I attended an enlightening event last week, which for me was a great follow-up to the Big-Hearted Business conference I attended earlier this year. “Transform” was industry-specific for me, about Women and Architecture. It was very empowering to be in the company of so many amazing women in my profession. The day was organized by the team behind Parlour, a website that was set up a year ago for discussions about women, equity and architecture.
“PARLOUR: a space to speak – bringing together research, informed opinion and resources; generating debate and discussion; expanding the spaces for women in Australian architecture.”
Parlour have recently undertaken surveys of Architect to find out ‘Where do all the women go?”, “And What about the Men?”. The full results are due to be published in coming months. The facts are that at University, the male/female student ratio 50%. Once in practice, the number of female Registered Architects drops to just 20%, although it has been noted there are many women who are working in different areas of architecture (as graduate architects/in research/academics/interiors/planning etc.). Only 2% of directors of Architectural Practices are female (including sole practitioners). There are complex reasons – it’s not just about having children – and the Parlour team wants to find out why this is.
The brochure for “Transform” asked a big question, “If architecture was more inclusive would it also be in a stronger position?” After the introduction and welcome by Naomi Stead and Shelley Penn, the day was broken into five sessions, each tackling a different question on the topic with panels to discuss, and audience participation.
1. Advocacy, activism and the futures of architecture.
New Yorker Lori Brown made a presentation based on her recent book “Feminist Practices”. It was disheartening that there are the same issues of inequity regarding women in architecture in the States, but very encouraging that she is involved in similar groups to Parlour to help make a difference. She talked about privilege (which is invisible to those who have it), and asked us to question our own, and to look ‘beyond patronage’. She made it clear that “feminism” means social justice for all, and diversity in society, not a women-centered approach. She shared my view that architecture should not just be about ‘form-making’ but that it should be much more diverse and encompass economical, political, social and environmental considerations. Architectural practice as a male-dominated profession where the individual serious ‘starchitect’ lives and breathes Architecture 24/7 is in need of a change. Shelley noted that there are many women (and men) working in alternate modes of practice, but it just isn’t as evident. Ben commented that architects generally are creative, deep-thinkers and perhaps we need the traditional ‘internal conversation’ about design to become a more external, community-based discussion that involves collaboration and exchange of ideas. Whilst there are some architects working in this way, there needs to be a shift in the architecture culture so that this alternative approach is valued.
2. Do architectural workplace cultures need to change?
The panel discussed their varied experiences of their workplaces that stepped outside the more traditional model. They included practices that embraced paid parental leave, flexible hours, part-time positions, and a family friendly workplace for both women and men. In all instances they noted that there are benefits to everyone: staff were more efficient with their time, there was more trust between employers and employees, there was no burn-out or resentment, there was no loss of highly skilled staff, and everyone had a better work-life balance. I’d been very fortunate during my past employment with Henry Architects that the majority of staff was on flexible hours, as many of us had young families. It was easy to forget that this was not the ‘normal’ workplace situation for architectural offices, although it ought to be.
3. Can policy drive professional and disciplinary change?
An interactive workshop session led by Naomi Stead and Amanda Roan seeking feedback on a draft suite of guidelines and fact sheets aimed at promoting equity and diversity in the profession. Aimed both at employers and employees, the Parlour good practice guides will set out rights and responsibilities, hints and tips, on a range of issues including pay equity, flexible work patterns, meaningful part-time work, avoiding a long-hours culture, negotiating working conditions, and others.
Our workshop session tackled issues of lack of mentors/role-models, and under-representation of women in institutions that govern architecture and in the public culture of architecture. It was evident that all of us felt the need for more mentors and role-models for women in the profession. We valued the importance of discussions with like-minds and having connections with peers, particularly out of the formal workplace (especially for sole practitioners or small practices). There need to be more opportunities for women in the profession to be in some of these more high-profiled positions and more publicised, and maybe we just need to be brave and put ourselves out there a bit more too. Shelley Penn is an excellent example of the type of leaders we need more of in our profession.
4. What are the possible futures of architecture?
We invent new ways of practicing out of the current moment. In recent years architecture has faced the crisis of global financial restructuring and an accompanying revolt about the narrow limits of architecture’s interests and skills. This panel explores the value of new knowledge, interdisciplinary work and diverse career pathways, expanding the public discussion about what architects do. A panel discussion chaired by Karen Burns with Esther Charlesworth, Sibling, Paula McCarthy and Rory Hyde.
It was interesting to hear the diverse ways these Architects are practicing of the ‘edges’ of traditional architecture. Esther Charlesworth runs the humanitarian practice “Architects Without Frontiers” which facilitates projects by connecting architects with marginalized communities with a commercial sponsor. Sibling are a young multi-disciplinary collective with a social agenda. Paula McCarthy found herself doing a detour from traditional architecture to becoming a specialist in strategic spatial briefing, as her interest and skills leaned more toward research, exploration of different ideas, and effective communication with client groups. Rory Hyde’s recent book “Future Practice” was based on a series of interviews with many architects who have taken diverse paths. He maintains that as architects we need to embrace economy, ecology, strategy, media, large-scale and long-term. He also mentioned the interesting notion of undertaking ‘unsolicited’ projects, by truly engaging with the soul of the city and trying to fix it problems by presenting a solution, even if one hasn’t been asked for. Architects are problem-solvers and if we can help society at an urban scale, perhaps we should be leading the way with this type of activism.
5. What is an architectural career?
How do we navigate career turning points and moments of transition? How can we strategise our careers while also responding effectively to surprises and contingencies that arise along the way? A panel discussion chaired by Julie Willis with Emma Williamson, Sara Stace, Kathrin Aste, Felicity Stewart, Virginia San Fratello and Elizabeth Watson Brown and Shelley Penn.
This group of women discussed their individual career paths and how they juggled family with their profession. It was wonderful to hear the wisdom of Elizabeth Watson Brown and how she feels empowerment through the practice of making architecture, and letting the work speak for itself. Shelley Penn divulged that it took her years to realise with confidence that not only could she affirm “I can do it” but “I can do it MY WAY”. She had a light-bulb moment during a random encounter when she was advised to “take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously”, and also to “test the alternatives” with regards to a career change. She had lost faith at the time that her vocation was improving people’s lives, and wished to do something more big-hearted, how could she make a difference at a larger scale? That is when she became Government Architect in a more Urban Design role. She also recently said that since having children, she’s learnt that “life isn’t about architecture, but architecture is about life”.
A final panel wrapped up the days discussions. , Naomi Stead said she was excited that we’d seen that architecture could be young and fresh and new again, and that there was hope for the future. She summarised quite aptly that “necessity is the mother of invention” with the emergence of all these different ways that the traditional notion of architecture is being transformed.
What are your thoughts on women in Architecture, and the future of the profession?