International Women’s Day 2023

As part of International Women's Day 2023, senior architect, Aga Milanov, shines a light on working mothers in architecture and the expectation that accompanies the reality


Aga Milanov, senior architect

A lot of expectations are placed on women nowadays in every aspect of life – to succeed professionally, to be a good mother, partner and role model.

Combining these roles often becomes the reality for many women and, in my case, questions on how to navigate in a traditionally male centric industry whilst aligning with my own values frequently arise.

As an architect and a mother of two, and having worked in the built environment for over 15 years, I went through a journey of striving for perfection, wanting to please everyone and fearing being judged. Dealing with feelings of guilt when leaving my children to pursue my career has accompanied me throughout my working life, yet on the other hand, I felt uncomfortable leaving the office to pick up my children on time, as colleagues were still in work mode.

Many years ago, I was working on a deadline and didn’t feel comfortable to ask if I could take a half day off to watch my son’s first sports day. I chose not to expose myself and missed the event. Since then, I have had plenty of deadlines which have long been forgotten, however my son’s first sports day remains an important milestone for our family and I wasn’t there to support my child. I have since realised that you can’t turn back time – milestones like this only happen once – but career aspirations will always be there.

I would encourage women in the industry not to be afraid to stand up for yourself, to learn how to set boundaries, and to be in tune with what your values and priorities are and follow them.

Support at work plays a vital part when it comes to balancing being a career alongside being a mother. Ryder has fostered an inclusive culture, based on mutual respect and trust, where you can play both roles.


Mary McBryan, associate project coordinator

As a working mother in architecture, I’m extremely proud to have co created three beautiful boys, in addition to the many buildings I have helped realise.

Looking back to 2006, when I was expecting my first son, I remember what a different working world it was. At that time, I was the first female architectural staff member to have a baby at a well established practice. I had to blaze a trail when it came to considerations on allowing me to return to work flexibly as well as accommodating the needs of a new mother. This included the basics, such as negotiating a different working pattern to having a private space to express breastmilk. It was a tricky time, as you didn’t want to feel you were less of a valued team member, despite trying to juggle the often conflicting demands. For the next 10 years, I worked part time to strike a balance between looking after, what would eventually be, three young boys and working as a designer.

When I joined Ryder in 2017, I recommitted to working full time, as my youngest was about to start school. Thankfully, flexible working was finally an established concept and I have benefitted from the trust of my team leader to fulfil my role, whilst also being able to be there for my family when they need me. It means so much to be able to take my sons to school a couple of days through the week, attend their special assemblies or work from home if one of them is off from school.

For me – there was never a doubt in my mind that I would want to continue to work when I became a mother. The passion I have for architecture and the sense of fulfilment I get from working is a fundamental part of my identity. Ultimately it makes me a better mother too. And – as I’m sure any other parent would readily agree – it’s also a welcomed change to come to work and actually be appreciated for all that you do!


Nichola Speight, associate landscape architect

Growing up, both my parents worked full time but my dad was the higher earner who often worked away. My mum was the primary caregiver who worked 9 to 5, the rest of her time was dedicated to looking after my sister and I, and the running of the house. Times have changed and these responsibilities are shared equally between my husband and me – as someone who also works in the built environment, he understands it’s sometimes demanding and often juggles just as much as I do.

Sometimes the house is messy, there’s a pile of washing to be done and Lego has taken over the dining table, but I’ve accepted that it’s impossible to be perfect at everything. What I do know, is that I tried my best at work, I was the professional that I’ve worked hard to be, and my son went off to school delighted with the half term ‘build a volcano project’ that we spent all weekend making. Because we can do both things, we can wear both hats – and the bits that don’t get done, are they really that important?

In my opinion, being a working mum shouldn’t come with a stigma or make you feel guilty. I never once thought that I wasn’t going to go back to work after I’d had children. I’ll admit that I found it difficult leaving them initially and that I missed them – but I want my children to grow up knowing that their mum and dad were equals.

My advice to women wondering whether they can balance being a parent and continue their career is, yes, sometimes it’s challenging, and sometimes you’ll feel guilty, but as your children start to grow and turn into adults with careers of their own, they’ll look to you as their role models and see that if you did it, they can too.


Francesca Harrison, associate

Wanting to progress your career and have a family was once described to me as ‘trying to have it all’. I don’t think any woman should have to choose, and I feel proud to stand among some of the strongest women I know in the architectural profession – working mothers.

That’s not to say it doesn’t come with challenges. Being a working mother sometimes feels like a balancing act you can’t get right. When I first returned from maternity leave, I felt guilty for not being available on my non working days, but I also felt guilty for not being fully present with my children.

Today I’ve realised it isn’t about trying to be perfect at both roles, it’s about making the most out of them. I love my busy, messy, fulfilled life and hope it shows my children it is possible to have it all.


Hilary, I'Anson, associate

I sit at home writing this whilst juggling work, childcare, the impending load of washing to be hung and the imminent arrival of the food shopping delivery. I want to write this article, but my daughter also wants me to watch her twirl, play with her and simultaneously make her a snack.

Despite fully recognising as a newly qualified architect that I was about to embark on a career in a male dominated industry, I never once considered how I might navigate having both a career and a family. I naively thought the transition would be a simple one, but in reality being a working mother is no easy feat. Despite having good support at both home and at work, it can be hard to plan for an important meeting when you’re waking up several times a night with a baby or stay focused when you are worried about a sick child. Instead, I have learnt to reconcile changes in priorities and expectations, and to manage my time effectively all whilst unsuccessfully trying to avoid an excess of the dreaded ‘mum guilt’.

Whilst many female architects find it hard to balance the demands of a professional career with the continual pull of family life, to have it all is not entirely impossible. It isn’t perfect, but ultimately there is nothing more rewarding than watching your children grow, your projects succeed and being able to share with your family the contribution you have made to the profession.

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