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In architecture, it's a mystery -- where do all the women go?

Today, there are as many women as men entering architecture schools. But by the time they graduate and begin the arduous internship process that eventually leads to becoming a registered architect, women represent only 31 per cent, according to the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA), the province's regulatory body.

The number drops even more drastically when you look at how many registered architects actually practising in Ontario today are women -- 13 per cent.

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This isn't an Ontario aberration; it's even worse in other parts of the country. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) found that in 1995, the number of female architects was 2 per cent in Saskatchewan and 3 per cent in Newfoundland, compared with 11 per cent in Ontario and 13 per cent in Quebec.

"I don't think anyone knows where all these women go. You're in school together, then about 10 years later, there's almost none around," says Debra Krakow, an architect with Mill & Ross Architects Inc. in Kingston, Ont., and a vice-president of the OAA.

Why women leave, and how to keep them in the profession, is what the RAIC is trying to find out. The voluntary body, which represents about 3,000 of the 7,000 architects in Canada, began a series of cross-country forums in 1999 and plans to complete the discussions and issue a final report in the next year or so.

At the sessions, common complaints keep coming up. Women give up their dream of a career in architecture largely owing to the brutal hours, perceived bias against their getting the top projects, pay inequities and a male culture that can leave them feeling not only excluded, but belittled.

To Ms. Krakow, the single biggest turnoff for young female architects is the "contract administration" phase of a project -- overseeing engineers and construction workers at the construction site.

"Not only are you the youngest, least experienced person at the table, you're also conspicuously female. In my experience, if you're male, you're presumed competent or you wouldn't be there. If you're female, you're presumed incompetent until proven otherwise," she says.

Whistles and catcalls aren't uncommon. It's so intimidating that many women shy away from that part of the business, concentrating solely on the design end, which hampers their advancement prospects, Ms. Krakow says.

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The time demands are a huge factor, too, particularly since women still have primary responsibility on the home front. If one of her children is sick, for instance, Guela Solow-Ruda, an associate partner at Petroff Partnership Architects in Markham, Ont., takes time off for the doctor's visit, something she doesn't see the guys at the office doing. When her first child was born in 1996, she was the first woman ever at Petroff, which has been in business since the 1950s, to take maternity leave.

Ms. Solow-Ruda's regular routine after hours is to put her two young children to bed at 8 p.m., then continue working until about midnight, every night.

"I took a week off in March and it was the first real holiday in five years. I took only four calls in seven days," she says.

For sure, there are constant deadlines and emergencies in the business that don't leave a lot of leeway for flex-time. Huge amounts of money are at stake -- a building can easily cost $30-million to build. Weather, unexpected slowdowns on the site, environmental assessments -- the list of obstacles is potentially endless, and each can escalate the cost.

"Because it's so competitive, there can be a mindset in some companies to impress the client by underpaying people and making them work extremely long hours without compensation," Ms. Krakow says.

There are signs that some firms, though, are starting to ease the burden. Mill & Ross pays overtime or gives time off in lieu, which helps to relieve resentment from other employees when you don't want to put in the extra hours, Ms. Krakow says.

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At Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg in Toronto, one of Canada's most prestigious architecture firms, 35 to 40 per cent of the architects are female. There's a conscious effort by the partners to retain women by ensuring that they get a fair crack at demanding projects and trying to accommodate their schedules around family life, partner Marianne McKenna says.

"But these are things that women have to be more aggressive about. Tell your company what you want. Even in the pay area, where there are still inequities, if you push for equality, you can get it," says Ms. McKenna, who is famous in the industry for giving birth on a Thursday and being back at work the Monday after.

That kind of extreme commitment isn't necessary for all women to have a good career in architecture, she says, but they have to realize they won't achieve her level of success working part-time hours.

Do older female architects feel much sympathy for their younger counterparts' complaints about the profession? Eva Matsuzaki, past president of the RAIF, who is heading up the cross-country study on women in the profession, says she does hear from some whose attitude seems to be, if you can't stand the blows, stay out of the building industry. The majority, though, favour changes, says Ms. Matsuzaki, a partner in Matsuzaki Architects Inc. in Vancouver.

In February, she published an interim report on what female architects have been saying so far. Suggestions include hiring more women for university programs, teaching business skills for those wanting to set up their own practices, developing a code for companies to prevent gender bias, publishing salary grids, encouraging more flexible work arrangements and generally raising the profile of women in the profession.

One major recommendation is to establish a national association for female architects to lobby on important issues and provide a support group.

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In the meantime, where do all the once-aspiring female architects go? In the 1980s, Ms. Sulow-Ruda was part of an experiment called Villa Villa, a company where four female architecture grads and one licensed architect tried to do architecture a different way. They set it up in a studio style, where each member could pursue her own artistic vision, but with lots of collaboration. They even had daycare on-site.

Gradually, though, the members drifted away, some disillusioned about gender bias and being able to sustain a practice working in a non-traditional way. The original architect still practises under the Villa Villa name, and Ms. Sulow-Ruda went to a large firm to gain broader experience. The others do diverse jobs, from smaller renovation projects to the development end of the business, Web design, and even selling financial products.

Some women who study architecture but don't become registered do work in the field, as designers or architectural technologists. But even then, they can face some of the same issues -- the numbers still aren't 50-50 with men over all. At Petroff, for instance, 16 per cent of the non-clerical staff is female.

Worst of all, perhaps, in the numbers drain, is that the profession is losing some of its most talented potential practitioners. It seems that women make good architects: Female students win at least half the awards and accolades, and skills such as communicating, consensus-seeking and multitasking, which are typically identified with women, are the things that make effective architecture teams.

One encouraging trend is that more women are heading up the client companies that architects work for, Ms. McKenna says. That's especially true in the health care field.

"I was at a meeting recently with a client and her working group, and it suddenly struck me that we were all women. It was extraordinary," Ms. Krakow says.

In fact, reverse discrimination can come into play. Female clients now often prefer to deal with female architects because there's a comfort level there.

That's something that men on a construction site can surely understand.

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