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RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Role Model – what that means to me

RIBA Role Models

At the RIBA Role Models launch event at Portland Place, London, June 2015

Why an RIBA Role Model?

I became interested in becoming an RIBA role model for two reasons. One, because I am a female architect and I have noticed for some years that there are very few of us! And two, because I studied Part 2 part time, a route that is not well publicised but makes studying architecture more feasible and less daunting financially.

Here is a link to my RIBA Role Model Profile

The only female architect in the office

I was fortunate to work in a roughly 50/50 male/female office for 5 years (after previously working for a practice of 14 staff where the only other female was the receptionist) and really enjoyed having female senior architects to look up to. Previously all my architectural role models were male (and most still are). There is nothing wrong with that. I have received a lot of support from everyone in the industry whether male or female. To me, it is a wonderful place to be, full of highly intelligent creative, witty people. But when you are sat in a boardroom with 10 other men, all of them at least 10 years your senior, but you are the architect and expected to chair the meeting, it is rather nice to have support from a female colleague who understands what that is like.  Women, even those with high intelligence, lots of qualifications and experience, suffer from imposter syndrome (when you wonder when people might find out that you don’t really know what you are doing!). They talk themselves down, where men would usually talk themselves up. This can lead to higher stress levels and high levels of conscientiousness. The first one is unhelpful but can be relieved from feeling you are not alone, the latter one is a highly valued skill in any employee.

None of this of course, has prevented me from being an architect and starting my own practice. I am passionate about architecture and can’t imagine doing anything else. This is what has got me through, but also I have been very fortunate in the quality of experience I have had. I have never experienced sexism directly, but unfortunately know of many others who have.

While writing my book I have had the privilege of meeting some of my architect heroes which has been fabulous, but perhaps disappointing that more couldn’t have been female heroes on my bucket list.

Why do women drop out of architecture school?

I also have the privilege of teaching technology to architecture BA students. At BA level there are roughly 50% female students, this drops off to 20-30% at Part 2 level and even less qualify at Part 3. It made me think that something is happening in that year out that is putting off female students, but not male ones. I hope by being a role model I can encourage more female students to continue to pursue architecture which is a wonderful career.

Architecture has to be long hours and inflexible?

Architecture is famous for long hours and inflexible working patterns. However I have been fortunate to see another side to that. While working at a large practice and studying for Part 2, I worked 3 days in the office term time and 5 in the holidays.  I was running 3 jobs on site, the experience of which fed into my course (technology was no bother whatsoever). It was usual for me to check emails when at university and if there was anything urgent from the builder, I could ring the office to send things for me. It made me realise that flexible working was possible in architecture. I was also famous in the office for leaving on time. It was rare for me to work late unless there was a very important deadline. I was concerned this would make me appear uncommitted. But I knew that my life outside of architecture (triathlon, gardening, gigs) left me refreshed for the following day. Because I wanted my life so much, I was very efficient in the day times to ensure I could have both – architecture and a life.

It is now part of my practice culture that people work flexibly for me. In the winter I enjoy a run or a trip to the allotment in the afternoon in daylight and work in the dark evenings to catch up. Why shouldn’t my employees also be able to do this?

Part 2 Part Time

As I have mentioned above, studying part time gave me the opportunity to gain really valuable experience while studying. I studied for an extra year (Part 2 is 3 or 4 years studied part time, I chose 3), but I went straight through to Part 3 as I already had enough experience, so it actually saved me a year of practical experience. It also meant that when I lost my job in the recession, I had enough experience to set up my own practice, something that would not have been possible for me, had I studied Part 2 full time. Because I worked full time in the university holidays, my salary was enough that I could pay all of my living expenses and pay my own university fees. University fees are much cheaper when you study part time, even taking into account the cost of the extra year. I therefore only have a small student loan from when I studied my BA full time. This may not be the right route for everyone but at least if more people know about it, they have a choice and at least financial reasons should not put them off architecture.

Here is a link to my RIBA Role Model Profile

August 2, 2015