Do the right thing

With a few honourable exceptions, practices aren’t doing enough to address gender disparity. The NHS offers lessons on an industry-wide approach

Gender bias and unequal representation at different levels in practice are still significant issues within the profession. This was revealed by my research into the gender pay gap earlier this year, which found that many of the practices now required by law to publish their gender pay gap information were reporting figures above the national average.

From April this year companies employing over 250 people must publish their gender pay gap figures annually. Nationally, according to the Office of National Statistics, the current median gap is 18.4 per cent, with the mean gap standing at 14.1 per cent. Many larger architectural practices in the UK, some with international profiles and considered to be leaders of the profession, reported figures above the national average. As a student, and as a young woman, I find this disappointing.

Foster and Partners, one of the UK’s largest architectural firms, revealed a 10.5 per cent median pay gap and a 23.8 per cent mean pay gap across the company, demonstrating the underrepresentation of women within the profession. This is not surprising given that Foster and Partners’ seven-member partnership board is all male. The reason given for the gender pay gap, in the report published on the practice’s website, was that there more men than women in the practice and more men in senior, higher paid roles. This only points out the obvious in that there is a lack of balance and equality in many companies, with women predominantly in lower paid, junior roles and men in senior positions.

Too many practices I have looked at appear to be making little clear effort to address the issue. Some, such as Zaha Hadid Architects and BDP, have stated their ‘commitment to change’ in response to the data (BDP revealed a 29.5 per cent mean pay gap, while Zaha Hadid Architects wasn’t far behind with 20.9 per cent). Generic commitments to change are not enough: we need action plans for immediate changes and strategic moves to address the disparities within the workforce of these practices.

Working for gender equality: the RIBA’s Ethel Day campaign draws on the inspiration of pioneering woman architect and first female RIBA member Ethel Mary Charles (left).
Working for gender equality: the RIBA’s Ethel Day campaign draws on the inspiration of pioneering woman architect and first female RIBA member Ethel Mary Charles (left). Credit: RIBA Collections

More hopefully, I also found instances of practices actively addressing the gender gap in the profession. Hawkins\Brown is one of the few companies that has presented below-average figures for its 2017/2018 gender pay gap reports. Employing around 250 people, the London and Manchester based practice revealed a 9.6 per cent mean pay gap and a 2.6 per cent median pay gap, way ahead of many other firms. Hazel York, a partner at Hawkins\Brown, commented on how the practice plans to close the gender gap in the future, and shared some of the measures put in place in recent years such as enhanced maternity leave, paternity leave, shared parental leave, flexible working arrangements and practice-wide mentoring. The gender pay gap figures demonstrate the commitment paying off, as well as the values of Hawkins\Brown as a company.

Sheppard Robson, which employs over 300 people across its offices in London, Manchester and Glasgow, reported an 11 per cent mean pay gap and a 10.9 per cent median pay gap, also under the national average figures and proving that there is hope that gender parity can be achieved in larger practices. In its gender pay gap reporting, the firm recognises it still has a way to go in achieving true equality in practice and outlines plans to conduct consultation sessions across its three UK locations to understand how it can continue making improvements to equality in practice. It has also set out plans for closing its gender pay gaps across the next year, anticipating a decline from 11 per cent to -0.33 per cent by April 2019.

Other sectors are using industry-wide strategic plans to encourage women into senior roles and ensure pay equality for all. In 2004, Agenda for Change came into operation in the NHS, which sought to modernise pay for 1.1 million staff in England. The new system was introduced with the aim of providing clear pay grades for all staff and to encourage staff development and improve overall performance. It hasn’t been entirely successful. Despite the workforce being 77 per cent women, significant pay gaps were exposed within the NHS in March 2018. And, notably, the programme excludes doctors, dentists and senior managers, skewing the data as it is predominantly men in these positions.

Attempting to address this gap more recently is the report NHS Women on Boards 50:50 by 2020 (2017), which seeks to address the imbalance at a higher level by providing information on the current gender distribution. According to the report, ‘in order to be gender balanced, NHS boards in England need another 500 women’. This would allow the executive representation of the industry to better reflect the equality they want to see across all levels of the NHS – and, as with most sectors, the report suggests it needs to start at the top. Recommendations include enhancing existing communications to boards regarding possible root causes of gender imbalance to tackle the issues more proactively, and building gender specific learning into NHS training programmes to cover subjects such as ‘unconscious bias, management of flexible working and specific female coaching, mentoring and sponsorship’.

The architectural profession could learn from the successes, and failings, of the NHS Agenda for Change. The concept of clear pay bands and career progression – focusing on the significance of the existing gender gap – would lend itself well to a profession that currently lacks a consistent and fair structure. We all have a duty to make the profession equal, diverse, inclusive, exciting, fair and representative. I urge both individuals and companies to take a long hard look at their workplaces and gather support to ensure that necessary and immediate changes are made. We need meaningful action and assurances that attempts at equality in architecture will be sustained long enough to take effect.


Abigail Patel is a student representative on RIBA National Council

For more information on improving gender equality see Reducing the gender pay gap and improving gender equality in organisations: Evidence-based actions for employers

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