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Gender balance in architecture: Male, female or Martian, it doesn’t matter as long as you do a good job – Virginia Newman, Practice Director at KSR Architects

Women in architecture

Virginia Newman is Practice Director at KSR Architects, having joined in 2006 after 19 years with Sheppard Robson. As practice director she is responsible for HR and marketing matters within the practice as well as managing a number of projects. Virginia is also diversity champion at RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects where she is leading a number of equality and diversity initiatives.

Virginia Newman
Virginia Newman

“…I remember noting one day … that all the architects responsible for external envelopes of buildings were male, with women architects being responsible for the interiors. (The route to promotion tends not to be through designing the toilets.)…”

Discovering my passion for architecture: Gender not an issue

I was an all-rounder at school, good at most subjects but not brilliant or committed to any of them, so architecture was the perfect subject combining art, science, economics, law etc etc. I studied at the Bartlett and have worked for a small number of highly varied practices starting with my graduate year out working for a sole practitioner.

I did my Part III professional qualification whilst working for a medium size practice on housing association work, and then moved to Sheppard Robson which grew from about 100 people when I joined to 300 people when I left. I spent nearly 20 years with SR working mostly on office developments in London and rose to senior associate.

I moved to KSR in 2005, a practice of about 30 architects and interior designers, doing mostly high end residential projects. I have therefore had experience of all sizes of practice as well as a number of building types. I have thoroughly enjoyed each experience. I have never worked for a company where I felt that there were any issues relating to my gender.

A very happy project, with a few stresses and tussles of course

It’s always difficult to pick out a favourite project as each project is memorable for different reasons, and all-encompassing in your life at the time. Perhaps the one I enjoyed the most was a new office building for Grosvenor which ultimately became their own headquarters at 70 Grosvenor Street. It is a polite elegant building which the client is very proud of and has stood the test of time having mellowed into the streetscape.

Grosvenor was a great client, all the design and construction team worked well together and all enjoyed each other’s company. It was a very happy project, with a few stresses and tussles of course.

Architects For Change

The latest survey by Architects Journal (AJ120) reports that approximately 1,850 of the UK-based architects (29%) are women – with the top 10 largest practices leading the way with 34% women, up six points year-on-year. This is a significant improvement from the 12% women in 2000 when I first became involved with Women In Architecture and the RIBA’s fledgling diversity group, Architects For Change. Entry to schools of architecture is now 50/50 and we should aim to maintain that percentage amongst qualified architects, so there is still work to be done.

Rarely a point when you can sit back and say, “I am done”

ColumnsThe reasons for the lack of work/ life balance are very complicated, as evidenced by the research carried out by UWE [University of the West of England] in 2003 Why do women leave architecture? Long working hours are established as the norm in architecture school.

The time required to actually achieve a good design is difficult to predict; there is rarely a point when you can sit back and say, “I am done,” and it is difficult to take shortcuts: architecture is a time consuming process. Furthermore presenteeism is rife and long hours combined with poor pay make it incredibly difficult to juggle childcare, which still tends to fall to the mother. It is very much easier to work long or unpredictable hours if you can afford an army of nannies to help you.

The route to promotion tends not to be through designing the toilets…

Other issues that were cited as reasons for women leaving the profession were feelings of isolation, lack of role models, lack of progression as well as overt and covert sexism. We are all responsible for instantly stamping on overt sexism. Covert sexism is more difficult to spot and is mixed with paternalism and ignorance.

I remember noting one day at Sheppard Robson that all the architects responsible for external envelopes of buildings were male, with women architects being responsible for the interiors. (The route to promotion tends not to be through designing the toilets.) The senior management were not being deliberately sexist and were astonished when I pointed this out. They had no idea and immediately redressed the balance.

Taking positive action and getting involved to make things better as RIBA’s Diversity Champion

I have been actively involved in matters relating to diversity since 2000 when I joined (and instantly became vice chair of) Women In Architecture, which in turn got me involved in the creation of Architects For Change (the RIBA’s advisory group on equality and diversity issues), and representing RIBA on the CIC [Construction Industry Council] Diversity Group. In these roles I became very aware of the difficulties that some women faced in being an architect. It was quite an eye opener for me and I felt obliged to help.

I have subsequently chaired RIBA’s CPD committee, sat on the Practice & Professions Committee and am currently on Membership Committee. Architects are great people and I very much enjoy being involved with the RIBA which in turn adds another dimension to my working life. I was very honoured to be asked to be Diversity Champion. The only shame is that there is still a need for this role.

My role models

There are a large number of women that I respect for different reasons. I could maybe single out Angela Brady (past President of RIBA) for her talent, energy, commitment, generosity and ability to juggle her professional and personal lives. I was vice Chair of WIA [Women in Architecture] when she was chair, and I was breathlessly in her wake! Interestingly, I have never had a woman ‘boss’.

Male, female or Martian – it doesn’t matter as long as you do a good job

Apple MacI do not believe that I have ever experienced overt sex discrimination. Most people you encounter professionally really do not care whether you are male, female or Martian, as long as you do a good job. I guess the greatest challenge was maintaining the work / life balance as a mother. Those long school holidays and unpredictable illnesses were always such a strain. Luckily my son was incredibly placid and tolerant (he is now at university) and my boss was brilliant in allowing me the flexibility to deal with issues.

I recall a client introducing me to a colleague as his ‘lady architect’. The colleague smirked and said he thought I would rather be his ‘woman architect’. I said that I would rather be his architect – my sex was self-evident. It really isn’t worth getting upset by these things.

Encouraging senior women to take responsibility for raising the percentages of women in the profession

It is all very exciting. With the previous champion, Jane Duncan, now being RIBA President this is the perfect time to build on Jane’s passion and previous successes. The percentage of women in the profession is increasing year on year, and the number of women in senior positions is also increasing, although it is still pathetically low.

We need to continue to address both these and to encourage all senior women to take responsibility for raising the percentages. It would be timely to revisit the excellent action plan that the RIBA prepared in response to the Why do women leave architecture? research 12 years ago. 

There are two further areas that I would like to raise the profile of within the profession. First, in a stressful profession mental illness is an issue and I think people should be more aware of the signs of this. I have personally been slack in spotting the signs in a colleague. Second, there is plenty of help and advice on starting your career, but there is very little obvious help for the end of careers. It seems sad that there is no clear soft landing advice for practices in this regard.