What if halfway through a marathon the road diverged? Kerstin Thompson reflects on the complex choices woman – and men – confront in the journey of practice.

Portrait of Kerstin Thompson Architects, by Luis Ferreiro, from the Portraits + Architecture exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

I’m going to offer a theory that I’ve developed over the years, as I’ve watched myself and other women (and men) in practice. My theory is unproven, it’s a hunch and likely questionable, but, for what it’s worth, it goes something like this:

An architectural career is a marathon, an endurance test of sorts that typically spans over a number of decades. Each of these aligns with a key life stage. Mapped over these decades is a gradient of idealism and optimism. At the polar ends of this gradient are, at one end, the maximum idealism and optimism of the student architect and at the other the cynicism – world weariness perhaps – of the more aged and experienced later-life practitioner. Somewhere in the middle there lies a point at which we wrestle with our transition along this spectrum and either accept or abandon the messiness that is practice.

For women practitioners the life stage at which we encounter this wrestle aligns with a biological one – the latter stages of potential child bearing. So at the point where the difficulty of practice, the sheer arduousness of it, has become increasingly evident, and at times overwhelming, a socially acceptable and expected ‘out’ is offered. Which basket do we wish to put our energy into – the family one or the practice one? Which one is more likely to reward this expenditure of effort? While neither is an easy path there is an imagined relief from practice difficulties that the diversion of our focus from work to family may provide; withdrawing from practice altogether or participating on a part-time basis. Problematically, this life stage, when women may choose to withdraw fully or partly from practice, coincides with the point at which our carefully accrued professional experience begins to pay dividends with the rewards of greater opportunities and advanced seniority within a practice.

Gender advantages and disadvantages work both ways. In my kta experience the sometimes dubious reasons for which we have won a job – “because you’re a woman” – can be the same reasons for which we lose it. There are still considerable implications for practice around the more essentialist expectations of how women may differ from men in both means and outcome of architectural production, as well as a fraughtness around women’s demonstration of ambition, authority and power. The reality is still that women are most likely to be largely responsible for child care. They are most likely to be required to stop work or work part-time. Conversely they are most likely to have the socially acceptable option (and expectation) to stop working or work part time. I have observed that men who have chosen to share in child rearing have also had to fight against the prejudices of a society that, however liberal it may profess itself to be, still deep down expects a man to put work above family. These same men long for a world that allows them, too, the option of partial commitment to the work sphere. In this regard men and women are in this together – both are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Returning to optimism, within kta we have been able to establish a structure that challenges expected gender roles and offers adequate flexibility to attempt a balance of these demands. We continue to have to encourage our clients to respect this, especially in the competitive world of a service industry. But with the expected extension of our working life beyond our fifth decade, perhaps this current misalignment between our public and private life stages will become less problematic. Here’s hoping.