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International Women's Day 2022

— 08 March 2022 by Emma Ward-Lambert

StromArchitects InternationalWomensDay
Image credit: www.internationalwomensday.com

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements and call for equity. In an industry such as architecture, which has historically always had a markedly low number of women in the profession, this day feels especially important.

Whilst I don't necessarily believe that gender determines how we design, our lived experiences however, do. They inform how we think, behave, analyse issues, consider others, and problem solve. 

Women have different needs and often different priorities; statistically they are more likely to take on caring responsibilities within families, to have taken a career break, to consider others in their decision making, to make environmentally friendly choices. It therefore stands to reason that more diverse workforces will approach challenges in a more varied manner, and studies show that they also produce more innovative solutions.

Corbusier's famous Modulor man, which determined so much of the Modernist world - from the size of city blocks, to furniture and door handle heights - was based on the (then) average British man's height. Today, huge amounts of our world are still geared towards white, middle class, males as the default; everything from seatbelts and voice recognition software, to uniforms, AI, and medical advice. This results in disparity in design, healthcare, technology, and also risks producing a more monochrome, two-dimensional world. How can we strive to create solutions that fit a variety of people, if the people problem-solving are predominantly the same?

The theme of this year's International Women's Day is "Break the bias". As a woman in a very-much male-dominated sphere, I've had the usual inappropriate comments and the exhausting gendered stereotypes - sadly I'm sure we all have. The jokes on site about getting me a pink hi-vis vest; the assumption that I'm there to take the tea and coffee orders, not chair the meeting; the emails I've had to rewrite and fluff-out because my polite, bullet-pointed message was deemed too 'bossy' or 'demanding', while near-identical ones by male counterparts were praised for being 'concise' and 'confident'; the contractors who assume I'm the client's wife, not the architect; the conferences where people are confused about why the secretary has been sent, because god-forbid they let women in the profession; the ideas I've had overlooked that, when suggested by male colleagues, were taken on-board with gusto; I've been at awards functions where people assume I'm the wife of the nominee and not the project architect herself...and the myriad of other incidents (big and small) that make being a woman in architecture harder or less enjoyable.

We want this to be a thing of the past, and part of the solution is better representation. I'm proud that there are two women on our senior management team of four, but we want to follow that balance through in the rest of our workforce. The CVs we receive are overwhelming male - not surprising when women are out-numbered 2 to 1 in architecture, but perhaps also because women predominantly work for larger firms. We're a small practice, but this means we have flexibility and a more human approach. Staff aren’t just bums on seats – they’re people we value, whose partners and kids we know, whose house renovations we ask about, whose hobbies we share. We have people who work part time, people who work from home on certain days because it works better for their mental health or their doggy day care obligations, and people who work different hours so that they can arrange childcare more easily. Members of staff can make work work for them; we are not a one-size-fits-all office. We hope that this will appeal to a broader range of architects and capitalise on the wealth of architectural talent that can often feel side-lined in an industry that habitually pushes for longer hours, rigid working practises and a misplaced sense of martyrdom.

At Ström we don't want a more diverse office simply to satisfy quotas or align us with a hashtag; we want an office that reflects the world around us, and that will ultimately make us better designers and problem solvers. We want staff who can do the job, who can innovate, who can get on well with the team, but who aren't necessarily exactly alike. These are important facets that contribute to our design skills. These are different voices, with different things to say, that we want to hear.

And yes (because it's invariably asked when International Women's Day is mentioned) there IS an International Men's Day. We'll see you on 19th November to celebrate them then...

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