When do opportunities for young men and women architects diverge? Meaghan Dwyer suggests that improving how we measure skills and expertise, as well as how early in a career we do this, would benefit the professional development of young architects generally – and increase the retention of women.

While the statistics support a very clear view that women in architecture are disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts, the view from within practice is somewhat less clear.

Despite the fact that women are equally represented and successful at university, they are immediately disadvantaged upon joining the workforce, with starting salaries for women being substantially lower than for men. In my mind, however, it is after the first five or so years of practice that the disparity between men and women becomes more complex and difficult to bridge.

It is during these early years of practice that an architect extends what they have learned at university to understand how the architect operates in practice. Navigating the profession during these early years is not necessarily any more straightforward for men than it is for women. Few practices articulate a clear structure, or clear roles, or provide a clear pathway for professional development. Performance reviews tend to be intermittent, mentoring unstructured, and training limited. For many practices, securing ongoing work, and the demands of delivering work at hand overshadow much else. It is within this dynamic that men and women make decisions about their careers.

For young architects career progression is often measured by which practices or projects they have had the opportunity to be involved with. In the absence of a more exacting measure it is these considerations that tend to be of interest rather than specific skills or expertise gained. Perhaps more than any other, the role of Project Architect is seen as a clear career milestone. This role is demanding and requires a broad skill set. For a less experienced architect, the task of directing a project team, interpreting contractual requirements or managing a complex client relationship can be fraught. Despite this, many young architects seek professional development by adopting roles that are certain to extend them.

It is unfortunate that, by the time that a young architect has gained the skills and experience necessary for the role of Project Architect, they might also be thinking about taking out a mortgage or starting a family. Some practices may consider full-time employees with partner, family and mortgage to be more likely to take a long-term view of their career and therefore to be more appropriate candidates for promotion. Some practices may also feel a greater obligation to retain or promote an architect who is the main breadwinner over one who is not. In both instances it is more likely to be men who find themselves in these circumstances given that many women choose to take time away from the workplace to care for children.

If women were able to articulate the skills and expertise gained in their early years of practice more clearly, would they be better equipped to re-enter practice at a later stage? Would this allow them to contribute more easily on a part-time basis given that they may be more able to take on a well-defined or specific role within a project team? Would their skills also be more transferable to other practices? It may well be that strategies to improve the measure of specific skills and expertise would benefit the professional development of young architects generally, and perhaps more significantly, increase the retention of women.