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Why do working mothers still struggle in the profession, asks Anna Gidman

Being a female architect can be difficult. We come with an element of risk if we are at an age where we might start having children. We may get pregnant and leave for up to a year or never return. Hardly a useful investment for your practice – and all that paperwork! Then there is the architect mum who has young children. You know the age I mean; the sleepless-nights age where babies and toddlers catch every single germ known to man. The age of awkward phone conversations between working parents, which go something like, “I’m too busy, yes, I know you it did it last time but I have a deadline”.

Who is the first to give in? In my non-survey based experience where both parents are trying to have careers, it is usually one parent more than the other. On what basis? Money. The one who earns less money usually breaks sooner, gives in, makes their apologies and leaves to administer pink medicine and cuddles.

Fear factor

This is based on the fear that sudden and frequent departures from work during the middle of the day are not good. It is felt risky. The person who earns more money should therefore take this risk less often. Now, if you add this to the fact that architects don’t earn that much and throw in some maternal instinct then you have a lot of women architects leaving the profession. If they stay, then not many get far with part time work either. I know architects who have returned part time only to find they have to go back to full time as they simply aren’t taken seriously. On what grounds I wonder? Surely an architect mum by her very existence is proving that she is perfectly capable of running a project?

Women are more likely to return to their previous place of work rather than go to a new job, because it is safer. They are known and have developed relationships. They feel that people will understand that an egg and spoon race is more important than a specification. This is not necessarily a good way to develop a career. If you have worked somewhere for a few years you can still be treated with caution on your return. It took me a while to prove myself and regain the level of responsibility I had previously had. I may have had the occasional bit of goo on my shoulder but I could still do my job. 

Architects are wonderfully and stupidly dedicated. Before I had children I wouldn’t think twice about working until 8 or 9pm, even 2am if something had to be done. But once you have children this is no longer sustainable on a daily basis. This is actually a very good thing indeed. It is quite liberating. There is nothing like a deadline. Having to leave at 5pm can make you work more efficiently than you ever thought possible. A family can also make you more dedicated as you have more riding on your wage. Leaving early will always be difficult though. A scrooge mentality still exists around work and we have to fight that. 

‘When both my children were at nursery I remember calculating that I earned £9.00 after childcare. Yet I still worked three days a week to avoid a big (apparently disastrous) gap in my cv’

If both parents are architects, as we are, it can be especially hard. Whoever picks up the children usually spends the evening alone while the other works late. It’s a single parent mid week experience, which can be lonely and tiring. Something has to change, but what? Perhaps if we respected ourselves more as a profession and demanded higher fees then overtime would reduce as staff would be available to do the work in paid time. Not only are we working long hours and getting paid relatively little compared with other professions, but the cost of childcare is crippling too. When both my children were at nursery I remember calculating that I earned £9.00 after childcare. Yet I still worked three days a week to avoid a big (apparently disastrous) gap in my cv, to get out of the house and to give my children a different experience. 

In the balance

Until there is a true work/life balance, women will continue to leave the profession. Women seem happier to admit that something isn’t working and do something about it. I call this the ‘stop and ask for directions’ phenomena. They will also have time to reflect upon their life during their maternity leave. If you stay in the profession you need to really love it because it requires so much dedication. But other than fees, what could be done to make architecture more attractive?

Practices could actively offer a ‘What would suit you best?’ attitude at work, which should come from the employer, not as cautious requests from the employee. Employees should be brave and demand more flexibility. What are we teaching our children by never being at home? But nor should there be an expectation that those who don’t have families should work late just because they can. A life outside work is crucial, whatever it may be. 

Women fought for the rights to vote and to be educated and join the professions. It is time for men to demand more time at home. Would men do this? Would they fight for all things domestic? I’m not so sure. Does anyone really delight in cleaning the bathroom? But then again, does anyone honestly love plodding through an ironmongery schedule? Ultimately, everything needs to be shared if we are to live equally. 

Anna Gidman is a part time project architect at Ellis Williams Architects. She also teaches part time at Liverpool University. Her architect husband works part time for MUMA.