Mac class of ‘83 reunion begs question of what we need to do to retain female graduates

Andrew Whalley

This week a commercial for a start up toy company, GoldieBlox, went viral on Youtube. A trio of young girls capture the imagination of the viewers as they design an immense Rube-Goldberg device of their own construction. The company designs toys for girls that they hope will fire their interest in science and engineering. A short film clearly shows that design and engineering should not be only the domain of males.

This important message is timely. Not only are we seeing a reduction in the number of female graduates in certain areas of engineering, we are seeing a trend where the senior levels of the engineering, design and construction professions continue to be totally dominated by men.

This ad made me pause for thought and reflect on how this trend had played out amongst my contemporaries.

A  common theme emerged amongst many of my female contemporaries, the rubicon of children and the challenge of balancing family life with a demanding profession

This summer I had the opportunity of joining my graduating class (almost equally male and female- a unique case 30 years ago) at the Mackintosh School of Architecture for a 30 year reunion. During our time together we spent a fascinating afternoon with each of us giving a short presentation on how our careers and lives have unfolded.

A  common theme emerged among many of my female contemporaries, the rubicon of children and the challenge of balancing family life with a demanding profession, a problem inherent in many contemporary professions. However, as a class we seemed to have done considerably better than the national average, with a number of my fellow female students in senior positions. Interestingly, only two are principals in the private sector, the balance working for government agencies or teaching, including positions such as head of the diploma school and deputy head of the architecture school. Perhaps this pattern indicates that public institutions create a more flexible and responsive work environment that allows women’s careers to develop and flourish.

I also believe that public institutions are less likely to demonstrate a male-induced artificially competitive atmosphere in the workplace. This manifests itself in a number of ways, a simple example is the idea that the number of working hours is the ultimate proof of your contribution. Consequently this creates a feeling that the need to keep regular hours to fulfill family commitments diminishes your worth. This in turn reflects on an individual’s self-confidence, increasing levels of stress and lowering professional self-esteem.

The key for private practices is to create a more equitable workplace where our female professionals can develop their career with a sense of value and recognised contribution. Naturally all architects want to be appraised for their individual professional skills rather than their gender or family status, and this is how it should be. But if we fail to address these key issues, I fear we will continue to needlessly lose many talented female architects and engineers, and our professions will all be poorer for it.

Andrew Whalley is deputy chairman at Grimshaw