According to a recent special report on women and work in the Economist, “In America in the early 1970s more than half of all families with children consisted of a breadwinner husband, a stay-at-home wife and two or more kids; now only a fifth do. Instead there are lots of single-parent households, and even if couples live together they no longer necessarily marry. If they do, the wives are likely to go out to work, whether or not they have dependent children, and take only a short break for maternity. Life is too expensive for most families to be able to manage on one pay cheque. In most rich countries the dominant model now is the two-earner family, with both parents working full-time.”
What’s more, though women in developed nations are achieving educational parity with men (higher education, that is), there are still fewer women in the labor market (64% vs. 83%). These women spend twice as much of their time engaging in unpaid, domestic labor. Specifically, housework and childcare. Finally, women still make around 20% less than men. That’s of course better than the 45% wage gap that existed in the late 90’s.
What does this have to do with hiring women in upper management or boardroom positions? Well, for one, there are fewer women. Also, most women are concentrated in entry level and middle management positions, rather than top management. And at every level, including the uppermost echelons of the corporate ladder, women make less than men. Another article finds that “Among the Fortune 500 companies only about 15% of the most senior managers and only 3% of the CEOs were women.” Corporate barriers include the “old boy’s network” which view women as untested, unknown, and riskier. And if women are not on boards who tend to promote their own (i.e. other men), this also affects the promotion of women to upper management. Mentoring systems which aid promotion also privilege men over women. Then there are the informal, after hours socializing networks (at sports bars, for example) that women are either excluded from or find uninviting.
An additional obstruction for women, especially those interested in attaining top management positions, are the concomitant issues of child-bearing and child-raising at the crucial time in their careers when they either have to choose to have children or forgo them to pursue their careers. Men do not have that worry since, the world over, men still do not perform primary care duties, which also happens to be both unpaid and domestic labor.
One Finnish study shows the damage to both parents and children if proper childcare is not provided. And significantly, the States does not mandate childcare. That falls on individual parents who often cannot bear that cost. Additionally, the concept of parental leave is non-existent, at least in the States. And then there is the unspoken discrimination against both hiring or promoting women who appear that they may be ready to start a family.
In fact, America does not have a mandate for paid maternity leave. Most professional positions that require a Bachelor’s degree do offer some sort of maternity leave. But as recent as 1978, women could get fired, that’s right, fired, for being pregnant or having a child. As for the Family and Medical Leave Act, it only provides “certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid [italics mine], job-protected leave per year.” What’s more, one needs to have been employed 12 months in order to qualify for these paltry “benefits.” Time taken off time during one’s pregnancy can be counted against the 12 weeks.
Another, less gender-specific example is the myriad unemployed architects and designers out there. The longer they are unemployed, the harder it is (this is statistically proven) for them to find gainful, full-time employment—most return to less-than full-time work and at lower pay. Why? Employers cannot help but wonder, despite all the statistics, just why there is such a difficulty because everyone knows anecdotal “evidence” that seems to contradict this trend. Of course, what they don’t want to admit is that those anecdotes actually prove the statistical rule. The short version? People just can’t help operating on these unspoken, often unacknowledged biases.
Once women exit the job market to administer full-time childcare, it becomes extremely difficult to re-enter the market: their skill-sets are not as current, their confidence has decreased, and they are viewed with some suspicion by potential employers. Studies show these facts directly impact their ability to rise in the corporate ladder since they miss out on crucial promotions while they are out of the job market.
It is no wonder that women in the States comprise a mere 18% of management. To summarize, whatever profession we are discussing, there exist several corporate barriers that directly impact women’s career decisions, including whether they will have children or not. If they do pursue the family path, then that decision can significantly hurt their chances for career advancement. What’s more, corporate institutions such as the informal “boy’s network” as well as mentoring and after-hours socializing privilege men climbing the corporate ladder. And they are unencumbered by decisions to have children since they are neither expected nor do many of them decide to sacrifice their careers to become full-time caretakers of newborn or young children. Second, there are the institutional barriers that directly impact women’s roles as primary caretakers such as the type of leave offered and its length. These factors all impact women’s ability to achieve high management positions. Ever seen women you work with who don’t reveal they are pregnant until they begin showing?
One caveat: none of these studies consider the issue of race as it impacts these conditions, and they are different. But for now, let’s focus on a Euro-American model of women in architecture firms who occupy top management positions. They fall into one of three categories: 1) they have been there forever, and have moved slowly up the ladder, often not out of merit but because they have been there longest, 2) they are a founding partner, or 3) they have married a partner. That means that, unlike other corporate firms, women in architecture upper management have acquired their positions from a different trajectory from that described above.
So, how can the trajectories be equalized? For one, management roles can be framed in terms of actual skills, rather than gender stereotypes. While this is obvious, what does this encompass specifically? It comes down to what leadership qualities potential leaders exhibit and how these qualities are nurtured and supported within a firm. Below are some examples—good and bad—from three management areas.
1) Managing Personnel
The key to successfully and effectively managing personnel is to treat them like humans, as I have argued elsewhere. One woman manager demonstrates flexibility, for instance she doesn’t assume that one schedule fits everyone. If talented employees require flex time, several forward-thinking top women managers out there who do just that. People are not automatons, “CAD monkeys,” or any other demeaning, dehumanizing label one might conjure in moments of stress or frustration. They are people. And if they are treated as such, they will respond with loyalty and with increased productivity. In one corporate firm, the manager doesn’t even bother greeting “underlings.” In another, smaller firm, the wife/partner uses screaming at employees as her sole management technique when she wants something done. And in a third, in which the partner who has no experience in architecture (though this is not necessarily a prerequisite for effective management) but is married to the founding principal, micromanagement, especially of other women in the firm, is deployed to assert dominance.
While this is in an extension of the previous point, it warrants its own explication. Because good, effective potential top management possess good communication skills. One positive example is a person who also married into a firm: she demonstrates a sincerity and openness to any and all communications from all the employees in her firm. She is genuinely interested and concerned about the content of those conversations. Contrast this with screaming referenced above. Of course, screaming is not a gender-specific behavior—it is really prevalent amongst men—it is neither respectful nor effective and those factors are mutually inclusive for good top management.
3) Managing Projects
Successful project management requires a combination of the above two qualities. Therefore, not ignoring the needs of one’s employees, but instead listening to them regarding what they need to successfully execute their jobs is important. One top manager repeatedly visits the members of the teams in the firm, determining whether they are happy (!!), as well as if there is anything they need to make their jobs easier. That includes deciding whether more people are needed on a project, rather than scrimping on money and overworking the team throughout the development of a project. And when teams do put in long hours, they are fed cheerfully. Another did the opposite, instead dismissing repeated requests, for example, of additional computer screen at an off-site location because despite the fact that they were available, she didn’t want to. Such is a clear example of poor communication (i.e. listening) as well as poor management of personnel (completely disregarding their needs). A third believes that overworking inadequately-staffed teams twelve hours a day for weeks on end, without food, mind, is the best approach.
Undoubtedly, you could collect enough of these anecdotes about management styles and draw a clear picture of what works and what doesn’t. Looking at such qualities will hopefully aid architecture firms in promoting well-qualified women in a manner that mirrors the ladder men so easily climb. In other words, it’s time to start viewing women as potential management as a general rule and to base those considerations on real performance and personality standards—not the old biases.
Sherin Wing, Ph.D., is a social historian who writes on architecture, urbanism, racism, the economy, and epistemology (how we know what we know by researching and examining the agendas inherent in our sources of information) to name a few issues and topics. She is dedicated to exploring issues in ...