Monday, 30 April 2012

Milestone, millstone or the same old grindstone?

A good week for those who think that there aren't many high powered women in the construction and property sectors. Just two days after a packed audience at the RIBA listened to seven dynamic women talking about female power in architecture, there was full house to hear  editor Giles Barrie of Property Week announce the Women's Power List at an event organised by Women in Property to launch its 25th Anniversary celebrations.  

Not only has an impressive list of 100 top women in property been gathered, there are another 100 women nipping at their (high) heels. Quite a change from the last time the list was compiled, in 2006, when it was something of a challenge to identify 100 women in positions of influence.

Add to this the latest report from Cranfield School of Management, (Milestone or Millstone?) which shows an increase in the number of women holding board seats on FTSE 350 companies since the Lord Davies report, and one might be forgiven for thinking that we can coast all the way to transparency and equality in British boardrooms.  But as ever, it is not as simple as that, particularly in construction and property.
Professor Susan Vinnicombe

Professor Susan Vinnicombe, co-author of the Cranfield Report, is keynote speaker at the Women in Property event. She points out to the capacity audience, on the top floor of legal firm TaylornWessing's smart offices in the City of London, that there are significant moves in the right direction. The percentage of female board directors on FTSE 100 companies has risen to 15% from the three year plateau of 12.5%.  The number of companies with no women on the board has dropped to 11 and the number of companies with more than one woman on the board has increased to 50.

Professor Vinnicombe also points out that in the 12 months to January 2012, 29 of the 47 women who took up new roles on FTSE 100 boards have had no prior FTSE 350 board experience. "This represents a good addition to the talent pool, suggesting that the appointment process is beginning to open up to new women and Chairmen and ESFs are being a little more creative with their selection of candidates," she says.  

There is murmuring amongst some members of the audience, including me. We later compare experience over wine and canapes, with one highly qualified engineer with construction, housing and board experience recounting how she was told to produce three references from FTSE 100 companies before being considered as suitable non executive director material. As she points out, there aren't three construction companies in the FTSE 100. Others shared my experience, of being told recently that FTSE experience was the only way to get past first base.

So what is the profile of the women who have reached the boards of FTSE companies? The charts define them by skill set rather than sector, which makes it rather difficult to assess from a construction and property viewpoint. As ever, the majority have financial expertise (57% in the FTSE 100, 45% in the FTSE 250). In both groups, those women with strategy and marketing skill are the next highest group at 17%, with operations experience down the pecking order at 9% in the FTSE 100 group and 11% in the FTSE 250 group.

Even more interestingly, in the light of my observation that only one of the  seven women on the platform at the RIBA event came from the UK, the Cranfield report reveals that fewer women directors than men directors hold British nationality (55% compared with 65%) and North Americans (USA and Canada) hold 29% of the female directorships compared with 11% of the male directorships. 

But back to the Women in Property event. Professor Vinnicombe's concern is that of the 141 women holding 163 directorships in the FTSE100, only 20 are executive directors, despite the fact that there are plenty of women in the workplace. "Many companies seem to struggle to identify the women they employ at junior, middle and senior levels!" she tells us. " Others vary dramatically in the numbers of women at senior executive level. It is clear now that many major corporations are successful at attracting women at entry level, at developing them and retaining them after maternity leaves, but are still spectacularly unsuccessful at promoting them to executive level."

So how will it be done? Let's hear from the powerful executive women on the platform, with their top tips for success:
Woman at the top: Alison Nimmo heads up Crown Estates

Alison Nimmo, Chief Executive of Crown Estates. "We must dispel the myth that there isn't talent. Women must overcome the fear of failure and just go for it - jumping in the deep end is good." 

Rebecca Worthington, Finance Director at Quintain. "You have to play to your strengths and take ownership."

Jenefer Greenwood,   Retail Strategist at Grosvenor Estates. "Find something you are good at, spot opportunities and take advantage of being unique (everyone knew me because I was the only woman). Women are good at the nitty gritty, but no good at blowing their own trumpet."
Lynda Shillaw, Lloyds Banking Group

Lynda Shillaw,  Managing Director, corporate real estate at Lloyds Banking Group. " I took  on every job in male dominated industry and had amazing runs of luck with great men mentors. Choose your battles!"

So nothing new there then, is it simply down to the women to keep grinding away, relying on doing a job really well and being recognised in the end?  The debate turns to the controversial issue of targets and quotas. Professor Vinnicombe refers to the resistance amongst women and men to setting quotas for women in boardrooms, based on an assumption that this will result in appointing mediocre women and encourage tokenism. Only 11% of women surveyed agreed with the idea of quotas, with women already on boards often being the most vociferously against the proposal. Cartoonist Alex in the Sunday Telegraph sums up the attitude rather well.

Conscious of this resistance,  the Davies Report held back from quotas and required that Chairmen should announce their aspirational targets for women on boards by September 2011.  As Professor Vinnicombe tells us, by the Interim Report published in October 2011, only 33 companies had set out their targets. So in January 2012 the Company Secretaries of all FTSE 350 companies were asked for an update. Of the 70 FTSE 100 companies responding,  the number with declared aspirational targets rose to 38, nine stated categorically that they will not be setting targets and the  remaining 23 were supportive but noncommittal.

But it seems as if the tide is turning with regard to quotas.  The phrase, "I don't like the idea but it seems to be the only way," is increasingly being heard, including from the EU's Justice Minister Vivian Reding who launched a consultation on the issue in March. (Deadline is 28 May for submissions.)

In the meantime, let's take heart from the impressive 200 women listed in Property Week and leave the fight for seats on FTSE 350 companies to women from US, Canada or Australia. Or you could do what the architect friend of a fellow delegate at the Women in Property event did - switch to accountancy and reach the board as finance director. 

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The great Arizona road trip - 2

Green fingers in the desert
Scottsdale is a charming suburb of Phoenix, full of wide boulevards and smart houses sitting in large plots shaded by palo verde and acacia trees. The temperature is still in the 80s when we check into the Best Western Sundial Hotel around 8 pm. As we step into the lift a little boy of six or seven scuttles in beside us, bare-foot, wrapped in a towel, hair dripping water into his eyes and over our suitcase. "How's the pool?" we ask. "Cool, " comes the reply.

We resist the temptation to head for a swim too, opting instead for a shower before going online to find somewhere nearby for dinner. We discover that in Arizona nearby means a short car journey rather than a leisurely stroll, but eventually find ourselves in a southwestern steak house enjoying local beer and a tasty meal served by a tall slim young woman in Stetson and beautifully tooled cowboy boots.

We meet the little boy again over muffins and juice at breakfast. He is the fourth child of five, visiting Arizona from Vancouver with his parents in a Winnebago. His mother tells us that today’s treat is a visit to Phoenix Zoo, which reminds me of a chance encounter some 10 years ago on a boat taking us to the Great Barrier Reef from Port Douglas, Queensland. A group of charming American women engaged us in conversation.  Hearing we were looking for somewhere interesting to stay, they waxed lyrical about an eco resort further up the coast, describing cabins on stilts nestling in the rain forest, turtles swimming under the glass floor of the dining room and night excursions to spot tree climbing kangaroos. We found the resort after a long drive on a dirt road, and they were right, it was magical.
Green as glass and no need to water: Chihully's Desert Towers
However our destination today is to see the flora, rather than fauna, of Arizona, by visiting the city’s Desert Botanical Garden in Papago Park. Considering that we have been travelling through desert for the past 120 or so miles, surrounded by cactus, palms, mesquite and palo verde trees, it, one might wonder what surprises await but as the place gets rave reviews on Tripadvisor and other websites, we set off to make the most of the relatively cool morning.

The reviews are right. From the moment we enter the 145 acre site, there is something to feast the eyes. By the ticket office, shimmering in the sunlight,  are three tall, brilliant green, spiky plants.  Closer inspection reveals that they are made of glass, by the extraordinary craftsman Dale Chihuly, and are called Desert Towers. They are as eye-catching, albeit not as tall, as his 30 foot high red glass Olympic Tower admired 18 months ago in the foyer of the Concert Hall in Salt Lake City.

A tall man, wearing a sunhat and stylish jerkin with Desert Botanical Garden logo, comes up to greet us as soon as we walk through the gate. A landscape gardener by profession, he is one of the 1,140 volunteers who help keep the garden open every day of the year except 4 July, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. He tells us that there is a tour beginning in 20 minutes, and suggests that in the meantime we could take one of the shorter trails to see the spring desert flowers area. 
Glorious colour amongst the spines

Although it is early in the morning, there is already quite a crowd gathering, and on our walk we find a number of photographers armed with tripods and very impressive cameras setting up with great concentration close to some of the more spectacular blooming cactus and succulents.

We return to the tour point, to meet our docent Charles, who tells us that he has chosen three variations on a theme: desert plants that get nourishment through their roots,  through their bark and through their leaves. We learn that the beautiful palo verde tree, the state tree of Arizona that marks the arrival of spring with its abundant yellow blossoms, has adapted to desert life by photosynthesizing through its bark, which remains soft and green. This allows the leaves to reduce almost to needles, decreasing water loss through evaporation and transpiration, which means that these trees flourish with minimal water and provide welcome shade in high temperatures.

Charles is a great guide, not only sharing his personal knowledge but also patiently answering our questions. No, you cannot get water by cutting a piece from a saguaro cactus  (not even if you are John Wayne).  The best tequila is made from the heart of the Blue Agave, which is pollinated by bats and takes 12 years to reach maturity. 
Day of the Triffids

Spotting a strange plant that looks like the inspiration for the Triffids in the seminal John Wyndham sci-fi novel, Charles tells us that this was a cactus that was bent over in the unusual frost that hit Arizona earlier in the year. The plant will never recover its normal position, despite the significant rise in temperature during the summer months.
Medusa's hatbox
We spot other strange plants too, including cactus that look like a slither of snakes crawling over an acacia tree, which we nickname Medusa's hatbox.  

Small tables are set up in shady corners along the trails, where volunteers demonstrate other interesting botanical facts.We see how native American Indians make use of every part of the strange succulent plants that survive in the harsh desert environment. For example stripping the fibres from agaves, aloes, yucca, devil's claw and bear grass to weave shoes, baskets and other utensils. 

Every now and then, as we walk through the trails cleverly laid out to reflect the variety of terrain in this vast State, quail scurry across the paths in front of us, and a pair of tame roadrunner birds sprint  along in the hope of picnic food. We sit in the shade near the lecture theatre, sip prickly pear iced tea and read some of the literature we collected on arrival. We discover that the Desert Botanical Garden was founded in 1939 by a woman, Gertrude Divine Webster. 

An environmentalist ahead of her time, Gertrude Webster gathered a small group of fellow citizens to create a botanical garden whose precepts would encourage an understanding, appreciation and promotion of the uniqueness of the world's deserts, particularly the Sonoran Desert in South Arizona.  Today the Desert Botanical Garden is an internationally recognised centre, running a school, educational and conservation programmes, gardening information resource and plant nursery, and a series of music, exhibitions and and other events throughout the year.
Just like a silken pincushion
The involvement of women continues too. Nina Mason Pulliam was a business leader, journalist and humanitarian who left her substantial assets in a charitable trust to support causes in her home states of Arizona and Indiana.  In 2002 the trust contributed to a $17m expansion at the Desert Botanical Garden including the construction of a Research and Horticulture Center in her name.

In 2008, another $17m expansion project was undertaken, including the construction of new cactus and succulent galleries funded (and named after) the trust set up by  Sybil B Harrington. She was not only an ambassador of the arts nationally and in her native West Texas, but she also had a keen interest in preservation, particularly in the southwestern states.
Prickly pear in full bloom

We resolve to return, to explore more trails, visit the butterfly enclosure, the research centre, talk to the knowledgeable volunteers and perhaps take in a concert. The Desert Botanical Garden confounds the view that the desert is a barren place, thanks to a determined plantswoman and the dedication of those sustaining her legacy.
All photographs by Sandi Rhys Jones

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Must women leave home to become powerful?

You can tell by the pitch of the voices as you pass through the imposing doors of the Royal Institute of British Architects, that homage to Art Deco in Portland Place, that the capacity crowd for the evening  is rather different to the usual RIBA event. The hallowed halls are thronged with women, of all ages, gathering to hear about Female Power in Architecture: who has it, who wants it, and how to earn it.

The attraction of the topic is hardly surprising, as a recent survey by the Architect’s Journal (AJ)revealed that despite the proportion of female architecture students staying at roughly 50%,  the proportion of female architectural staff has fallen from 28% to 21%  since 2009.  More shockingly, the majority are earning significantly less than their male colleagues.

Chairing the event is the editor of AJ, Christine Murray, who decided to carry out the survey earlier this year,  just a couple of months after taking up her post. She was shocked by the low numbers of women working in architecture and also by the issues around pay. We need to identify believable role models, build confidence and address pay structures, she tells us.

Angela Brady: president,
role model
Christine is introduced, together with the five women architects on the panel,  by the redoubtable Angela Brady, who is only the second female President of the RIBA since it was founded in 1834 (she succeeded the first President Ruth Reed last year, see Angela for President).

As I listen to the stories, and admire the professionalism, tenacity and humour of the speakers, I am struck by two characteristics:

* Five of the seven speakers run their own businesses (confirming my theory that most women in construction get to the top by being independent rather than employed, see Women rulers).
* Six out of the seven women on the platform came to Britain, rather than come from Britain.

Let's take a look at these powerful women in architecture.

Angela Brady was born in Dublin, graduated from Dublin School of Architecture and set up in private practice in London with Robin Mallalieu in 1987 to form Brady Mallalieu, an award-winning practice specialising in contemporary sustainable design. She is not only a successful architect but also an artist, jewellery designer and TV broadcaster.

Kathryn Firth, Chief of Design at the Olympic Park Legacy Company
Kathryn Firth, grew up in the first planned suburb in North America, where  women were simply not expected to work. She studied in Toronto and at Harvard, and practised as an architect before coming to the UK to become Chief of Design, Olympic Park Legacy Company.  Her tip for success:  don't accept the macho culture fostered in architecture school that good design can only be attained by putting in long hours.

Christine Murray is Canadian and took on the post of AJ editor with plenty of journalistic experience but little knowledge of architecture. She engagingly tells us that after reading the results of the workplace survey, she learned a personal lesson and decided to ask for a payrise herself. Her tip: realise your worth and put forward a good argument to be rewarded for it.  

Deborah Saunt: striving for new beauty in building
Deborah Saunt was born in Australia, studied in Scotland and set up award-winning DSDHA with partner David Hills in 1989.  Her tips for success: Never apologise, size dooesn't matter and think of success as counterpoint, not a crescendo. 

Alison Brooks came here from Canada, made her name as an emerging architect and now runs her own practice ABA. She believes that more women should be included in master planning and that large practices should offer opportunities for smaller practices. Her tip for success: keep a sense of humour and play music in the office.

Liza Fior: creating art and architecture in the public realm
Liza Fior, London born and the only speaker to come from the UK, set up all woman practice muf in 1996 because she saw herself bolshie, idealistic and thus utterly unemployable. Her tip: don't assume you can simply schedule in having children at 38. 

Anna Gagliano, is a Brazilian who studied architecture and town planning in Sao Paulo, where women were in the significant majority. She came to the UK in 2000 and is now Head of Global Knowledge at AEDAS. Her tip: exploit the power of information technology and networks.
As I mingle with the crowd later, I recall a conversation a couple of years ago with Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas (born in New Zealand) who amongst other things is Chairman of the New West End Company, which represents 600 businesses on Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street and which is currently engaged in major construction works.  We were joined by Patricia Hewitt (born in Australia) who was building a non executive director career after retiring from the Cabinet where she had been Secretary of State for Health and for  Trade and Industry. The two women talked about how the decision to move to a different continent had given them a particular determination. As Dame Judith said, "I think it was somehow easier for me as an outsider," she says, "I wasn't constrained by attitudes."

So do you have to be a real pioneer to build a successful career?  Comments welcome.  


Saturday, 21 April 2012

The great Arizona road trip -1

On the road to Phoenix: the Saguaro cactus of southern Arizona

The thermometer registers 82 degrees Fahrenheit, as we set off from Tucson on the first leg of our road trip north to the Grand Canyon. As a stay in Arizona would not be complete without visiting Taliesin West, the winter home, studio and school of the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, our first stop is Scottsdale near Phoenix.

It is four in the afternoon by the time we reach our destination. The road curving through the Saguaro cactus, mesquite and scrub shimmers in the heat and the temperature has risen to 94 degrees Fahrenheit. We walk into the cool, air conditioned visitor reception to discover that we are just in time for the last guided tour of the day.

Taliesin West: desert home of rock, wood and canvas

Equipped with bottles of chilled water and sunhats, we set off to explore the extraordinary buildings that were created from rock, redwood and canvas, on land bought for virtually nothing in the arid Sonoran desert during the Great Depression. The project evolved from a series of tent like structures to become the inter-connected buildings that stand today. The camping principle remains - every architectural student who gains a place at the school run by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation learns through building, is required to build his or her own shelter for the first year, with a budget of no more than $1000 plus donated materials.

Greening the desert?
We are a small party, Mother and Father of two Precocious Children, an Italian Student,  plus me and husband Rod. As we pass by lush, irrigated lawns, non-indigenous flowering plants and formal pools, Father of Precocious Children comments on the incongruity of this formal landscaping on a desert site designed by a man obsessed with creating buildings that mould into their natural surroundings. Our docent (as such guides are termed in the US) struggles a little with this question but eventually assures us that it was all on account of Frank Lloyd Wright wanting to recreate the feel of his native Wisconsin. We exchange raised eyebrows and wonder when the turf was laid.

We pass through an oddly shaped door to the first room on the site, which was Wright's office. Our docent's audience participation technique works best with the Precocious Children, whose arms are almost permanently raised to answer or ask questions. He finds it tougher going with us grown-ups. Describing how canvas was used for roofing, apparently for economy, our docent asks us why this is such a bad idea. Before we have time to gather a response, he tells us that canvas clearly won't withstand a tough climate. What about all those covered wagons that carried pioneers across this vast country, I muse. A Prairie Schooner in good repair was said to offer almost as good a shelter as a house, according to Oregon Trail historians.

What about Levi Strauss and his original miner's trousers, mutters Rod. Not to mention the pleasure Wright took in the soft diffused light created by canvas roofing, which he had first experienced living in tents near Phoenix when working on a resort project in 1929. (The project, like many others, was abandoned because of the Great Depression.)

The man himself (right)
Father of the Precocious Children notices that a photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright shows him sitting in front of a model of his iconic structure for the Guggenheim Museum.  "Did he work on that design in the studio whilst living here?" he asks. The response is that the Guggenheim is in New York, and this studio is in Phoenix. Ummm.....

More is to come. Our docent is keen to emphasise that Wright could do anything he wanted at Taliesin West (provided he had the money, presumably) because he didn't have to pander to a client's wishes. This becomes something of a recurring theme on the tour. Father of the Precocious Children looks thoughtful. It transpires later that his uncle commissioned a Frank Lloyd Wright house. 

The docent points to the windows above the photographs, and tells us that for several years, there was no glazing at Taliesin West because Wright so enjoyed the desert elements blowing free through the cabins. However, whilst he might not have had a client to pander to at Taliesin West, he did have a wife to satisfy. And this wife, his third, proved to be more than a match for this charismatic and determined man. Whilst as enthusiastic as Wright about living in the desert, Olgivanna drew the line at sharing her home with snakes, scorpions and sand. So glazed windows were duly installed.

Indian petroglyphs found  at Taliesin West
Olgivanna Ivanovna Lazovich was a Montenegran ballerina married to a Russian architect when Wright first saw her in 1924, seated near him at the Chicago Opera. Wright was also married, to his second wife, and his affair with an exotic woman thirty years younger was regarded as scandalous. (He already had developed a reputation as something of a womaniser.) Four years later, they married  - a marriage that was to last for 32 years - and work began on Taliesin West.

The tour continues and we marvel at the magnificent 56ft by 34 ft (17m by 10 m) living room, a wall of windows looking over the garden and full of Wright designed seating to ensure comfort for the many people attending the celebrity social gatherings  he and Olgivanna hosted. We admire the Japanese painting on the walls of Olgivanna’s modestly sized bedroom, which is next door to Wright’s larger bedroom with its strange bed divided in two by a partition. Precocious Girl Child asks why Olgivanna and Frank did not sleep together. The docent answers that this was quite common in those days – with an aside to the grown-ups that we should not try to draw any of our own conclusions.

The view from the architectural school

Precocious Boy Child’s question about Wright's strange divided bed was easier to answer. If Wright chose to sleep on the side of the bed closer to the wall, he was not to be disturbed by anyone – even Olgivanna. If he was lying on the other side of the partition closer to the door, then he was happy to be disturbed.

We move on to have a glimpse at the studio filled with students and walk through the rather claustrophobic cabaret complete with piano positioned in a niche carved from the rock and festooned with strings of fairy lights. Finally we are shepherded into the auditorium, the largest enclosed space at Taliesin West.  There is no proscenium arch, the asymetric stage curtains swinging back on rails into the wings, and the large deep stage was designed for the ballet and theatre performances that Olgivanna loved to arrange. We hear how she continued to live at Taliesin West after Wright's death, aged 91 in 1959.

Mother of the Precocious Children suddenly speaks. "Isn't today the anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright's death?" she asks the docent. He shuffles and mutters something about maybe it being sometime around now. She retrieves her smartphone from her bag and presses a few buttons. "Yes, it is today, 9 April." she announces. "Now isn't that just marvellous?" We all murmur in agreement, not only marvelling at synchronicity but also at the technology that can provide the right answer in an instant.

I call upon technology myself later that day, to find answers to some of  the questions that were left in the air and particularly to find out more about the redoubtable Olgivanna Lloyd Wright. Her influence on a giant of architecture was profound, and indeed many saw her as too controlling, particularly when continuing to manage Taliesin West, the school and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation until - and even after - her death at 86 in 1985. Her instructions  that Wright's body be exhumed from Wisconsin, cremated and the ashes mixed with hers for burial in the garden at Taliesin West  were carried out -  despite being against the local law and the wishes of his family.

But Wright clearly had found the right woman for him in the last thirty years of his life. As he said of her in his memoirs, "A woman is, for man, the best of true friends, if man will let her be one."

Rock against rock: Taliesin West roofline

All photographs by Sandi Rhys Jones