architecturally fecund pair are responsible in Manchester alone for Beetham Tower, Urbis, No 1 Deansgate and much else.

“The figures are astounding. The level of female architects currently is between 11-13% of the total number,” she says. “Given what is happening in the other professions, accountancy, legal services, it does seem shocking, especially when you think that the in-take in universities can be as much as 50%. There are reasons behind this apparent failure of architecture though. Lots of reasons.”

“For one thing this has been historically a privileged gentleman's profession, a profession were often sons follow fathers into the business,” Haugh continues. “Women despite all the advances in society still have to work incredibly hard to get a toehold into it. This isn't because of explicit discrimination, it's more because architecture has found it hard to lose those traditional characteristics of the job. Again there are reasons.”

Lisa Raynes, a senior architect with Halliday Meecham and the Chair of Women in Property North West is blunter.

“There is a macho culture in architecture - an often unconscious sexist presence. If I go into a room as a team leader I am judged before I speak. I have to prove myself before people will respect me. I appreciate this happens to many women in the professions but in architecture in 2010 it is still very pronounced. More often than not I'm the only female round the table. Then there are the networking groups, the going for a beer after work, golfing, football chatter.”

Both Haugh and Raynes are clear about the one over-riding element which gets in the way of women upping the percentages in architecture: motherhood and childcare. Often just at the time when women are beginning to make progress in a practice, in their late twenties and into their thirties, they step out of the profession to have children.

“The time input is the biggest demand,” says Haugh. “You need to always be gathering experience to progress in the career. When women become mothers they lose several years and when they come back to work, it's often part-time. This doesn't sit well with present industry practice. You can't have a part time senior partner that's doing on-site work. Decisions have to made there and then, involving large sums of money, you can't wait until next Tuesday when you need an immediate answer. Contractors and clients just aren't that flexible.”

Lisa Raynes and Alfie

Lisa Raynes has three children, the youngest a baby. She says, “The kids come along and are the spanner in the works professionally. Usually the male architects aren't the ones rushing home to pick up the kids. My husband is very helpful but I'm still the primary carer. Of course I want to have a family and do all that that entails so I'm not blaming male architects for biology, but given the time-pressure of a job such as that of an architect it proves very very difficult. By choosing to have children my career path has been put on hold or, rather, extended. I've been treading water for ten years during a time where career development is critical.”

Rachel Haugh has pursued a very different path to Raynes. “Keeping with architecture and keeping up with the men requires sacrifice. For me everything has had to come secondary, family, homelife. You need to always be gathering experience to progress in the career. I made the decision not to step out from that.”

Family pressures aside Haugh also sees something in the female character to explain the industry situation. “To get on you need to be incredibly confident, a strong character with strong convictions. Women tend to be much more reticent, less inclined to blow their own trumpet. As a sex we're much more thoughtful, less inclined to jump in,” she says. “This can be a profession where those who shout loudest get on quickest. It's a very aggressive business which suits the male ego. And remember the design and ideas stage is only one aspect of architecture. The step into construction is even more male. The whole industry is hard-edged, in your face. Personally I've never found this off-putting, conversely I like the challenge of that side of things, but I know other women have been intimidated.”

“A big problem is that there are so few female clients,” says Raynes. “The building world, the world of property development is still overwhelmingly masculine.”

So what are the chances for change?

“It will take decades for the industry to fully integrate women,” says Raynes. “The issues which hold women back are very ingrained. The recession has been a set back too. Yet there are signs things are changing. At Halliday Meecham we have a flexible structure that utilises my skills but is supportive of family life. And we do have successes in Manchester. There are people like Rachel Haugh, Paula Butterfield and Kim Ebling. We have to believe we'll get there eventually. ”

Rachel Haugh again: “Perhaps the main issue is that we ease the difficulty of raising a child while pursuing a career. Designing and delivering a building is a complex process. Despite the fact there is often a lead architect's name attached to a building, one person can't do all the work in the complex systems that are new buildings. It needs to be a team effort, with lots of people contributing.”

What about the fact that even though she's been an equal 50/50 partner in Ian Simpson Architects it's the man's name over the door. More of that female reticence?

Rachel Haugh

“Not really. We made that decision a long time ago,” says Haugh. “Ian and I are complementary personalities. I don't enjoy the public side of things. A change incorporating my name was supposed to happen before the recession, but for stability sake we decided to sit on that for a while. We will do it.”

Both women are clear that women have to help themselves.

“We can do more with encouraging a female presence in architecture,” says Raynes. “Above all we need role models, people such as Zaha Hadid, and the Manchester architects I've mentioned. Women in Property, for instance, have mentoring programmes which can help. I'm a mentor to a female student for instance. These programes encourage girls and women to stay in the profession. There are also programmes in schools showing architecture as a career option.”

“The lack of progess is not just frustrating," says Haugh, "it's tragic, this is a fantastic profession, that is lop-sided. We need to be flexible in our approach and the more considered input of women, especially as architecture evolves and becomes more environmentally aware for instance, needs to feature more prominently. The glass ceiling needs to crack,” says Haugh with a half-laugh.

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8 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousApril 23rd 2010.

Fascinating stuff

AnonymousApril 23rd 2010.

It's a good article. Surprised me that there were so few women in architecture. Now I can why. More pieces like this please.

AnonymousApril 23rd 2010.

Rachel has the reputation of female architects in her hands, she has a firm grasp on it from what I have seen of her work, well done.

Ian has not done so bad either, I like his slightly compact 12,000+ square foot crash pad located in Beetham Tower.

There are people who don't like these innovative buildings but from what I have encountered, the only thing they have ever drawn is a giro cheque.... Paul R

AnonymousApril 24th 2010.

The comments apply to many women in many professions. But as Lisa says it's biology as well as the nature of the work. What we can do as women though is be less reticient more prepared to take on men who are shouting us down

AnonymousApril 25th 2010.

Women have the same difficulties in lots of professions. The reasons here seem understandable.

James11364April 28th 2010.

"It's a very aggressive business which suits the male ego. And remember the design and ideas stage is only one aspect of architecture. The step into construction is even more male. The whole industry is hard-edged, in your face"

Women are be hard edged too but if like Rachel Haugh you do it with charm, then it can be disarming. She almost persuaded me to think putting up a 75m tower next door to me was a good thing.

James11364April 28th 2010.

Paul R wrote "There are people who don't like these innovative buildings but from what I have encountered, the only thing they have ever drawn is a giro cheque.."

As I was not persuaded by Rachel, I went on to join my neighbours in an innovative involvement of the local community and others in a alternative community design activity. I will offer the notion to Cameroon if, by unfortunate chance, he is elected. The results were certainly not retro.

One of the problems with the professionals' proposal in question was that it was modern but not innovative in at least three senses. But of course it was caught up in the City Centre development policy I discussed in the comments on the 'memorial' ManCon article for Richard Leese.

Paul RApril 28th 2010.

Many people have an opinion of what is architecturaly acceptable, unfortunatley they do not have any understanding of what is either practical or acceptable. If for instance the current town hall in Manchester were to be recreated it would cost billions, "IF" the skills were still available today which they are not. Then you would get the critics who would say it is not green because of the construction. So what is the alternative to creating retro buildings that look pretty in the traditional term.

The answer is to use new and innovative concepts and materials. These will then take time to become "the norm". I remember in 1982 being one of the first to have a phone in my car for my work, I was often asked "what the heck do you need a phone in your car for. Now the question is why has your ten year old child not got a mobile phone ?.

Things Change

Paul R

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