Maria Smith takes a deeper look at women in architecture

Like many, I was shocked to read the results of the recent Architects’ Journal Women in Architecture survey.  

The interpretation of the data is extremely simplistic, and the numbers themselves appear to be handled without rigour or genuine intellectual curiosity. As such, the problematic conclusions effuse a scent of whingey entitlement and lend very unfortunate support to the notion that women are technically inferior. I’m confident that this is far from the intention and don’t believe I’m in opposition to the surveyors’ stated goal of gender equality. So though this may make me unpopular, I offer my perspective in the hope that it might advance the debate in some small way.

As of 31 December 2014, the number of Arb registered architects residing in the UK was 31,290, of which 7,648 (24%) were female. This has been steadily increasing by around 1% annually, which makes sense given that the proportion of female applicants to the register was 36% in 2014 and has averaged 34% over the last few years. This clearly suggests a direction of travel toward gender parity – and at a fair speed.

The proportion of women on the register however, is just one measure. It does not take into account whether these architects are practising, their role/status within practice, their pay, or critically, whether the women who are practising are doing so in a hostile, sexist environment. The problem is that much, much, much, much more information is required and it needs to be collected, analysed, and reported impartially, with academic rigour and a genuinely open mind as to what the results might be. While I applaud the general intention of the AJ Women in Architecture survey, I feel it falls well short in most of these respects.


Do women pay themselves less because they prefer to have a greater reserve in the bank, or because their firms are less profitable due to risk-adverse behavior?

Perhaps the main problem is the sample. At just under 1450 respondents it is small: if all were from the UK they would represent less than 5% of architects registered here. However my main criticism here is the lack of clarity as to the sample’s characteristics. We aren’t told what proportion of respondents are men, where they are practising, if they are in practice whether they’re qualified architects, their age, level of experience, the type of practice they work for etc.

Without this information it is impossible to adjust for reverse causality, which is a huge risk with self-selecting samples. For example, one of the findings was that more than 90% of UK respondents believe having children hinders their careers. That only 30% of the respondents had children (for reference, the UK figure is over 80%) might indicate that female architects are much less likely to have children than non-architects:  however another reading is that childless women who feel that having children hinders their careers are disproportionately likely to fill out a survey about women in architecture.

The interpretation of the results may be coloured by an understandable bias, but this does not explain the AJ research team’s poor handling of the figures. The report is littered with proportions adding up to more than 100%, inconsistent histogram brackets, telling repetition of percentages, and generally suspect visualisation of data.

Perhaps the most worrying message to come out of the survey was the headline purporting that the gender pay gap is widening at the top level of practices. This is an extraordinary simplification – at best unhelpful and at worst damaging to gender equality.

This assertion is based on figures for directors and partners of companies, so is not about how much people are being paid, but how much they’re paying themselves. What might a closer look at this disparity tell us?

A study published earlier this year (Faccio, Marchica and Murac) showed ‘that firms run by female CEOs tend to make financing and investment choices that are less risky than those of otherwise similar firms run by male CEOs’. Are women paying themselves less because they prefer to have a greater reserve in the bank, or because their firms are less profitable due to risk-adverse behavior? Do women tend to be less aggressive when asking for additional fees? Are they choosing to take on less profitable work which they feel is more ethical? There is an enormous number of reasons why women leaders of companies might be earning less. Also, these figures were for salaries before bonuses, dividends, benefits etc. The full picture is substantially more complex.

The steady increase in the proportion of women in architecture tells us things are changing. I’d like to see a radical change in how this discussion is framed. We must move away from generic indignation and start to properly interrogate why both men and women practise architecture the way they do – and if gender is relevant to this question, how?

Maria Smith  is a director of architecture and engineering practice Interrobang and curator of Turncoats