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Architect, Jocelyn Cunliffe, on why women can and should join the profession

04/07/2017 - 04:59PM

Today is the RIBA’s International Women in Architecture Day. To support it, we interviewed Jocelyn Cunliffe, an APS member and architect of 40 years experience, based in Edinburgh.  Jocelyn has been involved in supporting and promoting women working in architecture throughout her career, something she intends to continue doing even though she is nearing retirement.

In this Q and A, Jocelyn tells us about her architectural work, if things have changed for women and what she does to support women in her profession.   

Q. Why did you decide to become an architect?  
A. At school I thought I would like to be an architect and design new buildings. Later I realised that architectural history was my main interest.    I wanted to engage in something that was socially useful and felt that making historic buildings suit today’s requirements fulfilled that desire.  

Q. When did you start working in the area of conservation?  
A. When I graduated I joined Edinburgh based architects T M Gray and Associates, working on conservation work and historic buildings.  I qualified as an architect in 1977 and I am now a partner in the firm (now named Gray, Marshall and Associates).  

Q. Tell us about some of the architectural commissions you’ve worked on?  
A. When I first got a job with T M Gray and Associates, they had been commissioned to work on the Georgian tenements in Lauriston Place, Keir Street and Heriot Place, Edinburgh.  Edinvar Housing Association was working with the Lister Housing Co-operative to renovate the whole block which had been threatened with demolition.  I was involved throughout the project and learned a huge amount.  Other major conservation projects followed, including repairs and alterations to General Register House in Edinburgh.

Q. What sort of work are you doing now?  
A. As I am nearing retirement, I am working part-time and doing voluntary work with several different heritage / architectural organisations, including chairing the RIAS Conservation Committee.

Q. Why do you think the gender gap exists in architecture?
A. While less women go into architecture, they also have a higher drop-out rate at university and once they embark on their career. I think it is often because universities don’t necessarily prepare students for the reality of working in an architectural practice. It is really difficult to work full-time and bring up a family and while it is probably not any worse than other professions, it is not well-paid and childcare - if you cannot be supported by family members - is very expensive. Architects end up working long hours to meet dead-lines.

In the case of pregnancy, there is also a lack of consistency with insurers when pregnant women have to go on site and these needs to be addressed.  I’ve known of cases where women were not allowed on site after the first trimester, some after the second. I myself was prevented from going up scaffolding at 7 months pregnant with my first child, yet was on site, snagging, two days before my second child was born.

Q. Overall, do you feel the situation is improving?
A. Yes – when I qualified women were 8% of the profession. Now the split is 75% male and 25% female architects.

Q. What changes in the role of women in architecture have you seen during your career? 
A. There are more women in partner/director roles and some very high profile women, both nationally and internationally, as well as more women in the profession overall.

Q. You’ve mentioned some of the ways you are supporting younger female architects.  Tell us more about why you do that and what you are doing?
A. I am a Part 3 examiner for APEAS (Architects’ Professional Examination Authority in Scotland Ltd) – the Part 3 examination is the gateway to registration. I think it is important that there are a number of women examiners, at least in proportion to the gender 75%:25% imbalance in the profession. I also support the RIAS Conservation Accreditation scheme by organising CPD and other training events. ;

Q. What are your thoughts on how to improve the situation?
A. I joined Women in Property (WiP) when it first started in Scotland and ultimately became chair of the Central Scotland Branch (1998-99).  I particularly enjoyed personal development initiatives such as guidance on public speaking and how to run meetings as I thought these were helpful in confidence building.

Q. Why would you encourage women to pursue architecture and the built environment as a career?
A. I would encourage women to pursue architecture as a career. There are enormous challenges ahead and there are opportunities to work in all sorts of different ways in architecture and the built environment. Team working and collaboration are essential to achieve a high quality project, beautifully designed, properly constructed, safely, on time and budget with a client who has an out-turn that surpasses expectations and users who enjoy the building and its surroundings – that is what we all try to deliver and women can and should be part of this, as architects or other building professionals.


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