'Macho' architect schools drive away female talent

August 1, 2003

University schools of architecture are to be monitored to ensure they do not discriminate against female staff and students, following a hard-hitting report for the Royal Institute of British Architects, writes Olga Wojtas.

Riba commissioned researchers at the University of the West of England to investigate why so many qualified female architects left the profession.

The team, led by Ann de Graft-Johnson, senior lecturer in planning and architecture at UWE, found women's decisions to leave the profession were not linked to academic or practical ability or to poor career choice. There was generally a combination of factors, including sexism and a macho culture that some of the women surveyed said was evident in higher education.

A fifth of architecture staff are female, but this figure can be much smaller in individual schools. One female academic reported that her university was "positively Neanderthal when it comes to equality of employment".

A number of female students complained about the lack of role models. "Some women found that learning in a 'completely male-dominated environment' was 'very disillusioning' and 'very biased'," the report says.

"One respondent commented that 'the male lecturers go on about how ladies do not survive in the profession'. This sort of experience hardly lays the basis for a healthy, equitable educational environment within which women can study."

Riba is set to raise the issues of staffing, improved teaching methods and equal treatment of male and female students with the architecture school heads, student groups and the Learning and Teaching Support Network's Centre for Education in the Built Environment. It aims to seek out more female external examiners and student mentors.

Ms de Graft-Johnston said higher education also had a part to play in telling students about best business practice. Since architects had no advisory body, many knew little about their employment rights.

The report sets out a series of recommendations for the profession. George Ferguson, president of Riba, said: "We have some brilliant women architects but we are losing some of our brightest graduates because of poor working conditions, the macho culture and low pay in the profession.

He added: "Architectural practice needs to take action if we want to be able to attract and keep talented and committed architects in the industry."

* Jack Pringle, vice-president for education at Riba, has hit out at the way architectural research has been "unfairly" penalised, writes Alison Goddard.

No school of architecture gained the top 5* rating in the 2001 research assessment exercise and only three gained grade 5 and eight grade 4. The Higher Education Funding Council for England decided not to fully fund grade 4 departments.

Mr Pringle said: "This is a double blow. First we were concerned that our schools' research efforts may not have been judged fairly. Now those that scored 4 look as if they will have their research funds stripped away. It is vital that architecture continues to be represented in the top universities so that we can attract the very brightest students."

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