An equal gender split at university for studies in architecture and construction drops dramatically for women in the workplace, but as Sarah French discovers, there are signs that it’s changing

IDENTIFYING the architect behind a building is not always about a statement structure or a particular penchant for curved elevations. No, it’s about the ladies’ toilets.

“There are some where you just can’t get in and you have to squeeze yourself between the door and the toilet. Then there’s nowhere to put your bag or hang your coat. You just know they’ve been designed by a man,” laughs Siobhan McMahon.

Other clues to gender can be found in new houses. For instance, if there is an obvious place to store the vacuum cleaner and a good size utility room, the architect was probably female; if there’s a vast blank wall begging for a huge television in the living room then it’s the work of a man.

It’s a joke, but there is a serious point about who buildings are designed for – and who designs them.

“Every architect has a different view. I have never been: ‘This is my building’. I’m about what does the client want and need,” says Siobhan, a director at Niven Architects, in Darlington, and North East chairwoman of The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWC).

“Projects do become your baby in that you create and nurture them, but they’re never yours.”

The work of some architects can be spotted clearly. Siobhan says she doesn’t design signature buildings but the clue to her work is often colour and curves.

“Somewhere in the interior there will be a bold splash of colour or a curve in the fabric of building, a piece of furniture or a pattern on a floor. I enjoy using colour and curves as I’m confident at mixing colours, textures and tones to achieve different effects, yet they have to be appropriate for the building and users.

In addition to her work with Niven, her leadership of the region’s arm of the NAWC and attending Construction Industry Council meetings, Siobhan is keen to promote careers in architecture and the construction industry for women and address the gender difference in a profession where the split at university is 50/50 but where only a fifth of chartered architects are female.

The figure falls further to 11 per cent reaching partner or director level.

It comes amid growing renown for female architects. The trade magazine Architects Journal recently dedicated an edition to women in the profession, while Siobhan was a judge for the Women in Construction Awards 2013 in Manchester, attended by 350 people.

“Women are being noticed, and there’s fantastic backing and support now for women in our industry.

The Northern Echo: The Building designed by Siobhan McMahon
A building designed by Siobhan McMahon

From quantity surveyors to project managers and architects, there is growing respect and acknowledgement for us,” she says.

“It happens less now, but it was the case that when a male architect walked on site he instantly commanded respect, no matter how good he was.

“As a woman, and especially early in your career, you have to work harder to prove yourself. You don’t automatically get respect, you have to get your hands dirty and earn it, particularly on site. You can’t strut about.”

Durham-born Siobhan had decided she wanted to be an architect by the time she was 16.

“For female architects who want children it has been difficult. You’re already at least 25 by the time you’re chartered, so you’re faced with the choice of having your children straightaway then trying to catch up on your career, or leaving it late and trying to jump back in at the senior level you left.”

To most, architecture is about designing buildings or building projects, but perhaps, more than anything, it’s a job about people.

“No job is the same and no client is the same. You never know what’s coming and that makes it fun, hard, but fun.

The Northern Echo: The interior
The interior

“Whether it’s a small office refurbishment or a huge hotel complex, there’s nothing like the feeling of handing over the keys to the client and saying ‘it’s yours’.”

And remember, next time you are in a public toilet and you don’t have to contort your body just to close the door, it was probably designed by a woman.