Unsurprisingly, the proportion of female architecture students fell to 31% last year, and only one in 10 full-time professionals is female. To halt the slide, RIBA president George Ferguson promises to name and shame the discriminators. He must realise that the restructuring of the profession – discussed here last week – will be capsized if there aren't enough talented designers to do the work. Of course, the aspects of architectural life that most nauseate women – antisocial hours, discriminatory management, and so on – are nothing new, and some apply to men. They also reflect the culture of the wider construction industry. So, although Ferguson's pledge to discipline sexist architects may focus a few minds – as long as he has the guts to expel persistent offenders – it won't eradicate the entrenched prejudice that keeps women designers down.
Practices such as RHWL have begun to make life possible for its female staff by offering flexitime and part-time working. But on their own, such enlightened practices might leave women feel even more marginalised, simply because so many decisions will be made in their absence. One way of restoring confidence is to establish a "buddy" system, in which senior women coach their colleagues. Even better is the kind of mentoring advocated by Women In Property, where the mentor is from another firm, and so free from office politics. Such women can become individual role models. Despite stars like Zaha Hadid, there are desperately few female icons in architecture, particularly in universities. And it won't escape Ferguson's attention that the RIBA itself has never had a woman president in its 166-year history. Indeed, he pipped Annette Fisher to the post.
That still leaves the problem of the atavistic boss. Another recent report, by KPMG, found that, in contracting, 90% of executives thought there was a skills crisis, but two-thirds didn't think women were under-represented. Psychologists call this ability to believe two incompatible things cognitive dissonance. Once we have recovered from the shock of learning that cultivated architects have the same attitudes to women as hard-boiled builders, we need to find an answer. This is training. Bosses must learn to value women's problem-solving and communication skills, and learn that maternity leave is not a headache, but a way of gaining a wiser, more valuable employee. Until such a Damascene conversion occurs, women can only exploit whatever token offerings come their way. They will need to be patient. After all, it wasn't for nothing that architects were described as self-made men who worship their own creator.
Adrian Barrick, editor