Naomi Stead reflects on the process of making films to encourage young women to consider careers in architecture.

Sheila Tawalo on site, film still.

Throughout much of 2008 and the early part of 2009 I worked closely with a professional film-maker, Sam Scotting, on a suite of six short films designed to encourage young women to join the architecture and construction professions. The films were comprised of interview footage with a number of practitioners throughout Australia – primarily women, though there were also some men. Interviewees included current students and recent graduates, mid-career architects and project managers, women on a break from the profession to bring up children, academics in architecture and construction, and some senior, high profile members of the profession, drawn from three Australian cities. Altogether there were twenty-four interviewees and more than twenty hours of recorded interview footage.

The project was funded by the Equity and Diversity Unit at the University of Technology Sydney, although the outcomes are not specific to that university, as I will attempt to show. The films were intended to address matters of philosophical principle around gender equity, as well as practical questions around disciplinary and institutional culture, instances of prejudice, career progression, and the attitudes, aspirations and experience of women in architecture in Australia. But the process of making the films also raised many broader questions. Some of these were articulated by the interviewees themselves, but others related to the present status of feminist theory in Australian architectural academia, and the policy environment in which women architects in Australia work. The film-making process was extremely rewarding, thought-provoking, and somewhat troubling. In reflecting here on that process, and the research that supported it, I will attempt to address some larger questions about gender and the architecture profession in Australia today.

There was a flowering of interest in this issue throughout the Anglophone world in the early years of the new millennium, with the publication of discussion papers, reports, and major research projects commissioned by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, the American Institute of Architects, and The Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment in the UK. The Royal Institute of British Architects and the University of Western England also co-funded an important research project entitled ‘Why Do Women Leave Architecture?’. For us in Australia, the culmination of all this was the publication of Paula Whitman’s report, Going Places: The Career Progression of Women in the Architectural Profession, in 2005. As Whitman noted in her report, in Australia women graduate from architecture in roughly equal numbers to men, but only 1% of company directors are women. Whitman found that one reason women architects choose not to pursue high levels of seniority was because of the sacrifices it would entail for their families and personal lives. She found a surprising number of survey respondents had actually declined a promotion at some time in their career.

Sarita Chand, film still.

 Demanding equity and valuing diversity: the ambitions of the project

The initiative that funded the film project was based on a commissioned report about the state of gender balance in the various degree courses at the University of Technology Sydney, undertaken by Lyn Shoemark and published under the title The Gender Jigsaw: participation in non-traditional fields of study. This report is useful for its broader distinction between equity and diversity concerns. Shoemark notes that equity approaches historically derived from the feminist politics of the 1960s and 70s, and were effectively driven by social justice concerns – the principle that it is unjust for any one person to have greater rights or advantages than any another. The old ideals of affirmative action towards equal opportunity were based on the conviction, indeed the fact, that in certain circumstances the opportunities for women relative to men were inequitable – that women were disadvantaged or excluded for a range of reasons stretching from overt discrimination and prejudice, all the way through to subtle and implicit structural disadvantage. As a principle, this notion drove much early equal opportunity legislation, and was an essential step in recognising and redressing gender-based discrimination. It has proven very effective at the level of combating overt, explicit, quantifiable forms of prejudice against women, in architecture and elsewhere. But wherever there is disadvantage in any form, or the under-representation of a historically and currently disadvantaged group, including women, equity concerns remain.

Diversity is a slightly different matter. Less focused on neutralising disadvantage, it is more about the potential benefit – to individuals, to business, and to society more broadly – of a diverse workforce, derived from a diverse student body. These benefits might include pragmatic matters, such as having a larger body of potential students to draw from, but also include epistemological questions: the way ‘knowledge is constructed in undesirably restricted gendered ways when there is an overwhelming participation of either men or women’, as Shoemark writes.[ref]Lyn Shoemark, ‘The Gender Jigsaw: Participation in Non-traditional Fields of Study’, an investigation undertaken for the UTS Equity and Diversity Unit, University of Technology Sydney, September 2007, p. 6.[/ref] The telling example here is that men, even though dramatically under-represented in Nursing or Education, tend to do extremely well after having graduated from such courses; far from being disadvantaged in salary or status, ‘they are represented at senior levels of employment at a disproportionately high rate in comparison to their overall participation rate in these areas of work.’[ref]Lyn Shoemark, ‘The Gender Jigsaw’, p. 6.[/ref] In this sense, in Shoemark’s terms, women’s under-representation in architecture or construction are both equity and diversity issues. Aside from helping to avoid odious discussions of comparative disadvantage between different groups, a framework of thinking about diversity is also a holistic way to recognise and pursue the benefits of a truly diverse student body and workforce – in terms of gender, but also background, age, ethnicity, level of able-bodiedness, and so on.

Handbag hardhat, film still.

At the beginning of this film project, based both on Shoemark’s arguments and on Whitman’s findings in her earlier report on career progression for Australian women architects, it seemed to us that there were four clear issues surrounding women’s advance to the highest levels of power and influence in the profession in Australia today. These affect a range of people from school-aged girls right through to advanced career practitioners. We might say that the first problem is one of perception – the possibility that young women may see that a working life in the built environment professions (including architecture, but also construction, engineering and project management among others) may not be accessible or suitable to them. The second problem is one of attrition, or the loss of women architecture graduates into surrounding fields (sometimes known as the ‘leaky pipeline’, which leads to a burning question in architecture: where do all the women go?). The third problem is the frequency with which women architects have a stilted career progression based on the difficulty of re-entering the workforce after a period away, and the challenges of trying to balance work and commitments as a carer. This leads to the fourth and final problem, of women being dramatically under-represented at the highest levels of the profession.

So while the film project was ostensibly pitched at only the first aspect of this system – changing the perceptions of young women, a basic process of consciousness-raising and education about professional possibilities – in fact our ambitions were much larger. We took it as an opportunity to attempt an early intervention that would hopefully have knock-on effects at every stage of the education and career of female professionals in architecture and construction. Aside from the basic aim to increase the number of women enrolling in construction and architecture degrees, at UTS and elsewhere, we also hoped to create a vehicle which would help to support and retain these students once they enrolled, and to offer them pre-emptive strategies and advice about dealing with probable future career challenges. More broadly, we hoped to raise consciousness among all students (not just young women) about gender equity issues in the built environment professions, to encourage discussion and debate around such issues and an attitude that they are not merely ‘women’s issues’. We sought to celebrate and disseminate information about the achievements of women who already work (or study) in the built environment professions, to increase broader public knowledge and awareness of opportunities for women in these professions, and build support and solidarity for the challenges faced by such women. The intention was to touch lightly upon some of the difficult issues surrounding gender and architecture, to raise awareness of these issues, but also to take an optimistic tone and emphasise positive ways to negotiate potential future challenges.

Samantha Donnelly, still from the student life film.

Audience and content of the films

Shoemark writes that ‘potential university students make decisions about courses of study based on very little accurate information and with narrow, stereotyped views about the content of courses and – most importantly – the variety of interesting work to which a particular qualification might lead.’ [ref]Lyn Shoemark, ‘The Gender Jigsaw’, p. 14.[/ref] It seemed that in our project this might work in our favour – as a profession, architecture has an extremely positive, although wildly inaccurate, public image. There is for example a disproportionate representation of architects as characters in mainstream fiction film, and even though these characters are overwhelmingly men, their character traits – of creativity, sensitivity, good taste, style and cultivation – are also perhaps those that young women might identify with. Still, we wondered whether it would be unscrupulous to use this positive but ultimately mythic image to lure young women into a profession that actually turns out to be nothing like what it seems in the movies. This opened an ethical dimension to the project as a whole: what kind of industry was it that we were trying to entice young women to join? Was it truly a professional life where they would be equally valued, adequately remunerated, work reasonable hours and have the level of autonomy and flexibility that would allow them to balance their personal and professional lives? In other words, five years after the publication of Whitman’s report on women in architecture in Australia, and in spite of her extensive, specific recommendations, had anything changed? We set out to make the films with these questions and trepidations in mind.

The intended audience of the films was both girls and boys who are considering their career options in preparation for allocating their university course preferences. The vast majority of such people are still at school, although a proportion are already out in the workforce, or are looking to transfer out of other university courses or other types of tertiary training. Given this projected audience, the films were designed to be accessible and the tone was deliberately introductory and explanatory – demonstrating what these professionals actually do every day. The films were also meant to be enticing – this is after all a kind of advertisement for architecture and construction as fulfilling careers. Given the target audience, and the desire to reach as many of these young people as possible, the films were made specifically for viewing online. This means that rather than one long, in-depth documentary, there are six short films, ranging in length from three to seven minutes, along with a very brief introduction.

Three of the films focus on specific, successful and dynamic individuals, all women – Hannah Tribe, a young architect who has been running her own practice for five years, Madeleine Macdessi, a mid-career project manager working for a large multi-national construction company, and Elizabeth Watson-Brown, a very high-profile architect who had been running her own successful firm for more than thirty years, one of only a handful of women architects in Australia who are named sole principals of their own firms. The other three films are thematic, the first being a general introduction to the idea and scope of professional work in the built environment industry; the second concentrating on student life and the student experience in architecture or construction degrees; and the third and most complex film dealing with issues of balance between professional and personal life, juggling work and parenting, and strategies for working in the most male-dominated part of the profession – the building site.

The issues raised both within the films, and in the ‘raw’ interview footage that they are made up of, cover a broad spectrum. Many of these are familiar from the research literature, and indeed it was fascinating to observe how common these issues are, across international boundaries. As expected, the interviewees made observations about the value of female role models and mentors, the importance of social and professional networks amongst women, and the specific ways in which women operate differently to men in the profession. There were discussions of popular myths and misconceptions surrounding the profession of architecture, along with the idea of vocation – that some people feel a ‘calling’ to architecture, while many of our interviewees were far more ambivalent about how they had ‘fallen into’ and stayed within the profession. There were of course many positive observations about the pleasures and rewards of a career in architecture – the diversity of the work, the collaborative nature of the work, not only with architects but also clients and consultants, the level of creative and professional fulfilment that this brings. But there were also a number of more pressing and difficult issues raised again and again: the challenges of balancing the needs of child-rearing with a demanding professional career, the difficulty of returning to the profession after a period away, the lack of opportunities to maintain rewarding part time or flexible working hours. I will now turn in a little more depth to a discussion of these issues as they emerge specifically in three of the films: those featuring architects Hannah Tribe, and Elizabeth Watson-Brown, and the thematic film which deals with work/life balance and the workplace.

Hannah and Naomi

Hannah Tribe being interviewed by Naomi Stead, film still.

The ‘Hannah Tribe’ film

Hannah Tribe is based in Sydney, where she has been running Tribe Studio, a small architecture office with between three and five staff, for six years. The film concentrates on her explanation of the value of architecture for society, demonstration of practical questions about what architects do each day, discussion of the experience of studying architecture at university, and the way that architecture can incorporate a whole range of other creative practices, including painting, writing, and storytelling. In the original interview, Hannah spoke in common with almost all of the interviewees, including all of the female students, in arguing that gender is not a barrier in any way to joining the architecture and construction professions. As she said,

I haven’t seen gender being an advantage or a disadvantage in my career at all in architecture. There are a lot of women studying architecture and I know that in the more powerful positions in big firms there are far fewer women than men, but in my career so far I haven’t even noticed it. I wanted to be an astronaut and a university professor when I was in second grade and all the other girls wanted to be ballerinas. So it has just been something that hasn’t ever even occurred to me.

Despite this prevailing attitude, almost all of the interviewees, both male and female, displayed a very keen awareness of the under-representation of women in senior positions in the industry. The question of what happens between graduation, when proportional gender balance is roughly equal, and the highest levels of the profession, where women are dramatically under-represented, was posed many times. Hannah argued for the urgency of this issue; asking ‘where are all the women going? I mean, why are we getting this situation in 2008 where the directors of the big firms are still predominantly men?’

Although acknowledging the lack of women at the highest levels of the industry, many female architects were keen to point out the advantages of being in a minority in a male-dominated field. This was argued not only in the ability to negotiate a good outcome on the building site, but also for women to stand out in the industry, to take advantage of the idea that women have already passed various tests of character and independence to get by in the industry at all. This was nowhere more evident than on the building site, where the interviewees pointed out that the intersectionality of gender identity and performance frequently works to the advantage of women architects. Several interviewees spoke about strategies they have derived for negotiating and working with builders, on sites where the architect is frequently the only woman. They spoke of a strategic ‘question-asking’ approach, which recognises that builders and subcontractors have a specific and significant expertise, that almost everyone is happy to share their knowledge if asked and listened-to, and that seeing relationships with builders and collaborative as mutually-enriching is much more productive than an adversarial clash of egos. As Hannah said,

I think it is harder for a male architect going to a building site to say ‘oh my god, I’ve got no idea what that thing is,’ whereas a woman can say that, and the men [builders] seem to like teaching female architects. So that is a real advantage, that kind of freedom to ask a lot of questions without it becoming an ego or macho issue at all.

In this sense, the interview with Hannah revealed the existence of specific techniques used by female architects to negotiate the most male-dominated areas of the industry – both the building site, and a consultant team most often dominated by male engineers. This raises the question of the relative gendered-ness of the architecture profession as a whole, in relation to these aligned fields. As a mythically constructed figure, the architect has a number of attributes historically framed (positively) as feminine – including creativity, sensitivity, and refinement – and others framed negatively as feminine, including impracticality, idealism, and characteristics of being a ‘prima donna’. The professional genderedness of architects is brought into particular focus in comparison to the different genderedness of engineers (which of course has its own implications for women in engineering, and thus for cultural change in the industry as a whole). This was also touched upon by Hannah,

I think there is a lot of room for cultural change in the engineering professions, and I think that will have an impact on architecture as well because that collaboration between architects and engineers will be less about, you know, the soft creative architect going off to see the hard men of engineering, which is a terrible cliché but sometimes that’s how it feels.

This raises the notion that the boardroom, in meetings between architects and engineers, is an important location where gender and class identity intersect. The architect’s assumed connoisseurship, aesthetic sensibility and style may be marked as ‘feminine’ in relation to engineers, but they are also marks of distinction for men of a certain class. The relative identities of the architect, the engineer and the builder become highly complex when we think in terms of both class and gender hierarchies, as they intersect yet again with professional precedence and status.

Nevertheless, the number of women on building sites is still very small. Sightings of female tradespeople are so rare that they are remembered and discussed for years, and still most of the architects interviewed could only cite one or two female carpenters or plumbers, and almost no builders. It is still very common for the only woman on site to be the architect, although anecdotally it is increasingly common for women – often originally trained as architects – to be on site as project managers, having excelled at managerial level in large professional construction companies. One answer to the question of where all the trained women architects go is thus clear: they go into the professionalised, corporate structure of major commercial construction firms.

Elizabeth Watson Brown, film still.

The ‘Elizabeth Watson-Brown’ film

Elizabeth Watson-Brown is an architect based in Brisbane. She is the sole principal of the medium-sized office Elizabeth Watson- Brown Architects, and was perhaps the most high-profile of our interviewees. A number of key ideas emerged from the interview with Elizabeth, who argued that many of the issues being discussed around women in architecture today have not changed since she began her practice some three decades earlier, and that the problems are still the same. She noted however some larger generational shifts in gender relations, and in the expectations of young women about their professional lives, saying

I think young women today are much more confident than we were… So [the issue] is what has changed in women rather than necessarily what has changed in culture, because the systems haven’t changed terribly much. There is obviously a lot more understanding and conversation about [gender equity] issues these days, and young women when they go to school, they are encouraged to think about these things and not to feel limits upon themselves, and just to think about themselves as individuals with potential in certain directions rather than people who have to fit into a certain system. … And obviously one of the things that is changing is the relationship with men and the expectations of young men as well.

Elizabeth spoke in common with many of the interviewees on the challenges of having a family and running a business in parallel; on this issue the women spoke with almost one voice. Elizabeth said that ‘I have had my own practice for a long time in parallel with having a family, so that requires a certain level of commitment and very hard work and being strategic about how you organise your life… well it feels like having four different lives sometimes but it has been possible to do that with a lot of really hard work.’ This was similar story to that described by Shelley Penn, a senior architect in the public service in Victoria who has two young sons, and described how ‘[m]y own practice just gets squeezed I wherever I can fit it in, so you check the emails while you are running the bath or you try to find or negotiate two hours of work to do some design with your partner… that is just an ongoing juggle.’

This appears to be a very common experience for women architects: juggling child-rearing duties with architectural work, often of several different kinds (for instance some teaching, some architectural writing, some consultation, some design), in various different patterns. The kinds of self-reflexive questioning that this often produces, about whether this is a ‘real’ architectural practice, is an extension of the kind of doubt that women feel about conventional modes of practicing architecture per se. As Shelley observed, ‘I haven’t ever really taken a straight path in architecture, and I have always had my doubts about whether I want to be doing architecture. So I have sort of questioned and reinvented, and so having kids in a way has fit with that.’ This accords with the findings of Whitman’s Going Places report – that women believe that their own measures of success and fulfilment are different from those of the profession as a whole. While women believed that the profession valued high-profile projects, awards, and publication in magazines, they themselves tended to value satisfied clients, and projects which benefit the larger social good.

Elizabeth had a valuable contribution to make to this argument, which is that it is not the way that women practice architecture – sometimes interrupted, sometimes combining various different types of ‘architectural’ activity – that is ‘abberant,’ but rather that it reveals a problem with the way that mainstream architecture is defined. Through such a shift in frame of reference, women architects’ interrupted career pattern, juggling of many disparate types of architectural work, and need for flexible working conditions can be reframed not as an ‘unconventional’ or aberrant career pattern, but as the model for a new paradigm. Likewise, as a manager, Elizabeth viewed as a creative task the ‘design’ of her own practice, to accommodate the rich and diverse lives and interests of her staff:

For me, being (hopefully) a good manager is about understanding the talents and the skills of the individual clever people that you have in your organisation, and running your own practice gives you the opportunity to employ the sort of people that you want, so it is very much about understanding what those people can do, what their talents and skills are and how their lives work, what kind of time they can work and designing the whole practice around them you know. Everybody has things in life that they have to deal with and obligations and other things, and again I think it is really important that creative individuals have that.

Workplace film still.

The ‘workplace’ film

The film on the workplace was the longest and most complex of the six shorts, and the most ambitious in terms of the terrain it attempted to cover. Beginning with a discussion of how various women have managed their careers in parallel with having children, it moved on to examine the case of Peta and Ben Hewett, a sister and brother, both trained as architects, but with very different career trajectories. We deliberately interviewed these siblings together, to see what kinds of comparative perspectives this might reveal. In reflecting on her brother’s career relative to her own, which is currently on hold as she looks after twin sons, Peta noted that

I think my career path has been very winding, upsy-downsy winding… I think my career path has been to try lots of different things along the way to sort of see where I fit, and then as it turns out where I fit very happily now is at home with my two boys. And I think Ben’s path has been a lot more linear, definitely a lot more linear, maybe traditional in the sense of that linear [pattern] but our paths have been very differently trodden.

This description, of a winding and interrupted path, was common to many of the women interviewed. A surprising number of the interviewees had a family connection with architecture – it emerged that three had architect fathers, one an architect husband, along with Peta and Ben the architect siblings. But while we might expect that having a family connection would have been an encouragement and incitement into the profession, this turned out not always to be the case. Hannah recounts the way that while she had initially thought that ‘working as an architect would be as my father had done it, in a medium to large size office, lots of corporate work, [which] looked pretty dull.’ To her surprise she later realised that her own practice did not have to be like that at all; ‘I guess one of the surprises has been that you can make it what you want it to be… my practice is very very different from my father’s.’ This issue came up again and again in the interviews, a consideration of the conventional patterns of architectural practice – in the sense of women feeling the need to conform or ‘measure up’ to them, and also in the sense of a dawning realisation that these rules can be reinvented or modified to better suit individual needs and interests. Nevertheless this is another clear answer to the question of where trained women in architecture go – as Shelley pondered, ‘I do think a lot of women, if they opt out to have kids, they don’t come back.’

Shelley Penn, film still.

Interestingly, it seems that the largest cultural shift over the past few years has happened not in architecture itself, but in the building and construction industries more broadly. Peter Poulet, a senior architect in the public service, observed that the increasing presence of women in the profession is an absolute necessity in dealing with the challenges of sustainability, that ‘there is going to be a major shift in the way architecture is practiced generally, because of the environmental agenda, sustainability, the need to be more sustainable in the way we build, or let alone how we lead our lives.’

Of all the interviewees, it was perhaps the women academics who were most critical of current conditions for women in the profession. This could reveal that those women working directly in the industry were unwilling to risk seeming like complainers or trouble-makers, especially given that the films were aimed at broad distribution, and could conceivably be watched by future employers. The academics were the most direct in their address of gender equity issues. Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, a senior female academic, argued that

I think a lot of professionals feel that if they are good at their job then they will be advanced on merit, and that simply isn’t the case, I have never seen that occur. Women tend to have to work harder but also more strategically to make sure that the people above them know that it was them that did the job, and them that had the idea.

In spite of such a bleak assessment, throughout most of the interviews there was a sense of positive optimism. This was partly a matter of direction – the films were, after all, designed to entice young women into the industry, not to scare them off before they could even start. But even so, the interviewees were observing change for the better, even if they found its pace rather slow, and they were hopeful for the future. On the part of the current students and recent graduates, part of this optimism seemed to stem from the belief that gender inequity is a hangover of the bad old days, one of the legacies of an older generation that will disappear by natural attrition when the ‘crusty old blokes’ retire. This generation seemed content to wait patiently for that day – to the extent of being non-plussed about why gender equity still rates as an issue for discussion in architecture at all. And this brings me to some larger considerations about how the films were rhetorically and philosophically framed.

Just don’t mention feminism

This project was specifically an affirmative-action intervention. The films sought to directly engage with the decisions young people make about their future career options, and hence they had an undeniably political agenda – following a broadly feminist, gender-equity and diversity stance. At the beginning of the project, we gave considerable thought to how we should best communicate our message without alienating our audience before we even began. And here we ran into some delicate territory. From my own experience teaching undergraduate architecture students, it seemed clear to me that this cohort would not respond well to any project that explicitly mentioned gender. This was a group of students who seemed to range from ambivalent to actively hostile in their response to the word ‘feminist’, which seems to have mysteriously bad connotations for these students, female as much as male. Over eight years of teaching courses in the history and theory of architecture, and architectural design, it seemed to me that where I attempted to raise questions of women architects’ exclusion from the historic canon, the contribution of feminist architectural theory and critique, feminist modes of experimental academic writing, or women’s status within the profession, many of the students seemed to immediately switch off.

Some students seem to see this not as a legitimate mode of critical intellectual work, but rather as the ‘politically correct’ personal politics of their lecturers, hence a form of ideological preaching, and inappropriate in the supposedly ‘neutral’ environment of the institution. Other students seem to think that such approaches do not apply to them, because these are ‘minority interests,’ relevant only to people within that group. Alternatively, students might think feminist or gender equity approaches irrelevant because they see such issues as things of the past, no longer a problem. Finally, some students seem to find it simply a turn-off: a bore. In my teaching I naturally struggled to overcome such attitudes, and in the course of spending months or years with students I hope I had some measure of success. But our audience for the films would be primarily high school students – and it seemed there was a grave danger that if they had the same kinds of attitudes, and the gender equity agenda was made explicit right at the beginning, then the films would effectively marginalise themselves, and wouldn’t be watched at all.

In an attempt to convey the films’ message in a more subtle way, then, we decided to make few explicit references to gender, references to feminist theory were completely absent, and generally the ‘political’ content was left very understated. Instead we followed a strategy of showing successful and fulfilled women (and also men) going about their work, at every level of the profession, rather than explicitly framing the project as a gender equity issue. The decision was made to include men as well as women amongst the interviewees, although women would predominate. This included men in positions of power, the prospective employers of current and future students, and whom it was important to see stating that gender equity issues are taken seriously in at least some architecture offices. Male academics were also interviewed for the same reason, while male students were important to give a rounded picture of the university experience – it would after all have been misleading to portray the university as a world of women. Ultimately, the decision to draw issues of gender equity more subtly out of the interview material itself, rather than for instance making it part of the voice-over or film titles, was a strategic necessity.

Sheila Tawalo on site, film still.


It is too soon to say whether the films have been successful – they were launched in July 2009, and at the time of writing are buried fairly deeply in the UTS Faculty website. But already they have helped to open some broader issues that are clearly not unique to these interviewees, or to this project.

The conventional wisdom is that the long duration of architectural projects, and the long and intense daily working hours, make it structurally difficult for women with childcare responsibilities to take time off, to re-enter the workforce, and to develop their careers consistently across one or a series of interruptions. The profession, and its institutional bodies, does not deal well with an interrupted career pattern – it seems that women end up doing ‘the boring work’ of bathroom details and reflected ceiling plans, or leaving altogether. In the broader literature (although not explicitly in my interviews) stories abound of women being sidelined after the birth of a child, being considered not a ‘real’ architect any more, being ‘out of the race’ of the mainstream profession. The distinction between the ease of entering the profession, and the relatively difficulty of continuing in it, is marked by a fault line between those who have (or are considering having) children, and those who do not. There was a clear generational distinction, where the mid-career and older architects were far more sanguine about the challenges faced by women in the industry.

It seems fair to say that the biggest issues facing women working in architecture in Australia now are less about redressing discrimination – that is to say, there do not appear to be significant barriers to women’s enrolment in the degree, nor to their employment in offices, because of explicit disadvantage – and more about valuing diversity. An explicit recognition of the benefits of a diverse workforce should also entail a commitment to accommodating the varying needs of that workforce. The distinct, conventional model we have inherited, of a ‘successful’ and ‘proper’ architectural career, is one that suits both men and women who do not have children, and suits men with children (since the evidence overwhelmingly shows that Australian women take the bulk of childcare duties in any case). However the profession does not suit women with carer responsibilities, nor does it encourage men to take a greater role in care-giving. In many, indeed most architecture offices in Australia, women architects are numerous, and highly appreciated. It appears that while there may be differences in the ways that male and female architects operate, there is no difference in the way they function, in the office or on the building site. But while women architects report high levels of autonomy, satisfaction, and optimism for the future, the current employment model is one that clearly fails to accommodate a very large proportion of them.  There is much work yet to be done before gender diversity is truly valued, and true gender equity is achieved in the Australian architectural profession.


This essay was first published in Swedish in the book Drömbygen/Mindescapes: on Gender and Architecture, edited by Annelie Kurtilla, Katarina Bonnevier and Ana Betancour (Arkitekturmuseet, Stockholm, 2009). The English version is presented here thanks to the editors and Arkitekturmuseet.