By Barbara Lewis,Womens Feature Service
Ireland’s economy suffered a spectacular bust after a resounding boom. The crash has been particularly harsh for local architects, who along with armies of builders were at the forefront of the country’s property-led economic growth. In the collapse of the construction sector, most of the victims were men, as the industry is overwhelmingly male, but a percentage of the architects who underwent years of training and now find themselves out of a job – or at least the job they meant to do – are women.
A survey carried out by the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland in December 2008 showed that almost one-third of the over 800 architects in Ireland were unemployed or seeking jobs.
The job scenario may be dismal, but Irish women architects have shown a great penchant for entrepreneurship. What they have in their favour is a long history of creativity, adaptability and flexibility. Among those who have adapted their skills is Dubliner, Catherine De Groot, 26, who has become the architect of designer confectionery through her small business, Bake My Cake.
As her website, ‘bakemycake.ie’ explains in icing sugar colours, De Groot found herself “an architect with a little more time on her hands” and so she embraced recession by turning to “her passion for pastry”. With the emphasis on “my cake”, all De Groot’s creations are highly personalised. Her stand-out successes so far have included a chocolate biscuit version of the Statue of Liberty and cakes in the form of designer shoes complete with designer shoe boxes.
“I kind of feel it would be a shame to go back to architecture now,” says De Groot. “I do really enjoy having my own business and probably the thing I like the most is that you have so few limitations,” she adds, although she would like a bigger kitchen.
Coming from a long line of very good cooks has proved to be as valid as seven years of university and apprenticeship to become one of the roughly 30 per cent of Ireland’s qualified women architects, judging by membership of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland.
On occasion, De Groot has carefully drawn up plans for her cakes, but finds that with experience, she needs them less and less – not an approach any architect would adopt. But then again architects leave the construction work to others, whereas De Groot is now designer and constructor, as well as accountant and office administrator. Of course, there is some help at hand.
Ireland’s 35 enterprise boards have women’s networks, which Angela Tynan of the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown Country Enterprise Board (CEB), De Groot’s local branch, described as a “very powerful tool” designed to assist the “entrepreneurial culture”, which she said prevailed in Ireland. By way of support, the CEBs dole out advice, they mentor, and help secure grants and supports for training and growth of new as well as established businesses.
The networks allow enterprising women to meet each other and the boards also arrange talks and training, but they have a long way to go if they are to close the wide gender gap in rates of self-employment between women and men.
According to statistics from Eurostat, self-employment among the 27 European Union member states is twice as frequent among men as women. In Ireland, where typically male farmers account for many of the self-employed, the gap between men and women running their own business – some would say the ultimate in self-empowerment – is particularly marked.
The latest available comparative figures from Eurostat showed that self-employed men represented 23.6 per cent of the employed population, compared with 6.8 per cent of women in 2000. By 2007, 22.8 per cent of the employed population was made up of self-employed men and 6.1 per cent of women. The gender gap had narrowed only fractionally from 16.8 to 16.7.
The spirit of enterprise, however, seems to be on the rise, as proved by new and successful businesswomen like De Groot, who are willing to give up years of specialised university education and apprenticeship to be able to run their own outfits.