Architects stand accused of a 'disgusting' degree of sexism – not least by their own institute. We find out why the RIBA's blown the whistle – and how it plans to tackle the problem
Annual RIBA statistics show that, last year, women made up 11% of the architectural profession – the lowest figure for 10 years. They also show that only 31% of architectural students were women, a drop of three percentage points on the previous year.

Those results coincided with a six-month research project carried out by the institute into women's experience in the workplace. It found that they faced low and unequal pay, inflexible anti-family working hours, sexism and a macho culture. Within many practices, women were sidelined for training and promotion, ultimately leading to lower levels of responsibility within a practice and slower career progression than men. A large number of the women interviewed by researchers complained of "tokenism", by which they meant that they were being brought into job-winning teams, but not getting job-running opportunities.

But perhaps most surprising is the discovery of shocking employment practices. One female architect who was interviewed by RIBA researchers told how she was forced to reapply for her job after maternity leave – a practice that is not merely reprehensible, but illegal.

RIBA president-elect George Ferguson was appalled by the research's findings, and says he is determined to crack down on the poor employment practices in the industry.

"I'm all for breaking down this macho culture," he says.

Ferguson's plan is to tackle the problem head on by tightening RIBA codes of practices on the issue but also, more crucially, by hauling in firms that discriminate to face its disciplinary committee for investigation. "Reporting firms to the disciplinary committee is the ultimate weapon if we do find that employers are breaking the rules," says Ferguson.

A key finding of the RIBA study is that money, or the lack of it, is a serious deterrent to entering the profession. After seven years of training, a newly qualified architect can expect to start on as little as £22,000 per annum. Of course, this applies to both sexes, but many women reported to the RIBA that their employers did not have transparent policies regarding pay. Some women talked about suspecting, and often discovering, large salary discrepancies between themselves and their male colleagues. Others told researchers of being asked not to discuss pay with male colleagues when joining a practice. The research highlighted the need to raise the awareness among female architects of their employment rights in a profession that is not unionised.

The findings told that most women had very low expectations regarding pay and many were not even receiving the minimum wage during their year-out placement after Part 1. "Of the women we've spoken to, there was a general feeling that if they didn't shut up, they might lose their jobs," says Ann de Graft-Johnson, one of the researchers who worked on the study.

But even if the discriminatory culture is addressed, there is still a dearth of women entering the industry. Judi Farren-Bradley, deputy head of Architecture at Kingston University, says it is easy to see why there is a crisis – the training is simply too long and demanding. "Maintaining seven years of intensive study and practical work experience is hard on anybody – add to that extracurricular jobs and a family, and you begin to see the problem," she says.

There is a general feeling that if women don’t shut up, they might lose their jobs

Ann de Graft-Johnson, RIBA researcher

Annette Fisher, Ferguson's main rival in the last RIBA presidential election, studied architecture at Bath and Strathclyde universities and worked in the UK and the US before setting up Fisher Associates. She has had to juggle being a single mother with her career, and she remembers all too well the pressures of student life. "My degree was a culture shock. The workload was enormous, with endless all-nighters preparing for critiques when other students were out having fun. I can see why so many women finish the degree and think it isn't the life for them."

Fisher adds that the long hours and low pay that mark the profession are not the only deterrents – the lack of role models in the education process has a lot to answer for. "When I was studying there were no female staff whatsoever, and that is very discouraging for young women looking for examples of future success," she says.

Her observations are borne out by RIBA's statistics, which report that women comprise 31% of architectural teaching staff – a statistic that worries Angela Brady, chairwoman of pressure group Women in Architecture and partner in Brady + Mallalieu. She says that there needs to be an equal balance of men and women in lecturing and tutoring. "Right now it's the men who develop the curriculum and that means the project work and assessment methods don't always reflect interests across the board."

Brady's point is taken up by Alicia Pivaro who graduated from the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, in 1991. She is now the creative director at design agency Wordsearch. "After my diploma I decided architecture wasn't for me. The culture and ideas side I still find fascinating, but the actual practicalities and the construction side weren't appealing," she says. Pivaro feels that the competitive nature of the training may need to be rethought if it is to inspire women to stay on. "The critique system of assessment involves a gruelling public exposure of your work – and in my experience, it was the arrogant men who thrived in that environment."

The women who do stick it out encounter the profession's "macho culture", meaning that their ideas and careers are overlooked. Fisher says one of the main reasons she set up her own practice was because she got tired of being the number two to people she knew she was better than.

Brady and Fisher agree that the undervaluing of women's communication and management skills, together with an unsympathetic view of maternity leave, are squeezing women out. "Many practices fail to acknowledge that there are large numbers of women clients and they don't always want to talk to men," says Brady. "And if you've got 40 years of career left after qualifying, six months off for maternity leave is nothing." But many practices don't cater for mothers. Fisher can recall the heavily pregnant architect who was moved from her ground-floor office to the fourth floor, despite there being no lifts.

There are some practices in the industry that have rational equal opportunities policies. RHWL Architects, for example, offers flexitime to allow mothers to work around the opening times of their children's crèche. It is no surprise, then, that of their 103 architectural staff in the UK, 26 are women – double the industry average.

There are also signs of improvement from the big firms. Richard Rogers believes that the lack of women in architecture is "absolutely disgusting". As a result, the Richard Rogers Partnership also has flexible hours and part-time arrangements for mothers. Fifteen per cent of its architectural staff are women, and the practice is keen to hire more. Human resources manager Uta Werner encourages RRP's female architects and pairings of men and women to go out and give lectures in universities and schools. "We want students to identify with female role models and see the successful partnership of men and women in the profession," explains Werner.

But Brady believes a lot more must be done than just well-meaning research reports and isolated incidences of good practice. She calls on the government to use its commercial muscle to tackle the problem. "Most big companies have been protected for too long. The government should encourage and commission firms that have women involved in project work," she says.

The government showed a fleeting interest in the issue last year, when culture minister Baroness Blackstone attended a Women in Architecture lunch at the RIBA, but she offered words of concern rather than statements of policy. "I don't think she's since done anything about it," says Brady, who nevertheless acknowledges that the grassroots approach is vital to getting women into the profession. WIA encourages members to go into primary and secondary schools and sell architecture to schoolgirls. "We need to get them in and keep them in by giving them work experience, employing them and showing them how good a diverse practice can be," Brady says.

Institutionally sexist: The accusations against architects

  • Only 11% of architects are women
  • Only 31% of architecture students are women
  • Women are consistently paid less, overlooked for promotion and denied the opportunity to run projects
  • Firms’ working hours make no concessions to the needs of mothers. In one case, a heavily pregnant woman was moved to the fourth flour of a building without lifts. In another, a mother had to reapply for her job after returning from maternity leave
  • The macho culture that predominates in many practices mean that women’s ideas and abilities are ignored
  • Training is systematically biased against women