Gender discrimination prevalent in Middle East architecture firms, study finds

Over the course of the past month, Middle East Architect polled female architects working across the Middle East about the conditions of their workplace environments.

With little to no quantitative data on the subject for those in the region – despite the availability of data on female architects in North America, Europe and Australia – MEA’s aim was to produce a starting point of sorts for acquiring the information, as well as a platform to discuss challenges, advantages and areas for improvement. The survey was created online and was shared through MEA’s website and social media channels.

The survey received the participation of 141 female architects who live and work across the Middle East, with the following breakdown: the UAE (49%), Egypt (11%), Jordan (8%), Palestine (3%), Iraq (2%), Lebanon (2%), Saudi Arabia (1%), Kuwait (1%), Bahrain (1%), Libya (1%), and Turkey (1%). The remaining participants did not disclose their location.

The roles of the participants also range from interns to architects, senior architects to design managers, lead architects to heads of departments, as well as business owners.

The majority of those polled are between the ages of 25 to 32 (31%), while 28% are between the ages of 33 to 39. 21% are between 18 to 24, 10% are between 40 to 46, 5% are between 47 to 53, and 2.9% are between 54 and 60. Less than one percent of the women who answered this question on the survey are above 60 years old.

The survey looked at a number of factors that contribute to workplace environment, including income, career growth opportunity, gender equality among staff, and sexual discrimination in the office, at meetings and during site visits.

In addition to the survey, MEA spoke to four female architects based in the GCC, Jordan and Egypt about their individual experiences since joining the workforce. They all highlighted similar challenges that arise due to their gender, which include less pay than similarly qualified male architects, discrimination in meetings and during site visits, and societal pressures that affect workplace culture. The result they said, is undue stress caused by occasionally uncomfortable situations at best, and, at worst, a dwindling number of female representatives across the field, as many shift into other industries.

Respecting the anonymity of those interviewed, their names have been changed in this article but their professions have been kept.

“Having a strong character, I have always shared my professional opinion, recommendations and ideas,” said Yasmine, founder of her own design practice and former employee of a regional developer. “In most instances, I found myself being the only female in a boardroom of a dozen or so men, where I would usually be overlooked, resulting in me raising my voice to be heard. Working in a predominantly male workforce, I was continuously ridiculed for being aggressive, vocal and loud. This happened so much that on one occasion, an executive director commented that I had a sharp tongue and should be married off so I would [stop speaking].

“On several other occasions, during informal meetings with top management, I would be subjected to listening to banter between C-level managers making inappropriate innuendos about other female colleagues.”

Yasmine also faced a colleague making continuous inappropriate comments towards her. When flagged to HR, Yasmine was turned away and told to take it as a compliment.

“HR insinuated that I was probably misleading him, or that I was misunderstanding his friendliness,” she said.

More than 57% of the women who completed the survey said they had experienced sexual discrimination in meetings with clients, contractors, engineers, planners and other architects, with almost 53% saying they’ve experienced it on a project site. The frequency of witnessing discrimination in the workplace by colleagues though is distributed quite evenly across the board from never (16%) to daily (13.8%), while 21% noted that they witness it monthly.

“I worked with three architectural offices over the past three years as a junior architect,” said Reem, an award-winning Jordanian architect based in Amman. “I’ve only received good practical experience from one of them.

“I have felt discriminated against, which is very discouraging considering that the majority of architects in Jordan are women. I was not taken seriously during site visits, and my own capabilities were not recognised and disregarded at times. It was this combination of little-to-no work and poor treatment that made me change jobs so frequently in search of a better environment where I can grow and learn as an architect.”

Of the four women interviewed, three of them are of Middle Eastern origin and living and working in their native country, while one is an expat architect of German descent based in the GCC. Those of Middle Eastern backgrounds commented on the impact of societal pressures to marry, have children and retire from working on office culture. Fatima, an Egyptian architect and academic who co-founded a design and architecture consultancy, said such expectations, which she believes are more prevalent in the Middle East than in western societies, create an added obstacle to the already systematic discrimination felt by many women all over the world.

“There are many successful women in Egypt who have been proving their passion for and talent in design and architecture despite them being male-dominated professions. It is a paradox that even in the 21st century, architecture can still be a challenging career path for women, and gender inequality continues to be a cause for concern.

“Egyptian women struggle to crack into architecture for several reasons, including societal restrictions and unequal pay. They have double the challenges any male architect faces here.”

Fatima added that she has had very positive work experiences, but often faces a hard time convincing clients to agree to business concepts that they might be unfamiliar with or which haven’t been performed in the country before.

“Being a female architect in Egypt is the hardest when I try discussing different business models that challenge the conventional model of design production in Egypt,” she said. “But it is definitely worth the effort because if you succeed, you feel responsible toward society and you inspire others to have a fundamental role.”

The survey revealed that the majority income for female architects in the Middle East is below $15,000 (35.29%), however, that accounts for the entire region from the Levant to North Africa, and differing economies play a large role. Notably, though, 63% believe that they receive a lower income than similarly qualified male architects and 50% said that they receive promotions or raises so infrequently that they cannot predict a pattern.

“I have been teaching architecture for over 18 years,” said Fatima, “and I would say more than half of the student body is female. Many of them, however, shift careers after graduation or accept becoming drafters at architectural firms because of unjust income, late work hours, mental stress and, above all, criticism from society.

“Female architects are not usually given opportunities equal to those of male architects as they are expected to get married and change their priorities. The expectations of the community govern this process at large.”

According to Reem, similar issues are faced in Jordan, where she and her female colleagues had been termed a “bad investment” for the company.

“I believe that many female architects have had similar encounters,” Reem added. “But I think it’s safe to say that the perception is changing for the better. More women are being recognised in architecture for their talent and effort.”

Michelle, an expat project architect at an award-winning firm in the GCC, noted that she has had a relatively positive experience since relocating to the Middle East.

“My experience in the region has always been that individuals have given me the opportunity based on my abilities and contribution, regardless of my gender,” Michelle said. “If one is passionate about what they do, they will achieve and be rewarded for their efforts.

“However, there have been a few occasions where my gender and age have prevented me from being taken seriously. Entering the construction industry, the female number drops once you get to the senior management roles.”

“Women and men are different, and their contributions can complement each other in design, construction and in the problem solving of both fields,” she added. “I am lucky to work for a company that does not differentiate or discriminate, and I strongly believe that this has enriched its work environment, design and output.”

The majority of the survey’s participants (35.5%) said that their HR does not have clear policies on sexual discrimination, nor a complaints process, while 31.8% said they didn’t know their company’s policies. According to Yasmine, HR departments need to take action by creating a safe platform for women to share experiences, uphold policies of accountability and ensure equal opportunities are being given to as many women as men who are equally qualified and talented.

“The key to bridging the gap between genders is to eliminate discrimination completely, not to replace one with another,” she said. “Women have just as much value to add to a business growth as their male counterparts.”

This article was originally published in Middle East Architect in April 2019.

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