Women in Architectural Research - the Burden of Career Break!

Architects Dated:  Aug. 6, 2015
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Left to Right: Ar.Anjali Krishan Sharma, Ar.Madhavi Desai, Ar.Archana Khanna, Ar.Shikha Jain, Ar.Tallulah D'silva, Ar.Namrita Kalsi, Ar.Deepti Gupta, Ar.Nupur Prothi Khanna, Ar.Papiya Sarkar

“Being out of work is hard, but getting back to work is harder” 

A large number of women architects all over the world are compelled to leave the profession soon after graduation because of many reasons like social and cultural norms, prevalent value systems, structure of education and practice as well as many micro level concerns like personal experiences, behavior, attitude and ambition. After the gap, when they are ready to work again practice does not accept them as they are assumed to be short of necessary skills and if they turn to academics at this juncture they carry with them the baggage of years of complete detachment with the profession, sometimes a total change of career trajectory, an anticipatory anxiety of failure, loss of self confidence leading to self sabotage and stressed existence. Adding to their owe is the attitude of educational set-ups and curriculums which demands same pace and research productivity from them as all other candidates as per the course structure which often compel a large percentage of them to give up their efforts in spite of being completely eligible and competent and bear the brunt of dedicating their early life and energy for societal benefit.
Within the context discussed above, this research aims to understand the experience and barriers faced by women architects, particularly in context of India after they return to academic arena after a gap in the career and stresses on policy intervention and researcher’s own efforts which can make the transition smoother so that valuable academic resource can be utilized for a greater benefit.

Women and their involvement outside home have undergone a significant change in past few decades due to variety of reasons. Though women’s education has been getting a boost across levels and sectors through various policies

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efforts, women are finding it difficult to come at par with men in many arenas (Ledwith, 2000). Many women have an interrupted career pattern, in contrast to the more traditional, continuous, “climbing the ladder” employment model in which an  individual takes on various appointments and roles over a period of time, collating, in the manner of a portfolio, a range of experiences and skills. The portfolio career is very common in a range of industries including architecture1as many women architects are compelled to take a career break due to various obligations and out of them those who decide to join the work force after a gap of few years face unprecedented roadblocks. Women architects join academics due to various reasons which include the rejection they face in practice; preconceived notion that research career provides better work-life balance and a desire for knowledge. But regardless of the reasons of joining they all face the same barriers.

Women and Research: Deductions from Literature:-

A multitude of practices impact women’s advancement in research ranks and create barriers to research productivity. Worldwide studies show that women are still less likely to head research teams, apply for research grants and often have lower publication rates than

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male counterparts. Women in the early stages of their academic careers and those resuming their careers after a break remain particularly vulnerable to lagging in research output relative to their male peers (Asmar, 1999). The wider institutional context along with individual scholarly practice may determine their options and opportunities with respect to research, particularly for those joining the academia.2 Work life pressures are seen to have a dramatic impact on women’s research capabilities (Probert, 2005). The other research impediments are the tendency for women to experience less secure and less continuous employment (Allen & Castleman, 2001; Lundy & Warme, 1990; Sellers, 2007) and to have less confidence in their abilities or achievements and less access to academic networks (Britton, 1999; Deane, Johnson, Jones, & Lengkeek, 1996; Doherty & Manfredi, 2005) and choice of discipline area (Bell & Bentley, 2005; Kirkpatrick, 1997). There also is the “hidden curriculum” (Thomas, Bierema, and Landau, 2004) where women learn to assimilate into the male culture by downplaying their attributes. Women are required to prove themselves more extensively than men in order to advance and have less informal networks to draw upon (Oakley 2000).Also, lack of   a critical mass of women in the leadership structure  in academics creates a vacuum in understanding the concept of career break from a more empathetic perspective. Because the dominant model of career progression (Papanek 1973; Hochschild 1975) includes requirements for linearity and continuity (Carmen Sirianni and Cynthia Negrey 2000), women in research who has taken a career break for various other commitments are discriminated against.

The Case of Indian Women: Barriers they Face:-

In addition to various discriminatory practices that include dowry death, domestic violence, child marriage etc. Indian society is burdened with a myriad of invisible, often subtle, forms of conditioning, imbalances and inequalities that influence and shape the connection between gender and the built environment (Desai, M.2007). The perceptions and experiences in a patriarchal society, the contrast in image of self at work and home, dealing with predominantly male clients, consultants, colleagues, contractors in case of women in architecture are some of the most talked about barriers.(Desai,M.2007)  Combined with this, the  general attitude of negatively scrutinizing a career break, be it so for whatever reason makes it doubly difficult for a women to return to work, be it in practice or academics and once she is in, she becomes a part of  woefully stressed workforce. 87% Indian women are stressed most of the time and 82% had no time to relax. (Nielsen Survey, 2011).

Women in India face a peculiar context in which they are educated professionally not for a career but to be readied for the marriage market as they are treated as a “ paraya dhan”(other’s asset)  and once married the social norms dictate that family and childcare be their first priority. The latest demographic indicators provided by the health and family welfare ministry, India reveal that the national average age of marriage for girls was 20.6 years in 2008, up from 18.3 years in 20014 whereas men got married at a median age of 23.4 years. “Though higher education is socially accepted and taken for granted among the upper and middle strata in urban India, it is also viewed more as an investment in the daughters’ distant future rather than as an immediate goal.”(Karuna, C.2005) The discipline of architecture is also affected by this attitude in the society. Even if they manage to work after marriage and having a child they often work in a “stop/start” pattern, to cope up with demands from various quarters. There are women who postpone marriage to work also face the same fate as career consolidation timings coincides with the biological clock of women.  The social norms in India places a lot of responsibilities on women in the domestic and social front, but neither the society nor the professional communities have a mechanism to acknowledge or reward their contribution and rather seem to be penalizing them for “stop/start” cycles of work over efforts to consolidate their career. Also, cultural expectations which persist about women’s responsibilities and capabilities and stark contrast between conduct expected out of them in domestic and work fronts causes confusion in women, often turns them docile, impedes their decision making capacities and self-confidence once they return to workplace. As maximum job in architecture sector are with small and mid-size private firms, women do not get benefits like maternity leave and assurance of getting their position back once they return after the break. This scenario hampers their return prospects and often marks a gloomy career outlook for them.

Women and Architectural Research:-

In America women make 42 percent of those graduating but only 25 percent of the total number of American architects (licensed and in pursuit) are female which indicates that about 17 percent of all women with architecture degrees drop out of the profession before practicing(ACSA,2014).

Council of architecture, India gives the following information about women in architectural practice but does not have any separate data for women involved in architectural research. Women in architectural research are very poorly represented throughout history and their actual number cannot be estimated in the absence of any reliable data.

Placement of women architectsPlacement of women architects
Source: http://www.coa.gov.in/home/regstats.htm

The most significant and unique aspect of architectural education is that it is potentially infinite in its scope and subject matter and ever evolving with new discovery. Architectural research shares the same attribute and often correlates to the quality of architectural education and practice. Also, research is “a complex set of intellectual, social, environmental and cultural activities”, it also “does not occur in a vacuum, it requires development and nurturing” (Poole, 1991). Research activity requires high level of commitment, time, effort and money and supportive framework. Research work never literally ends and the pressure to be productive sits heavily on women returning after a career break who has to typically balance multiple roles now, that is of academician, mother and homemaker and to whom taking time off from domestic responsibilities to devote to research seems to be the greatest breach of norms. Also, architecture being a very fast paced discipline, women wanting to join anew or return to the architectural research after a break finds it difficult to chip in as detachment with the profession results in lack of updated skills and knowledge. They also carry the perceived burden of being underestimated due to the slow rate of initial adjustment and progress. Architectural research scope is very broad and often interdisciplinary, requiring a wider reach in academic community and a greater circle of interaction and travel. Finding suitable research topics and resource persons for research work and mentors for guidance becomes difficult for them due to breakdown of profession networks due to absence from profession during the break. Another problem is the lack of emphasis on research activity in the early stages of architectural education which could have otherwise endowed the aspirants with some basic skills to carry on the research work and reduce the trauma associated with the transition. The barriers faced by women can be comprehended in two stages:

During the initiation stage:-

For getting admission in research courses, in most of the academic institutions in India, entrance test is compulsory along with interview and other scrutinizing mechanism. These intend to serve the purpose of deducing applicant’s knowledge and intelligence level, but fall short of estimating the typical skills developed during the gap years, which might be beneficial to future research. Though during the career break women might not be engaged in a paid job but they are engrossed in constant dynamics of everyday life and in the course develop multitasking skills and soft skills which are great assets. But as these aptitudes are not measured by formal entrance tests, failure to prepare for tests and interviews due to lack of sufficient time and supportive conditions push these candidates out of fray in the beginning itself and the academic community loses a potential candidates for its lack of long-term vision and better scrutinizing strategy .If one somehow goes past this hurdle, getting all the administrative requirement fulfilled is a task in itself which tires out the candidate. Also due to years of detachment from the profession; it becomes difficult to rope in experts as resource persons and mentors..

During the continuation stage:-

Once admitted in the research curriculum lack of updated knowledge of the field, skills and techniques required for integration into the academic environment poses a major hurdle to research activity compounded by the lack of personal motivation, slack self discipline and research involvement. Since architecture curriculum in lower levels does not put enough emphasis on research, their research acumen is plagued by lack of basic research orientation and insights .Also, sudden entry into fast paced academic routine with strict regimen and expectation to be at par with everybody else in the shortest possible terms unnerves them. Research is also financially draining and programmes of financial assistance are very few, multiplying the woes of the research scholars. Research or academic pursuits draw negative response and respect among architecture professionals, who constantly look down on them and mark the researchers as too weak in their domain to practice (Desai, M.2007)


It is necessary to facilitate women researcher in architecture to bring in a diversified outlook to the domain of architectural research. Studies have pointed to the particular benefits arising from structured programmes focusing on building women’s research capacities (Devos, 2000; Godden, 1996) and from formal and informal mentoring (Groombridge & Worden, 2003; Higgs, 2003).

  • Mentoring becomes particularly important for women joining the profession after a break with little or no research experience. Academic institutions must train mentors to assist such students with various aspects of academic life and should highlight successful women researchers within the institution who would act as role models and mentors.
  • Academic institutions must provide adequate“ development and nurturing” through dedicated schemes for women researchers focused on professional skills development and career planning and make the  wider working environment conducive to pursuing their research.
  • It is also important to incorporate greater numbers of women researcher in the administrative hierarchy and leadership positions to lead by example. Their inherent understanding of subterranean barriers faced by women provides insight which, combined with levels of authority in their positions, can be instrumental to improve female researcher’s involvement.
  • Academic institution should simplify their admission requirements and formalities, add flexibility to curriculum and course progress timeframes so that they can adjust to the pace and remain motivated. Policies should acknowledge the non-linear and interrupted career path of women rather than penalizing them by scrutinization and recognize, reward and promote the multiplicity of skills that women acquire during the career break.
  • Architectural curriculum at all levels must emphasize teaching of research principles and subjects so as to develop a minimum level of research orientation in the undergraduate level.
  • Academic institutions should provide teaching assignments to scholars on demand as the interaction between teaching and research has been identified as vital and likely to lead to excellence in both fields (Curthoys, 1995).

With respect to the women themselves, high levels of personal engagement with a research area, a vibrant research environment, appropriate research infrastructure, enjoyment of the research process itself, quality feedback, and public recognition of achievements are some factors which lead to enhanced research performance (Acacio et al. (1996).Personal factors (motivation, training, scholarly habits, skill management) clearly matters and performance could be sustained—or constrained—in critical ways by work shape, work culture, and work values.1 Women researchers should create and be part of research networks and develop congenial methodology to improve research productivity (Gallos, 1996; King, 1996). Planning for finance is also important as research is a money-consuming exercise and very few financial aids are available for the needy. 


Architecture is a practice oriented field but the practice can remain relevant in present day context only by application of new and improved insights into various determinants of the field and this is where architectural research assumes importance.

Many women are engaged in architectural research for various reasons and among them a large majority has joined research arena after a career break as discussed above. Women researcher is capable of making significant contribution to the field as they bring a totally new outlook and practice along with skills and expertise. The participation of women in academics is a key driver in growth of knowledge base in academic and research institutes. It is necessary that academic community frames policies to cushion them against the disadvantage they suffer due to career break and encourage these women to adopt self-help strategies so, that they can advance at a steady rate in their research career in addition to being the chief nurturer of family and societal values. Thus, the challenge is to make sustained efforts that lead to a learning environment that empowers the woman researchers along with their male counterparts and make the discipline more democratic as well as diversified in the true sense. With growing awareness about a manpower resource which is often sidelined, it is to be hoped that more institutions will introduce policies and initiatives making it easier for women who go on a break to return to work. 


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This paper is part of the WIA publication brought out at the Women in Architecture Conference organized jointly by the IIA Northern Chapter, SPA and SPA Alumni on June 06, 2015.

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