For Shannon Battisson, founder and director of The Mill, balancing motherhood with a business start-up was one of the biggest challenges she’d ever faced, but it was also one of the most rewarding.
What led to your decision to start your own practice?
If I’m honest, I lost my job. More than that, the manner in which I lost it made me feel despondent and I wasn’t keen to join another firm and leave myself vulnerable to other people’s perception about my worth as an architect. So, when an old friend and colleague Sarah Leeson and I took on some private jobs, and it worked well for both of us, we thought we would just take a step back and do something for us for a little while.
But then it worked! We worked well together, and we were able to support each other in both our professional and private lives in a way that we had never been able to when we were a part of bigger firms. We won more and more projects, and very soon we were faced with the choice of going back to work as a part of another company, or committing to the little venture we had inadvertently begun.
What were your biggest challenges during the first few years?
The first few years of business definitely involved a very steep learning curve, but for me personally, the greatest challenge was balancing my family life with my professional life. After many years of infertility, I finally fulfilled my dream of parenthood, but it coincided with our first few years of business. Balancing newfound motherhood with a business start-up was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced, but it was also one of the most rewarding. Finding the energy to stand behind something you believe in is easy, and if you are fortunate enough to have a partner who can stand by you both professionally and personally, then you can face just about anything.
How did you manage these challenges from a personal point of view?
To understand me personally, you have to know my family. I was raised by a mother and father who were both strong unionists and feminists. My parents raised my sister and me to work hard, give life everything that we’ve got, and treat people with respect, always. Losing my father well before his time taught me some of the hardest lessons of my life – that I am stronger than I could ever imagine, and that life is short, and meant to be lived to the full. These lessons helped me in the first few years of setting up practice.
When many around me were suggesting I was wrong to want both a family and a career, I never doubted that I could give myself fully to both. Now, that’s not to say that early site meetings after being up all night with a newborn with reflux weren’t tough, but the point is that people have been enjoying both professional and family life for a very long time, and we weren’t any different. Remembering that, and having an amazing family and business partner, were what helped me through the first few years!
If you had this time again, what would you do differently or what would you tell yourself?
To be honest, I wouldn’t change much. I may have left big practice earlier, but the years I spent working under some incredible architects taught me to be the architect I am today. Those people are still the most valuable mentors I have today, and I am incredibly grateful for the energy they invested in teaching me. It is an unbelievable honour to be in a position now where I am able to support my own team through their own careers and family lives.
Why do you think we see so few young women start their own practices, and is this an issue?
I think that the greatest barrier to women starting their own practices is registration. We are taught, rightly or wrongly, that registration is something that should not be considered until we have spent many years gaining experience in our industry. And whilst this experience is invaluable, it takes time to attain it. For women, when coupled with the long degree, it pushes registration into a timeframe that competes with starting a family. I don’t say this to suggest we should change the system, but I think it is at the heart of why the number of female architects drops so significantly between graduation and registration. And this is a big issue. The world is made up of individuals, and each moves through the world in a different way, coloured by their culture, geography, and their gender. By allowing the view and experience of half of the population to go to waste is a massive issue, and one that we as a society are slowly learning to recognise.
What do you think are the key issues our industry needs to address regarding gender equity, and how do we do it?
My personal belief is that we need to face two big issues. First, we need to find a way to better support and encourage young architects to gain solid industry experience as early as possible and to obtain registration. The difference that registration makes to a mother’s ability to maintain a presence in this industry whilst also supporting a young family is huge. It allows her to work under her own name for a time, before she is more able to join a bigger practice (should she wish). Taking a large break from the workforce in order to enjoy and support young children is something that renders many designers irrelevant when they choose to return to the industry. Keeping up to date with construction knowledge, council practices and building codes is vital to staying current in our field. If the only choices are full-time mother vs full-time architect, then we will continue to see the number of female architects diminish beyond a certain level of experience. If the option to take on small projects as time and inclination permits exists, then we will see more and more women remain as invaluable, contributing members of this industry.
Second, I think we need to find a way to provide genuinely flexible work arrangements for both women and men. I’m a firm believer that both parents should be fully involved at home, and have the option to be fully involved in the professional world as well. If truly flexible working arrangements were available to architects, we would see far more women staying in the industry after having children, and far more men able to share more completely in the incredible experience of caring for their children. Technology in our industry is developing quickly, and already allows the easy set-up of an ‘office’ just about anywhere. If we can embrace that as company directors, we will allow our staff the freedom to enjoy both a career and a family in their own way, and I think we will all reap the rewards of greater productivity and motivated and enthusiastic staff.
Shannon is co-owner and founding director at The Mill: Architecture + Design. She is also Chair of the Institute of Architects ACT Chapter Sustainability Committee, a member of the ACT Chapter Council and was named in the 2017 Presidents Medal as an emerging architect contributing to the Chapter’s role in advocating for the profession.
A version of this article was first published by the ACT Gender Equity Taskforce in their getDEEP (Diverse Equitable Employment and Practice) booklet. getDEEP is intended as an introduction to some of the resources, research and expertise available on issues of equitable practice, including Parlour and the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice. The booklet is available for download here. This interview has been republished here with permission.
The sixth Parlour Guide to Equitable Practice covers Career progression, offering suggestions for supporting women’s professional development. This includes supporting women with ‘traditional’ architectural careers in private practice, and those with more complex ‘flexible’ careers.