Shelley Penn, National President of the Australian Institute of Architects and architect extraordinaire, was the guest speaker  at the recent Parlour soirée, held to launch the survey “Where Do All the Women Go?” and to celebrate Parlour’s successful start. We reproduce her thoughtful and direct  speech.

It’s clear that, although we may have something close to equality in the law, we certainly don’t have equity in architecture. There’s a growing body of evidence to support this. To give you an example – the 2010 Graduate Salaries report showed that women architecture and building graduates started on salaries that were, on average, only 88% of men’s starting salaries. This gap in median starting salaries is larger than in any other industry surveyed.

We’re not just paid less, on average, but we’re less likely to register as architects after graduation (only about 20% of registered architects are women, despite approx 45% graduates being women). We’re less likely to participate in the profession more widely – for example by joining the Australian Institute of Architects, where only about 30% of our members are women, and so on…

Is this disparity because we live in a patriarchal system where we just ‘can’t compete’? Or is that we’re ‘not up to it’… lacking in capability? Is it that we doubt ourselves, just won’t put ourselves forward? Or is that the ways we define and recognize architecture and architectural endeavour are limited?

There’s plenty of evidence to show that we are certainly ‘up to it’… Some recent research undertaken in America tested company performance in terms of corporate KPIs and in the context of gender mix at the corporate governance level. They looked at boards with 100% male members, those with a small percentage of female members, then those with a 50-50 gender balance. The reseach found that performance progressively improved with those increases in diversity. Interestingly, they also tested boards comprised of all women… and they found the results were even better!

So, we can set aside capability. But all other the factors I mentioned, and others, are relevant. In many cases, I think women choose to participate in non-traditional ways because they just don’t want to follow the traditional path, for whatever reasons. A journalist from Sydney – I forget her name – recently wrote that we should “… stop self-obsessing girls, (and) get on and bloody do it. Build something… Do it, and they’ll come.” It’s galling to note this journalist is a woman, and she misses the point completely. There are plenty of women architects ‘just doing it’, and they are doing their own thing their own way. The thing is that they are not always being recognized for their work.

My own experience has been of oscillating between the ‘traditional path’ and an alternative. Graduating from architecture then leaving my great job of three years with Robinson Chen to work at Georges and do a course on writing fiction; then, later on, leaving my practice of seven years to go to Sydney with no plans other than to get away for a while; having two kids and realizing that I never want to work 9am–6pm, five days a week, ever again; and so on.

Often I’ve internalized doubt about what I’m doing into self-doubt, which has been hard but productive. I’ve always ended up trusting myself, and acting. Reflection and testing myself and alternatives has taken me away from a ‘traditional’ or ‘straight’ architectural practice path to something which, for me, has been much richer. I still do architecture, I still work long hours, but I don’t do it in the ‘traditional’ way.

I recently read a speech by the late, excellent Nora Ephron. Some of you will have seen it. It was delivered in 1996 to the all-female graduates of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, in which she reflected on how things had changed for women at work since her own graduation from the same school in 1962 (50 years ago!). Her point was not that it was time to relax. It was the opposite. She urged the young graduates to be conscious of the undertow which was still against them. She urged them to stand up and to choose their own path, or paths…

Ephron referred to a quote from a former NY Yankee player who said “… when you see a fork in the road, take it…” She commented that, as women, in life and work, when “… two paths diverge … we get to take them both. It’s another of the nicest things about being women: we can do that.” She went on “…Did I say it was hard? Yes, but let me say it again so that you can never say the words ‘nobody said it would be so hard’”.

Even though I ultimately chose my own way, going against the grain several times, it was not easy. Each time – and especially walking away from my seven years of 24/7 practice – I felt I was throwing away my credibility and validity as a serious architect. Each time, I felt I was casting aside my identity and my place in the profession. It took me to get to 45 to finally feel I could (and in fact, had to) define my own terms, with confidence, and to make it happen my own way, and that that was alright! I still have plenty of self-doubt and still have to remind myself – to not hold back, to have confidence that I can do something decent if I work hard, and to put myself on the line…

I am very lucky, as I’ve been able to make choices. And in making similar choices, many women accept their work will not be recognized, or they can’t fully participate, or they must rely on their own reserves of self confidence as they may not be acknowledged as ‘serious’, committed or passionate architects by their professional peers if they work in a non-traditional way. Many women simply do not have many options and their choices are much more constrained.

Parlour has been established to help understand and interrogate how and why women are underrepresented in senior roles in practice, as participants in the profession and as registered architects. To understand the breadth of contributing factors and to enable some real and meaningful change, we require such research and evidence. The Institute is very proud to be an industry partner in the Australia Research Council Project ‘Equity and Diversity in the Architecture Profession’, of which Parlour is a part. We intend to learn as much as possible from the research and to do what we can as an Institute to help the profession support equity and diversity, which is important for us all. This relates not only to gender, but to a range of ways in which our members are diverse.

The research will help ensure that many diverse paths are recognized as credible and valid for architects. That recognition needs to be in terms of equal pay, workplace arrangements that support diversity, valuing of alternate modes of practice, and valuing of the importance of every effort that is genuine and rigorous. That recognition needs to come from outside, but it also needs to come from within.

Thank you.