We at ArchPosé [AP] bring to you the last of the interviews from our visit to the Accra based architecture practice ArchXenus. The first one was with Agnes Ofosu-Appiah and this time we bring you an interview with the CEO and Principal Architect Nana Akua Birmeh [NAB]. She spoke on women in architecture and generally the idea of making the workplace conducive for women especially those with kids.
AP: What are your thoughts on the practice of women in architecture, the issues, challenges and resolutions?
NAB: ” I think probably right from school there is a sense, I do not know where we get it from; but there is a sense for a lot of ladies that they will branch into softer forms of architecture but I never had that for some reason. After school I was blessed to train under a woman who did not have that either, who did it from A-Z and did it very well. So personally I did not have that challenge but I saw it in the women that came to work with me. From the onset they will come in with the sense that there was a part of architecture they were cut out for and I would consciously shove them in the deep end and they will do it, when we worked out this architecture firm really from A-Z. So far every woman here has achieved and done it just like the men. So that is for the practice and how we are conditioned.
In practice itself, I think at the end of the day a work will speak for itself. If there is any challenge with clients and people we engage with, and this was something I personally expected so I practiced in a certain way. For example, I was working successfully with a male client; working very hard and doing everything and then I got pregnant. The expectation around that time usually for a lot of clients is that you may not be able to work the same way; yes it is challenging because pregnancy is something else on its own. So for me it just meant a little extra effort and I also consciously refused to leave the scene; so pregnant or not, I am doing what I have to do. When I had the baby, since I could work with the laptop at home, my deliverables were not too much affected. A lot of people will give you a little room to operate but at the end of the day, with the experience you have and you still being efficient, effective; that concern from clients goes away. Now when they bring you a job, it does not matter you are a woman; sometimes it means getting help to do what you cannot do. So I chose not to leave the scene because I could have left as well. Beyond that, the works speak for themselves; indeed we have had people who have usually been surprised when we show up as the architects for a project they are on. They look at you twice because they have to be sure but if you know what you are about, at the end of the day you will leave and they are convinced.”
AP: As a female running an office, how do you go about it? Especially in a male dominated field like architecture, having both sexes working ‘under’ you. Do you have any tactics you can share to inspire other women who might want to run their own firm one day?
NAB: ” This I won’t even relate to the gender per se because really the challenges are the same whether you are a woman or a man. The challenges that come along with running an office don’t discriminate unfortunately; I wish they would discriminate in my favour but they hit us all the same [laughs]. So I don’t think running an office operationally has any gender biases. However, in our case here you don’t get the sense of being ‘under’ someone; it is more of a leading so we have a very horizontal relationship in general with everyone no matter which level. People perform their roles based on their key performance indicators [KPIs]; you have to do this or that so you do it. At the end of the day, the sense of parallel relationship I think helps us. Maybe because also I started up pretty young and most of the people who came on were not that much younger than me, some are also my mates; so we haven’t had to deal with the wide gap of someone ‘under’ and someone ‘over’. I just happen to have started this company so yes I am the principal, I happen to lead the creative process and things like that. Most of the time it is a leading process so you are also learning and participating; so yeah I think for us that is how we are running things for now.”
AP: Any last words to our readers? Any topic of interest to you that you want the world to know about?
NAB: “Personally I am concerned that the working world hasn’t being fitted to accommodate women having children and so now women have to fight for six months maternity leave, which on paper it is different from reality. If you are an employer and you have to let someone go for six months, paying them all that six months; get someone to do their job in those six months and pay them as well. So when the one on leave comes back what do you do with the new one? It gets really mishmash and that is because you haven’t given them room to come back. Here you go for your three months and you come back with your nanny; your baby is with you anyway. For a lot of women I think the decision to stay home should be their decision and not because they cannot be accommodated at work, because our brains still work. We are still functional, you know and it does get a tad bit boring when most of your conversations are about diapers. You crave for some adult conversations and I think if we give most women the chance they would rather work. We should not compartmentalize life that way for women especially and I think the working world needs us, they shouldn’t kick us out.
I am very passionate about that, why are they kicking us out? Now we have to start our own companies so we can accommodate ourselves. Every company should have a day-care, should have a nursery; if you cannot have a well equipped nursery let the staff bring their nannies, it doesn’t hurt anyone [laughs]. It is very unfair, we are not going anywhere [laughs]. I think we should just stop drawing such solid lines because at the end of the day life is not one-directional. There are always things and influences, we should really just allow things to be organic. Here for example it is not only the women who are benefiting from the nursery; the men bring their kids as well because their wives work in companies that won’t allow them to bring their kids. Children close school between 2 pm and 4 pm, and people are confused what to do with their own children because if you don’t have care at home how are they even getting home, who takes care of them etc. It is occupational hazard but if you are a woman and you are going to have kids, it doesn’t mean you cannot work.”