50/50: Campaign for women in architecture
Women in the property industries are creating opportunities with a new brand of ‘jolly’
Trophies and the stuffed heads of hunted animals decorate the headquarters walls of Bisley Shooting Ground, Surrey, where a party of powerful property professionals are meeting ahead of a restorative day of blasting clay pigeons from the sky and cultivating a few good contacts. The group of 30 gather for breakfast comparing shooting experience and expressing relief at not having to wear an executive suit today.
As the shooting party gets to grips with their weapons, the banter starts to flow. Personal anecdotes and professional information are knocked back and forth and there is encouragement and a sense of warm camaraderie. Another networking event is under way, just one of hundreds that take place in the construction industry every year on the golf courses and in the football stadiums and yachting marinas around the country. Only at Bisley today there is something a little different happening.
The fingers on the shotgun triggers are tipped with manicured fingernails and men, not women, are the butt of gentle jokes, because this particular jolly is for just for the ladies.
The Women in Property shooting day is a rarity in the construction industry calendar, dominated as it is by networking events geared towards men.
As the summer draws to a close, cricket matches between rival architects and contractors give way to sailing contests in the autumn breezes. Almost without exception these affairs are dominated by men.
When almost 20 years ago a group of women working in the property and construction industry realised their gender was the reason for their exclusion from traditional networking opportunities, they decided to create their own association. Women in Property was born.
Enough was enough. Why should invitations for sporting activities and other events be only addressed to male colleagues?
The men didn’t see a problem. Ask a leading male commercial architect whether it is more difficult for their female counterparts to engage in networking and meet clients from the property world, they issue a strong denial. Ask a female architect, and the answer is equally vehement.
Angela Brady, partner at Brady Mallalieu Architects and chair of Women in Architecture, set up to encourage more women into the profession, says: “A lot of property people take their clients to pole dancing clubs. It’s very male, very macho.”
Not exactly the kind of entertainment most professional women would find suitable for business purposes. And it’s not just lap-dancing clubs. At a recent Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors fundraising sport meeting, the guest of honour was a “page 3 girl” in a mini- skirt, blonde hair and an ample cleavage. As long as the property world is so shamelessly male-dominated, Women in Property will be relevant and useful to many women’s careers.
Since 1987 the organisation has expanded and prospered to count today 1,200 members in the seven branches across the UK. Every year more than 100 events take place from networking lunches to more informal days out, which include chocolate-tasting sessions and cultural visits. Friendly and professional bonds are created and members admit that work has come through fellow members.
Rachel Sanders, partner at Davis Langdon Crosher & James, joined the South-east branch 10 years ago, because she found
the atmosphere at meetings
This event illustrates how women can re-appropriate the men’s playground and set their own networking rules
more auspicious to successful networking.
“It is much more relaxed and less formal,” she says. She adds that she has benefited from meeting women from a wide range of professions. “When I first started, I was junior and was impressed by the lack of hierarchy during the meetings.
I never sensed that one couldn’t approach some people because they were much more senior.” Members do not try to sell themselves as hard as men do, she points out.
Another of WIP’s arguments is that members can develop skills and confidence, such as public speaking and event planning, in friendly surroundings so that they can then be more comfortable within a male-led environment.
And so Cathy Stewart, director at Pascall & Watson Architects and vice-chair of the South-east branch, organised a day out shooting in Surrey. More than 30 women, architects, solicitors, quantity surveyors and some of their existing clients attended the Bisley shooting camp.
Women of different ages and professional achievement, who have never met before, introduce themselves to each other. “Is it the first time?” one keeps hearing. Very soon everyone is reassured that the room is filled with shooting novices and that there won’t be any competition between them. It wouldn’t be the case with men in property, some teasingly say. The group divides itself in smaller units that spend the morning learning the art of holding a gun and hitting clay pigeons. Conversations run freely and there is an atmosphere of warm encouragement and genuine praise.
Stewart is delighted to see her two guests, female clients involved with airports, get on so well. She says WIP events enable members to come up against the traditional professional barriers.
“We meet people we might never have come across otherwise,” she says. The feedback for the day shows that women appreciate being able to talk about business without feeling they have been trying too hard. The experience might also feed future conversations with potential clients, who are certain to be impressed.
This event illustrates how women in the property and construction world can re-appropriate the men’s playground and set their own networking rules. Interestingly, even women who feel more comfortable with traditional male activities, such as golf and rugby, still feel the need for women-only networking groups.
Yvette Hanson, the only female senior partner at TP Bennett Architects, is by her own admission not a “particularly girly girl”. She plays golf, sails and watches rugby. But three years ago she set up the female equivalent of the 100-member-strong networking group, Interact, as a response to its overwhelmingly male membership.
The Interact Ladies Group counts 24 members from all the sectors of the industry. Hanson sees the group as an excellent way of creating more personal relationships while learning about the other aspects of the market. When it comes to getting in touch with potential clients, the female-only structure can be a powerful weapon. “If you ask a client, ‘Would you like to come to lunch with eight women?’ he won’t say no,” Hanson remarks.
In spite of these few inspiring initiatives, there is still a lot to do to change mentalities and open up opportunities. Brady, who is a member of the RIBA’s Architects for Change group, says that women-only groups are more than politically correct associations. She explains that they can bring a lot of professional support through training and recommendation. She says she is confident that things are improving for women in the property world.
“I was so upset when one day an engineering consultant sent an invite for a cricket tournament to my male partner. I thought that I wasn’t invited.” Not that unusual, it seems. But she was soon pleasantly surprised when “an envelope arrived for me as well”.
Women in Property’s national conference will be held in Leeds from September 15 to 17. Details: www.wipnet.org
8 November 2010