New Research


In the summer of 2017 we asked Alice Moncaster and Martha Dillon of the Open University to undertake a desk top research exercise into gender diversity and company performance, focused on built environment professions.

The Executive Summary is available here:

Women Boards and the UK Built Environment Executive Summary

If you would like a copy of the full report please complete the registration form where, in the final section, you will be able to tick a box asking for a copy.

We are grateful to Allies + Morrison, Arup, Grimshaw, Sound Space Vision and Thornton Tomasetti for funding this piece of research, and to The Open University for its support.

Research Opportunity

Equilibrium Network is looking for a bright researcher to undertake a paid desktop study into gender issues across the built environment…

The study is expected to take between 4 to 8 weeks, working either full time or part-time.

Applicants must have previous research experience at masters or PhD level. Pay will be appropriate to experience in research on the University pay scales.

The successful candidate will be employed on a temporary contract through the Open University, and can work from home or from the campus in Milton Keynes.

The research will be supervised and supported by Dr Alice Moncaster on behalf of Equilibrium.

Please get in touch with Alice if you are interested: Dr Alice or

Unconscious bias from the other side

Alice MoncasterThis is a story about a multi-national project I have been a part of for the last five years, developing policy and industry guidance on how to reduce embodied carbon from buildings. The project has taught me three important lessons, only one of them about carbon.

The multi-national project is Annex 57 of the Energy in Buildings and Communities (EBC) programme of the International Energy Agency (IEA); subtask 4 of the Annex happens to be all women. This happened slightly by chance and slightly, I suspect, by subconscious design, and I’ll explain how.
At the start of the project the participants to Annex 57 could choose which sub-task they wanted to work on. Harpa (an Icelandic working in Denmark), Tove (from Sweden), Aoife (Irish but working in Norway) and me (from and working in the UK) decided to work on subtask 4. Perhaps this task didn’t look very high-powered or glamorous to our colleagues, who split up into other subtask groups or none at all. Perhaps we grouped together as a subliminal appreciation of the rare opportunity to work with others of our own sex, and indeed age. I don’t know.

Once this group had formed, other women who joined the Annex wanted to join us, and of course we allowed them. Additional researchers joined in from our own institutions who also happened to be female, including importantly and lastingly, Freja from Denmark. This was all fine with our male colleagues on Annex 57, who called us ‘the ladies’, and seemed to find us slightly amusing, hard-working and perhaps a little, well, dull.

However my story of inadvertent bias becomes a bit more thorny as it goes along. At the project meeting halfway through the project there was a subtle change. At this point the presentations from the subtasks to the whole group started to focus necessarily not just on brilliant ideas, but on what they had actually achieved. Subtask group 4 had requested some time for a break-out session in order to use more of our precious time to work together. To our surprise at this session we were suddenly approached by a number of (male) colleagues wanting to join us. One in particular (well-meaning, and who shall therefore remain anonymous) also really felt the urge to tell us what we should be doing differently and, in his view, rather better. Politely but firmly (some of us firmer than others) we told him that our work was too far progressed for his advice to be useful, and that he was not welcome to join our group at this late stage.

Now we have arrived almost at the end, and we are producing our final report. It has been a difficult but supportive process. All of us are too busy to really fit it in with our every day work, but we have stuck with it through a sense of shared responsibility, and have made huge efforts to attend meetings in each of our countries as well as by Skype either around school pick-up times (all of us happen to have children, with two subtask 4 babies born during the project) or from home (children, dogs and partners in the background). What we have succeeded in producing is a ground-breaking piece of academic research providing a unique and truly global snapshot of embodied carbon methods and mitigation strategies. Personally we have moved from mutual respect to firm friendship. Our remaining unresolved conundrum is which order to list the report authors: unlike the other subtask groups, each led by a single (male) academic, ours has four leaders, Harpa, Tove, Aoife and me.

I have learnt a great deal about reducing embodied carbon from buildings, but perhaps more importantly I have learnt how a collective, collaborative working style can produce amazing results against all odds. The third lesson, though, is a little more thought-provoking; this is, how unconscious bias can work in all of us.

I must stress that we didn’t set out to be an all female group. We didn’t consciously look for female researchers to join us. And we didn’t deliberately discriminate against our male colleague when he tried to join. I’m not really apologising. I’m just noticing the potential insidious mechanisms of subconscious bias, for once on the other side of them. I suspect most of the reasons why we still have all-male boards, and a mostly male industry, are for very similar, and similarly unintentional, reasons.

So the reflection for my industry and academic colleagues is this; it might be more comfortable to work with people like you. It might be easier to see their strengths, if they are the same as yours. You might find that teamwork goes well, with everyone getting along easily together, both in work and socially. But in staying safe, staying homogeneous, you may be missing the chance to benefit from someone who is, and thinks, differently, and in doing so you are missing the chance to do the very best you can. This is why organisations with diversity at a senior level have been unequivocally shown to do better. A little voice inside me tells me that some, not all, of our male colleague’s comments were right, and we could perhaps have done things even better if we had allowed ourselves to listen to a different voice.

Alice Moncaster

Greater diversity at board level = profitability?

RIBA Journal Q & A session with Caroline Cole:

So are you looking to stage a boardroom coup?

Not exactly! The Equilibrium Network is cross disciplinary; architects, engineers, landscape architects, contractors, academics and clients. With everyone moaning about the lack of female representation at senior level, we asked ‘does it actually matter?’ We assembled some female big industry achievers to tell their stories and decided ‘yes it does’.

So you came to the obvious conclusion?

Actually, we concluded it wasn’t just about gender but diversity at executive level and not just about helping women but helping business to do better. At junior level it’s a 50/50 gender mix in architecture but at senior level it’s 11% – and worse in engineering. We want to find ways to help organisations be more diverse, by not being hellraising and confrontational but business-like.

How do you nudge people in the right direction?

We need to do more research to prove diversity helps in business as there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence. Studies from other sectors show it has a positive effect on the bottom line and profitability seems the best way to drive change.

Yes, more senior women would lead to a better workplace but can that counter the long hours work culture that gets passed down?

So the abused becomes the abuser?! Yes, office culture is important but the issue’s much wider than that. For the built environment industry, whose output affects how society interacts, there’s a compelling argument that greater diversity at executive level would lead to better design outcomes for everyone. But proving it is the key!

So you don’t feel the industry is changing of its own accord?

There’s a sense now that gender is actively discussed by larger organisations, which is encouraging. There aren’t many more women are in senior positions now than when I was starting out, and that’s problematic. The network wants to use its experience to analyse why some women’s careers flourish more than others.

And career-breaks for child-rearing isn’t an issue?

No, I would say it’s more about pay. If you’re in a profession that tolerates low pay you can’t afford child care. That has nothing to do with being a woman: the issue applies to both parents and is a financial one.

So where to from here?

We’ve launched the website and we’re expanding the network through personal invitations to both men and women to join as mentors. We ask members to give three days a year to be a role model for diversity and advocate the business benefits of gender balance. Our first event is in September to set the agenda for the coming year.

For the full article see here


Women in Architecture: what’s holding us back?

Equilibrium Steering Group member, KIRSTEN LEES, has sent us this note about a fascinating event that was held at Grimshaw last week.


It was great to see so many attendees at our recent WIA panel event: Women in Architecture: What’s holding us back?

Thanks to Caroline Cole, Barbara Lane and Rachel Short for joining me in what proved to be a thought-provoking and invigorating evening. It was also great to see so many male colleagues; as Rachel suggested, somewhat controversially, there were three categories of men – and these were the good guys (!) i Thanks to Caroline Cole, Barbara Lane and Rachel Short for joining me in what proved to be a thought-provoking and invigorating evening. It was also great to see so many male colleagues; as Rachel suggested, somewhat controversially, there were three categories of men – and these were the good guys (!) interested in the debate, and keen to affect change. If there were any second-category dinosaurs they definitely remained well hidden in the undergrowth. The third category – the silent bystanders that make up the majority – were keeping mute.

I would argue however that the majority of men within our industry are ‘good guys’ I challenge you to find any male who doesn’t actively believe that women have a place in architecture, and who fully support efforts to make the situation better. The question is whether they all fall back to the ‘customary’ role of being silent bystanders when the everyday pressures of work resume? But aren’t we all guilty of this? How many women remain actively involved throughout the year? It is a shame that the pattern each year seems to repeat itself where there is a flurry of activity around the annual AR WIA survey, the WIA Awards and International Women’s Day before we all get consumed again by the pressures of doing our job. Perhaps this is why each one of us on the panel responded with variations on the same theme to the question from the floor, ‘What is the single most important thing that will improve the situation?’ “Keep it on the agenda” was the resounding response.

I for one have seen the difference it has made at Grimshaw this last year where we have quietly included gender balance every time we talk amongst the partners about promotions, project opportunities and recruitment. We have introduced a number of simple measures into our standard procedures that have, even in a relatively short space of time, started to make a real difference. This is why the Equilibrium Network is so important, in that it allows us to reach a wide range of organisations and ensure that the goal of reaching gender balance at all levels, and in particular around the board room table, is kept firmly at the top of the agenda. We know it makes a difference.

Gender inequality in academia

Equilibrium Steering Group member, ALICE MONCASTER, has alerted us to the fact that within academia, the UK research councils have also identified gender inequality as a key issue.

STEM departments (including Engineering and Construction and in many cases Architecture) are encouraged to sign up to the Athena Swan charter, and most are taking this very seriously; please see: 

for the work we are doing at Cambridge Engineering Department towards our Silver Award application.

This is important not just for women working in academia but for the ‘pipeline’ into the construction industry – the current attrition rate of students who take construction-related degrees but decide it isn’t for them and go to work in a different field, is currently far higher for women than for men. I really hope that the work we are doing with Athena Swan will encourage more women to stay in the technical fields they have chosen.