Editorial: Mother’s Day

A painting of editor Elsa Lam as a baby, made by her mother, Rosalie Lam.

When my mother graduated from McGill’s School of Architecture in 1973, her class set a record for the number of women that convocated. From the 60 students that started with her, 43 finished the degree; of those, nine—21 percent—were women.

Women’s rights in Canada, particularly the rights of mothers, were still nascent at that time. Until 1971, Manitoba fired women municipal employees who married; pregnancy was considered a valid basis for layoff or dismissal in the Canada Labour Code until 1978. Two years after that, Public Service Alliance of Canada workers for the federal government went on strike for better maternity leave provisions, resulting in an increase from six weeks to three months of leave after having a child. (This came too late for my mother, who was working in property management for the federal government when she had me.)

It was a hard time for women to make their way in architecture—a field dominated by male architects. And although things have improved, there is still much progress to be made. In 1975, women earned 60 cents for each dollar made by men. As of 2019, accounting for wages, salaries and commissions, Canadian women still made just 71 cents to every dollar earned by Canadian men. While women now match (or outnumber men) in architecture classes, as they do in pursuing university degrees in general, the pay gap persists: Canadian women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $69,063 annually, while men with a bachelor’s earn $97,761.

Parental leave benefits in Canada are luxurious compared to what’s available in the United States. But for many households, earning a maximum of $390 a week over 18 months means a sharp tightening of household budgets—particularly if a young family is living in a city with unaffordable housing relative to average household earnings, like Toronto or Vancouver. 

Added to this are concerns about career advancement, in a field where internship and studying for licensing exams is a major undertaking. For many women in architecture, it can make for challenging decisions about when—and even if—to start a family.

To Canada’s credit, there is continual progress being made in parental benefits. When I had my child about six years ago, my husband took six months of unpaid paternity leave—a decision unprecedented in the architecture firm where he worked. Now, federal parental leave is mandated to be shared between the two parents—with a “use it or lose it” five weeks reserved for the second parent (in most cases, the father). This has lasting benefits for the family, and for the mother: men who take paternity leave are more likely to be involved in childcare in the future. 

Organizations such as Building Equity in Architecture Toronto (BEAT) are also helping to level the playing field, by creating community-building, networking, and mentorship opportunities focused on women. According to its mission statement, the volunteer-run organization “believe[s] that empowering women in the design community improves and enriches the practice of architecture, the quality of the built environment, and ultimately, the human experience.” 

“My women architect friends, they all worked hard,” my mother told me. Of her classmates, three started their own practices and one became an executive in a large international firm. As a women, and a mother, I’m now privileged to have greater access to opportunities in the world of architecture, built largely on the success of these—and other—women of my mother’s generation. So this one’s for you, mom: happy Mother’s Day.