I meet Francesca and Asua in a bar in London, and I am late. The air is cold and we are on a roof-top, so the conversations starts with me recovering from running up the stairs. To earn some time, I ask them how they chose their career.
Francesca was always good with maths and physics, but wanted something more creative, so she chose Engineering Architecture.
Asua had her own interior decorating business and went to university to study Interior Design; but she got in to the wrong lecture, it was architecture and she fell in love.
They work in the same firm in North London. Asua joined 2 years ago, while Francesca came along after 1 year. There are 11 women and 5 men in the practice. That sounds super good to me, but Francesca and Asua explain that things are not as good as they may sound.
They like to think of themselves as committed for gender equality, but sometimes the reality is a little different.
Asua mentions how she has found that often in practices, including this one, the ability to socialise with directors can make a big difference. Whether it’s joining football teams, the ability to play golf or even the ability to regularly go to the pub till late after work. This is something not open to all, especially women and especially if you have kids and are the main care giver.
And the fact that there is a woman in the high rankings is not substantial, they say. She doesn’t have the real power that her job title would suggest. As it often happens, Asua explains, women who are promoted in high positions have a hard time to fit in and must be very careful to invest their influential capital at work.
It would probably be easier to improve and learn, Francesca adds, if only we could speak more openly about sexism’
We also have on us the extra pressure, of not sounding bitter or too confrontational, if we want to progress.
“If you want things to change you need to use what you have” says Asua “ you have to understand hierarchy and pick your battles”. It is difficult to prove sexism at work, I comment, there is always something else that can justify the decisions.
“I know that during job interviews I have to convey the idea that I am ok, that I won’t be any potential trouble” she says. Women have to prove that they can do the job where as men have to prove that they can’t. “Once you get the job, you find a way to communicate when certain behaviours are sexist” Asua adds.
Sexism is often subtle, so the response needs to be subtle, too.
Unfortunately men still have more initiative, Asua says. If they have a good idea they are more likely to go ahead with it, while women often feel they have to ask for permission before they can just go ahead and do it.
Women are taught that hard work will make their career, men grow up being taught that putting themselves forward will make their career.
I agree that for women and their struggle for equality, the issues are on both sides. It’s the industry and the employers, who want women to fit in old fashioned roles, but it’s also hard for women to move on from those comfort zones.
“Every time I see a good project assigned to a man, I stop before judging, because bias is everywhere, even in myself sometimes.” Asua adds.
We keep talking, exchanging stories from the office, and the time flies. Asua and Francesca sound very determined and passionate, and it’s clear they love their job but there are so many things they think should change.
Have you thought of moving to another firm? I ask. Actually the environment at work is very good, Francesca says.
We realise we’ve been talking about the things that they don’t like, there. But it’s a great place to be, explains Francesca.
It’s a small practice where we have the chance to change things.
The directors might not be there yet, but things have definitely improved and they like the idea of being diverse and open. That is a great place to start, to advocate for women equality and equality in general, Asua adds.
We go back, talking about how women must find the right ways to improve sexism at work, to be effective.
Asua mentions her son, who is at university, and probably the first black person that some of his fellow students have interacted with in their lives. “I always remind him that we represent.”
Whatever we do, it will be what those students will associate with black people. So we have a duty to represent in a positive way while being mindful of the stereotypes they already have in their minds.
As a black woman in architecture, that is even harder. “I have met very few black architects in my career, especially at director level, probably one, and definitely I have never met another black female architect” Asua says. Have I? Probably not, I try to recall. Looking at Francesca I realise she’s probably doing the same. And I read on her face that Asua is the only black architect she’s met, just like me.
We check the time and we realise we’ve been talking for hours, and it’s time to leave. Hugs and smiles, and then we all go in different directions. I leave with food for thought, as usual.
I take longer than usual to go back and review my notes from the interview. It was a long conversation full of important things. But after weeks, two ideas keep coming back to me. One is of strength and resilience, to try to change things, resisting the easy solution of moving elsewhere.
And then those words, we represent. Do we really represent for social categories? When we were sitting at that table, I was sure that we don’t and we shouldn’t. But since my conversation with Francesca and Asua, I realise those words don’t fade and truly changed my perspective.
I promise myself I will learn from Francesca and Asua, who choose to stay and fight, who choose the responsibility to represent good and to be an example.
Gen is managing director and chief of digital strategy in houseUP, leading the company's business strategy. She comes from the tech start-up industry as a product and marketing chief officer