Why multiple disciplines are better than one when it comes to gender equality in the built environment

06 March 2024

It might be more complicated leading the Gender Equality Group in a multidisciplinary firm – but it also brings opportunities to improve the balance across all the professions, says Emily Keyte, Associate Architect at Ridge

As an architect in a multidisciplinary firm, leading the Gender Equality group has been an interesting challenge for me, because the disciplines are all at different stages.

Across the whole industry, women are lagging behind our male counterparts, making up a mere 15.8% of the UK’s workforce. At Ridge, 25% of our total technical disciplines are made up of women, but this ranges from 15% in structural engineering to 49% in architecture. This is evidence that what works for one discipline won’t necessarily apply to the others and ignoring that data can confuse the conversation.

But being a multidisciplinary group does give us a massive opportunity – to learn from each other’s experiences, and hopefully to leverage women’s greater participation in some disciplines to increase representation in others.

Here are three key ways that we can turn this to our advantage, and really move the dial.

  1. Let girls know we’re here

Raising awareness is the number one action we need to take – both about what an amazing industry the built environment is, and that there are already women enjoying fantastic careers here.

One step towards improving gender equality is making girls and young women aware that these jobs exist. I only found out about architecture by accident, but I didn’t learn about structural engineering or services design until much later. We also need to normalise construction as a career for women, and counteract stereotypes, tradition, education, and cultural influences that portray it as an industry only for men. If you don’t see people like yourself in these professions, then you feel like a pioneer and that can be stressful. Some people enjoy the sense of breaking new ground, but others are put off by the additional responsibility.

As an impact group in a multidisciplinary firm, when we go out to schools and colleges, we can show the full range of construction careers, and to talk to girls and young women about the many different paths they might take into the industry, and throughout their careers. Fields like architecture, engineering, surveying, cost and project management all require different skills – by talking about all of them and how they fit together, we maximise the potential appeal.

  1. Have better conversations

The “right” female role models are something I think about a lot. Mine was Zaha Hadid – it was her amazing design work that got me into architecture, but she wasn’t necessarily the right role model for me to imagine how I could shape my career. She was known for being quite a formidable leader, and although I respect that and see the necessity, it wasn’t the best advert for a career in architecture.

I’ve had some brilliant male and female mentors in the senior team at Ridge, and my passion is working with the younger women coming into the business to pay that forward. Sometimes it’s about “relearning” – if someone hasn’t had such a positive experience to start with, they need to be supported to change that perception.

What’s great about being a multidisciplinary firm is that there are lots of natural mentoring opportunities. You’re working with women in other disciplines every day, learning from them and exchanging ideas, and I’ve found that broader range of perspectives valuable. We don’t have to mirror how the guys work – we can do it our own way. In the Gender Equality group, we feel responsible for creating that kind of community.

Our membership of Women into Construction at Ridge is proving invaluable, not only as a source of specialist advice but as a chance to network with other large multidisciplinary firms, and to learn from the best.

I think it’s super-important to bring men on board too. Last year, we focused on mentoring; this year, we’re focusing on allyship. We’ve already had some productive workshops, and very open conversations about how we can improve the way we do things.

  1. Create a more inclusive culture – and shout about it

We don’t just need to show that women can have great careers in the industry, we need them to know that it’s a great place to work too.

Family-friendly policies are another area where impact groups in a multidisciplinary firm have a bigger opportunity: when we implement these policies, it raises the standard for every profession at once. At Ridge, there’s many crossovers between our impact groups – for instance, between the Gender Equality group and the Parents and Carers Group. Recently, we have enhanced our policies on maternity leave and, perhaps even more importantly, paternity leave.

Our impact groups are not just there to drive an inclusive workplace culture, but to demonstrate a visible commitment to creating one. Inclusion is valued so highly now, and it’s important that people feel they have an opportunity and are encouraged to comment on their work environment in a relaxed way. If that’s not part of the culture, people aren’t going to want to join a company, or the industry more broadly.

On the ground, construction is a multifaceted, highly skilled and very exciting community to be part of – it’s just about how we show that, so that women and girls feel empowered to come and join us.

Let’s continue the conversation.

Emily Keyte, Architect on emilykeyte@ridge.co.uk

Sarah Walder-Davis, Head of Talent Development and Inclusion on sarahwalderdavis@ridge.co.uk