Women in Architecture: to Be or Not to be a Mother 7

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015
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The women in architecture debate can be a tired one.

It is no secret that women are leaving the profession in droves. This is supported by stories of gender inequality, poor working or pay conditions and the strain of balancing motherhood and an architectural career.

A 2014 Architects Journal survey found that 87 per cent of its women respondents believe that having children puts women at a disadvantage in architecture.

2014 Architects Journal survey results

2014 Architects Journal survey results

It is often considered that women in architecture only have two choices: to be an architect or to be a mother.

This almost “stuck” issue reigns true if you consider aligning statistics of women in architecture:

  • Women are generally scarce in senior architectural positions, particularly post graduation. In the UK, first year architecture studios have a 50:50 male to female ratio but the profession remains male-dominated, demonstrating that women are leaving at some point.
  • In the US, reports show that women now make up over 40 per cent of the architecture students in the US but only account for 23 per cent of those working in architecture.
  • In Australia, a 2012 Graduate Careers Australia report revealed gender pay discrepancies that is regularly highlighted as a reason for women, mothers in particular leaving the profession. The architecture and building industry had the highest pay gap across all industries at 17.3 per cent.

At the time, Shelly Penn, former national president of the Australian Institute of Architects called the results “hugely disappointing.”

“Despite similar numbers of female and male graduates for the last three decades, women are less likely to register as architects after graduation,” she said. “As careers progress, the barriers for women increase, as evidenced by lower numbers in senior positions and higher attrition rates; the need for part-time or flexible work hours when juggling career and parenthood also affects women most heavily.”

So rather than contribute to the “why are women leaving architecture” debate, it can be helpful to examine the lives and careers of three successful women in Australia’s architectural industry to see exactly what children have to do with it all.

Each of our interviewees is a registered architect in Australia.

  • Sarah Buckeridge is a director at Australian architecture and design firm Hayball and has held this position since 2007. She is a mother of three sons aged 13, 10 and four.
  • Caroline Pidcock has been a director or her own firm, PIDCOCK – Architecture & Sustainability, for 23 years. As the name suggests, her firm is dedicated to ecological design and she has chosen to have no children in order to progress her career.
  • Jennifer Crawford has held architectural roles at various large firms but recently left to launch her own residential coaching business – New Home Coach. Crawford has two children, aged eight and three, and has been in her current role for less than a year.
Sarah Buckeridge, Hayball director, mum of three sons

Sarah Buckeridge, Hayball director, mum of three sons

All three embarked on their careers without considerating whether being a mother would benefit or penalise their career opportunities.

“I’d never really considered that being an architect or selecting another profession was ever going to be a barrier to motherhood,” Buckeridge said.

Crawford agreed that when she was initially pursuing an architectural career, she was not focused on motherhood.

In contrast, Pidcock didn’t realise that not having children was an option when she was growing up.

Pidcock had a Catholic upbringing and was heavily involved in the raising of her four younger sisters, particularly after the death of her mother at an early age.

While exposed to the elements of motherhood from an early age, when she was 27, Pidcock made the decision to not have children and three years later created a business plan to launch her own architecture firm.

She recalls being sparked by the writing words of Simone de Beauvoir when she made this decision.

“De Beauvoir said that she could do so much more with her career if she wasn’t looking after children so I thought, well that’s amazing, and that sounds like something I could get my head around,” said Pidcock. “And, I can honestly say I ‘ve never regretted it.”

Instead, she has enjoyed a fruitful career which has enabled her to work long hours guilt-free, and to be flexible with projects, meetings and seeing clients wherever they may be located.

Caroline Pidcock chose not to have children in order to progress her career

Caroline Pidcock chose not to have children in order to progress her career

Daily Schedules

Research has shown that many women don’t return into their original roles following maternity leave, or opt for part-time positions.

Buckeridge has been working in a part-time or almost full-time position since she had her first son in 2001.

“I think I’ve basically worked every combination of hours that you can…” she said.

This included three days, four days and nine-day fortnights.

“It’s really changed year to year based on the age of the children,” she said. “My role at work requires ongoing flexibility and not just setting a part time schedule and sticking to that rigidly because it’s an ever changing picture of what’s going to work best and achieve that balance.”

Today, she is less involved in the delivery end of projects on site as it requires daily involvement and quick turnaround on responses.

Jennifer Crawford, director and mother of two wanted more time and flexibility so left a larger practice to fly solo

Jennifer Crawford, director and mother of two, wanted more time and flexibility, so she left a larger practice to fly solo

After having her first son, Crawford went into a part-time format of four days per week, including one day on the weekend.

With no children, Pidcock remembers having five of the busiest years of her life in her early thirties. During this time, she was growing her firm while teaching and developing curriculum on green architecture for the University of Newcastle.  She was also driving all over the countryside and beginning her involvement with boards within the University of Newcastle Academic Senate.

“Today, while I remain heavily involved in the practice, I have another business, a prefabricated flat pack housing system called &U,” said Pidcock. “I’m really excited about this new venture and have dropped a number of board positions to enable me to do that. It’s a lot of things to fill your day.”

Workplace Support

Buckeridge, Pidcock and Crawford all said their workplaces were supportive of the personal choices of parent employees and offer flexibility to both mothers and fathers.

Pidcock employs two part-time mothers and a sometimes part-time father at her firm, while Crawford says during her pregnancies and return from maternity leave, her former workplaces were also supportive.

Buckeridge says Hayball has many flexible working opportunities for mothers, fathers and those who are balancing teaching roles or other personal or study commitments.

She also believes her tenure has allowed her to balance architecture and motherhood a bit more seamlessly.

“Inherently, you’ve got a support network by working with a lot of other people so you can manage those processes with other team members when you’re not in the office,” she said. “So I do wonder if it would be more challenging if you were a sole practitioner.”

She also credits her support networks at home, grandparents and a partner who also has flexibility in his work.

Key Challenges

Crawford cites time as her biggest challenge of being a mother.

“Being able to balance time with children and time in the office,” she said. “It doesn’t get better when kids get to school, I think it gets harder.”

Buckeridge, meanwhile, misses the opportunity for early morning productivity.

“When you’re balancing children and work, you tend to be more constrained at the start and the finish of each working day,” she said. “(There is a) feeling sometimes that there’s not that breathing space in the working day so there’s not as much flexibility to continue on a task that you normally might have the luxury to do.”

Buckeridge added that maintaining currency with technology in an ever-evolving industry can be a challenge when considering a six to 12-month maternity break. However, since many projects are lengthy, she has left projects and had the opportunity to pick them up again and see them through to completion upon her return.

Pidcock, meanwhile was president of the Australian Institute of Architects from 2002 to 2005 while managing a host of projects and says the only reason she could manage it all was because she wasn’t married and didn’t have children.

To Be or Not to Be (A Mother)

When considering a post-mother architectural profession, can the industry influence the career pathway a woman will take?

The recent Parlour surveys Where Do All the Women Go? and And What About the Men?, first published in the AA Dossier on Gender Equity, reveal it does.

The survey saw 1,237 women and 918 men respond, and the data showed twice as many women had taken a career break of six months or more (43.5 per cent of women and 20.6 per cent of men). One quarter of the women who had taken a break had done likewise, while almost one half had taken time off to care for children or other family members (355 women compared to just 31 men).

An overview of Parlour survey results  Click to enlarge

An overview of Parlour survey results: Click to enlarge
Image courtesy of archiparlour.org

“All of these differences indicate that women are more likely to have atypical or flexible career paths, with multiple breaks, different levels of intensity and changing roles over the course of a career,” said Justine Clark, editor of Parlour, in a November overview of the results. “They are also more likely to move in and out of private practice and to work in related areas. In contrast, men are more likely to follow a ‘traditional’ career path and are more active in the conventional areas of influence and power in the profession.”

Clark added that respondents had the opportunity to give longer, open-ended responses to many of the survey questions with an obvious trend – women referring to the difficulties of balancing work and family life in a profession that often demands long hours and offers little financial reward in return.

In other responses noted in an article by Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, women with young children described their careers as “stalled,” “unsupported,” “on-hold,” “shaky” and “slowed down.”

Pidcock has a similar perspective.

“I think it’s always going to be hard for women to really thrive in the architecture profession until the industry is more equitable to offer inclusive part time opportunities for both men and women,” she said. “I think that’s also why many women who decide to have children, look to run their own business because they can manage it in a way they like and I think that while they often do smaller projects, they’re perhaps not as well recognised as they should be.”

“Not having children has offered me much greater flexibility in my business because I’m not conflicted by other dependent’s requirements. I think financially, it’s been simpler, so that has enabled me to take on more interesting and less financially rewarding projects.”

Indeed, Crawford added that motherhood was one of the reasons she started her own business but finance remains a challenge.

“I have been able to spend significantly more time with my children but as it is a new business, the financial situation is nowhere near what it was while employed,” she said.

Crawford also believes her career progression has been affected by motherhood but remains content with her decision to have children.

“I do believe I would be in a different position now if I did not have children,” she said. “I do not blame my children nor the profession for this but it is just the way things are. I hope to build my business over the next year or two to hopefully assist my family financially.”

Of course, opportunities also remain for the profession to become more inclusive for women and men through pay equality, offering flexible hours and arrangements that support the viability of women to reach and remain in a senior leadership role, with or without child.

“Traditional architecture practice is dying yet there is a real hunger for the services architects provide,” said Crawford.  “We, as architects need to look at new ways to serve the community in a profitable and businesslike way.”

Buckeridge would also like to see more women at her senior level.

“You don’t really see much representation of female directors in larger practices in particular and I think that’s a shame because I don’t think there are any barriers that can’t be overcome with the right support,” she said. “If that can encourage women to consider tackling both (motherhood and a career), that would be great from my perspective.”

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  1. Louise Stone

    I read your article with much interest (and sadness).
    With children at school age it is so difficult to attend meetings at the beginning of the day. I had no problem when they attended Childcare as really there is no exact start time and no extra charge if you had to drop them off before 9.
    Now, I have real conflict with myself of guilt (and money) if I have to meet around 9. I have to pay a fee for before school care which is $23 per hour.
    My kids already go to after school care which costs me almost $10,000.
    If I have a meeting time of 9:30 this would be great – no fees and no guilt (work or kids) but my current employer does not understand this even though I work at home on my laptop after the kids are in bed.
    I feel I can't win! is it just me?
    With mobile technology available in all formats why do employers feel it is necessary to have employees IN THE OFFICE? Flexibility is the key. I am considering moving firms currently, not because I want an easy life, but I want a better work/life balance while still putting in the hours for my pay.

    • Hi Louise, thanks for your comment. Firstly, you are definitely not alone. All of the female architects I spoke to have recognised your exact challenges but have credited the organisations that they work with. It's important, whatever your profession that you work in a supportive and flexible environment for both you and your employer. I believe traditional 9 to 5 hours will change as more industries adopt this mobile movement and realise that productivity is not always an on-site requirement. I hope this way of working is not too far away for you.

  2. Lauren

    This applies to all professional industries, not just architecture. I am 30 this year, considering children in the next 2 years and have last year found the perfect job. What to do? How do I know how my employer will re-act? It is a fingers crossed situation for many I think! I have friends who have gone back to work after 6 months, part time, then full time after 1 year because financially they can't afford it. Even if childcare does cost an arm and a leg.

    • Hi Lauren, thanks for your comment. I do agree with you that similar challenges are across several industries. As I mentioned to Louise above, I believe that it comes down to your organisation. A professional employer who truly values your contribution will work with you to create a solution the helps everyone. Sure, it might be challenging, but it can certainly be done.

  3. Laura T

    Children are economically worthless and far from convenient. They dominant your time and jeopardize your sanity. BUT – my children have brought more joy and delight in my life than any architecture project I've ever worked on. They change your entire perspective on life! I have learned so much about myself, how to manage my time better, how to negotiate necessary terms, gained a better sense of humor, and have become a better designer. It's challenging because I am capable of so much more at my current job but to take on more responsibility and "move up the ranks" requires more time. Time is the biggest constraint for mothers in architecture. I never regret spending an extra 10 minutes cuddling my daughter or helping my son. I try not to "rush" them out the door & enjoy the little time I do have with them in the morning and evening. The biggest challenge for me was to lower my expectations for myself as a designer so I would stop feeling defeated. Setting realistic goals and recognizing that I can't be the superstar at work if it means less time with my kids. I have never met anyone who regrets having children – no matter the toll it takes on their career.

  4. Swarup

    I enjoyed this article . Thank you. But its sad that some women are in this disadvantaged position and sadder to think in some cases their career had to come before motherhood. The short answer for a fairer society is better childcare at workplaces. It will work; irrespective of your profession.

  5. Carmen Stan

    You can have it all, you just have to be willing to work a little harder. I am a licensed Architect and a mother to a 16 month old exceptional little girl. I worked until the day before my delivery, I was actually on a job site the day before and walked about 2 miles around a huge apartment complex, I reviewed shop drawings during my "brief" maternity leave and I don't regret anything!