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Edinburgh World Heritage/News/International Women’s Day: the workplace in 2020

International Women’s Day: the workplace in 2020

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8th March 2020

Rebecca Leary

International Women’s Day (IWD) has taken place for well over a century. Before then in Edinburgh, emancipation societies had been calling for women’s suffrage since the mid-19th century.

One of the six missions of #IWD2020 is to champion women in the workplace. Ahead of 8 March, we asked some of the women on the staff here at Edinburgh World Heritage to consider their experiences of the workplace now and in the past, and reflect on the changes, if any, that have taken place for women.


How does your experience as a female architect in the heritage industry now compare to when first starting out?

Fiona Rankin, World Heritage Site Project Manager at Edinburgh World Heritage and senior architect said that her experience working in the heritage industry has not changed that much over the years: “even as a young architect I found that projects involving historic buildings tended to have a completely different motivation, where authenticity and quality were the primary focus for the client, the design team and the contractor.”

It’s not surprising to learn that Fiona vastly preferred working in heritage compared to new build projects. “Those highly commercial contractors took less interest in their work and the atmosphere could be very intimidating and sexist: no women’s toilet, ‘girly’ calendars in the site huts, and wolf whistles and comments shouted out.”

Echoing Fiona’s positive experience of heritage projects was Fiona MacDonald, Conservation Architect and Grants Manager. Fiona explained that she was drawn to heritage because she loved art and “wanted to do something creative that I felt was worthwhile, to try and help make a difference to people’s lives.”

“When I trained as an architect less than 10% of my class were women, however I never felt disadvantaged as a woman whilst studying or in private practice.” Fiona says today’s workplace is “so different from several decades ago . . . career-changing now seems to be more of an option as with new skills and innovation and new ways of working, new opportunities arise.”

Do you think the heritage industry is good at encouraging and welcoming young women today? 

Annamaria Nizi, World Heritage Site Project Officer, says the sector is becoming more inclusive, citing heritage initiatives which explore the history of women’s rights (the University of Edinburgh’s Vote 100 project is a great example of this): “this an exciting time for the sector.”

“However, I think that we could do more to celebrate the impact women had and have in our history, not only for International Women’s Day. This would inspire girls and young women to join the sector, to become architects, conservators. Those roles really need more women…”

Nico Ferguson, Conservation Projects Officer at Edinburgh World Heritage, talked about some of the realities facing women in heritage today, and pointed out recent research published by the Trades Union Commission which “highlights the gap in pay between men and women. Within arts, entertainment and recreation, women on average work the equivalent of 42 days for free in comparison to their male counterparts thanks to pay discrepancies.”

Another issue Nico sees is that “ fixed-term contracts continue to be the norm and how they fit into attempting to get a mortgage, maternity leave, returning to work after having a child, or just generally having an idea of what the future looks like in five years, are all topics of discussion common in any heritage organisation staffroom.”

While it is heartening to see progress for women in heritage, it remains a reality that more needs to be done. Overt sexism may no longer be the norm in the workplace, but deeper and more complex issues such as the pay gap and a lack of women in leadership roles, continue to contribute to gender discrimination. Hopefully, international women’s day will be an opportunity to identify real action to promote, retain and celebrate women in the workplace in our heritage organisations.


International Women’s Day (Sunday 8 March 2020) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Anyone can take part. Search #IWD2020 on your favourite social media platform to join in the conversation.

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