In early 2018, four of the five women leading Victorian architecture schools participated in a public discussion with Parlour on leadership. It was a fascinating discussion. We share an edited transcript here.

Justine Clark chairs the Leading Change panel discussion with Ursula de Jong, Vivian Mitsogianni, Julie Willis and Naomi Stead.

In January 2018, the National Gallery of Victoria invited Parlour to participate in the event program, associated with the NGV Triennale. We took this as an opportunity to mark a very special moment – for the first time, women were leading all five Victorian architecture schools. What does it mean to have this group of extraordinary women leading architectural education and research in our state? How might it influence the future shape of our cities and regions, and our experiences of the built environment? What does it mean for equity and the discipline in the profession? How does this connect to the larger unprecedented moment that we’re all in where women are taking the lead across the world, reconfiguring power relationships, both from grassroots and conventional leadership positions? A moment that saw the Merriam Webster dictionary announce ‘feminism’ as the word of the year. What does that mean for architectural education in Victoria today? To consider all of this and more, we invited those women to participate in Leading Change, a public discussion.

Professor Naomi Stead is Professor of Architecture at Monash University and, at the time of the conversation, the very new head of the Department of Architecture. She is also our colleague at Parlour and, indeed, established the research project that led to Parlour. She’s research leader at Hayball, a practice based here in Melbourne, and currently the President of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand.

Professor Julie Willis is Dean of the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne. Julie is also a colleague of ours at Parlour. Julie’s been on the board of the University’s Academic Women in Leadership program for five years and prior to becoming Dean she was Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research at the University. So, she’s had a wider leadership role within the University.

Professor Vivian Mitsogianni is Associate Dean and Discipline Leader of Architecture and Urban Design at RMIT University. Vivian’s a registered architect and partner at M@ STUDIO Architects – many of you may remember the NGV Architecture commission that they undertook in 2017, after which they received the Australian Institute of Architects Melbourne Prize. Vivian was awarded the inaugural RMIT Vice-Chancellor’s Excellence in Leadership award for senior leader, a pithy title, for “exceptional leadership and impact in progressing the discipline with authority and humility, while helping others to be the best self they can be”.

Associate Professor Ursula de Jong was Associate Head (Teaching and Learning) in the School of Architecture and Built Environment at Deakin University – a position that she has just stepped down from after four years. She now has a new role, Leader of the GEDI – Gender Equity Diversity and Inclusion – portfolio in the school. Ursula is also the Deputy Chair of the National Trust of Australia, Victoria.

Missing from the conversation was Professor Jane Burry, who is heading a new school of architecture at Swinburne University of Technology. The conversation was chaired by Justine Clark.

These women bring a very wide range of knowledge and expertise to the table, so we asked each participant to begin by outlining their expertise and interests, both in research and in practice, and how this intersects and overlaps, or not, with the commitments they bring to these leadership positions. We were curious to explore how disciplinary expertise intersects with and informs their work as leaders.

Professor Ursula de Jong

I’m an architectural historian, not an architect, which makes me unusual in our schools of architecture at the moment. I’m a scholar of the Gothic Revival and the work of architect William Wardell, whose biography I’m currently researching and writing. I’ve just been appointed to the National Liturgical Architecture and Art Board, which is an advisory committee to the Australian Catholic Bishops. I’m also a scholar of place and am very connected to place, particularly here in Australia, in the Mornington Peninsula. I have just finished an ARC Research Council linkage grant looking at intergenerational perceptions of place and how people connect to place, particularly in Queenscliff and Sorrento. With great sadness we have documented the demise of Sorrento over those four years. It’s heartbreaking.

I work closely with local community. I’m the President of the Nepean Conservation Group. I’m also Director and Deputy Chair of the National Trust of Australia, Victoria and I’ve just been appointed to the Ministerial Advisory Committee for National Parks here in Victoria as well.

To answer the question, ‘What focus do I bring to my leadership roles?’, I would say that right through my life I’ve really nurtured something called Sarah’s Circle, rather than Jacob’s Ladder. It’s informed the way I do work. I tend to work with expertise, passion, enthusiasm, inclusivity and empathy, which is quite different to any of my, dare I say, male colleagues. In my role as Associate Head in Teaching and Learning I’ve reviewed, changed, updated and prepared our curriculum with my colleagues for the next decade. I’ve acted as an enabler in everything I do. In particular, I give voice to communities to work with their local governments or even state governments.

Do these ideas intersect and inform each other? I guess the answer is yes and no. I’ve taken leadership roles in many spheres in my life. Heritage and conservation roles have informed my research at many levels. The role of Associate Head of Teaching and Learning is not something I particularly sought or wanted to do, and it’s taken me away from the research. Now I’m trying to reclaim some of that space.

Professor Vivian Mitsogianni

My title is Associate Dean of Architecture and Urban Design – effectively I am discipline leader for architecture and urban design. I am a designer and a registered architect and, like many others at RMIT, I call myself a practitioner/academic. My own research is primarily through design. In terms of expertise, I focus on a few areas. The first is process-based architectural design. This was the topic of my practice-based PhD, completed in 2009, and I still teach studios in this area. My other focus is design research methods and design practice PhD methods, and I also supervise design practice PhDs. I also have an ongoing project called the Speculative Campus Project that focuses on the design of university learning environments.

I’m a partner in M@ STUDIO Architects, a collaborative focused on architectural design research. Our most recent project was “Haven’t you always wanted…?”, the 2016 NGV Architecture Commission (Pink Car Wash) – and the VR project “If Only…”. In my leadership role I’m committed to building cultures in which ideas can thrive, making these cultures visible and porous, and articulating these, or trying to, so that others can better engage with these cultures. It’s about diversity, tolerance, working towards excellence and being open to what that looks like. RMIT Architecture is interested in ideas-led ‘venturous’ design exploration and innovation. To be venturous is to be brave and take risks. When I was a research leader in the RMIT Design Research Institute I was influenced by Terry Cutler who wrote The National Innovation Report for the Rudd government. He argues that innovation isn’t just about new technologies. It needs to be supported by cultures that will foster its possibility. This includes the business organisational structures. For me, in the academic environment, it has meant curriculum design, assessment processes and other operational structures that will support and nurture experimentation and risk taking. You can’t just say you want venturous practice and risk taking; you have to provide structures to support it.

My leadership role and research interests absolutely intersect. I’m interested in ideas, the discipline of architecture in its expanded definition and the profession. For me, it’s leading through ideas, not KPIs – striving to find what will come next in the discipline is the ethos of experimentation that weaves between my own research and my vision for the school.

I wrote a paper titled “Failure can be Cathartic!”, which was published in Studio Futures, where I talk about RMIT Architecture and architecture schools in general. I suggest that architecture schools need to experiment and challenge the apparent self-evident certainties and accepted orthodoxies of the discipline and the underlying assumptions about what architecture is and can contain, and what it should do next. And particularly that architecture schools should strive to point towards possible futures not yet evident within existing understandings of the discipline.

Professor Julie Willis

I’m trained as an architect, but I spend most of my research life as an architectural historian, which I absolutely adore. You’ll never see me happier than elbow deep in a pile of dirty old paper. That’s one section of what I do, and it defines me very much. Another part of my life that also defines is that I’m a mother of three children. The family side of my life is enormously important to me, and it comes into my professional life in particular ways. I’m also a teacher of architecture and a fairly significant administrator in architecture. And I love to think that all of these are in balance – it’s just that most of my time is in administration. My heart lies equally across all of them.

So, I’m the Dean of the faculty, which is the largest school in the state. At any one time we have about 2,500 students working with us. I have about 150 academic staff, not including the 300 casual staff, and about 75 professional staff. It’s a big outfit to run on a daily basis and I don’t do it alone. I have a fabulous team. People in many roles take on very important parts of the enterprise and ensure that it is a wonderful place to work and to experience and to learn about the built environment.

It’s a little difficult for me to connect what I am as a researcher as to what I am as a leader. That’s partly because of the nature of my leadership experience, which was forged across the university, not just within my discipline or faculty. I spent four and a half years at the centre of the university being a Pro-Vice Chancellor. So, my experience of leadership is sort of stretched out and beyond architecture. I tend to think of it in more universal terms rather than in relationship to the discipline.

I’ll come back to that issue of family. When I started as Pro-Vice Chancellor I had a four-year-old child. These parts of my life came into conflict very quickly when I had to attend meetings that started earlier than my childcare opened. I was very fortunate that my boss at the time just said, “That’s fine. We’ll change the time of the meeting. No worries.” From then on the meetings started at a very nice 9am in the morning as opposed to 7.45. I was very lucky. I usually don’t characterise these things as luck, but I do think of this particular instance as lucky, because I was able to say what I needed and my boss responded immediately. I’m well aware that not every person in a university context gets that response. I have managed (at times barely managed) the raising of my kids with my fabulous partner, and had these fairly serious jobs and managed to keep my research and teaching going at the same time.

It’s an enormous juggle, but I have a ‘no prisoners’ attitude – I will do what I need to do, and I will do what I want to do, and I will make time for all the things that are important to me. That’s what I bring to my role as the Dean. I understand that other people have wants and needs and family demands. They’re not just researchers or teachers or administrators. They are also people with different aspects of their lives outside their work and these are all really important. As a leader, I have to make sure that the ethos of leadership in the faculty respects all of that and makes it possible for all of that to occur, and also makes it a great place to work.

Sometimes, taking that attitude is really difficult. The hardest moments are when you realise that there is no good choice here, but you try and plot the best possible course.

Professor Naomi Stead

I’m very new in my role, having been in it for a week and a half, so I have come with more questions than answers, and I am hoping to pick up quite a lot from my esteemed fellow panellists. My practice is as a writer and essayist. I’m not a practising architect, even though I was trained as an architect. I’m interested in commentary and criticism about architecture. I particularly like to write in the public domain for a broader audience to encourage a greater understanding amongst the community of what architecture is and what it can do and how it can improve people’s lives.

I have a slightly odd academic profile and a diverse range of research interests. While most academics dive right down deep into a particular pond of knowledge, I’m more one for leaping across the lily pads. I am really interested in too many things. It would probably have been wise (and certainly more conventional) for me to be the world expert in a much narrower range of things. Anyway, this approach makes me feel something of an outsider. I’m interested in using architecture as a point of departure to think about the social lives of buildings – as well as buildings as material things. Presently I’m working on three books. One is with Parlour on gender equity in the architectural profession, one is an edited book on oral history as a method in architectural research, and the other is on experimental writing practices in architecture. As you can see, that’s pretty diverse.

Using architecture as a point of departure, or standing outside as someone who is not a practitioner, not a historian, gives me a somewhat peripheral, marginal outsider status. This is interesting when it comes to thinking about leadership, because I never imagined myself as a leader. I really didn’t. Absolutely not. It wasn’t until I was invited into a role that I thought, “Oh, maybe that’s an option for me. Maybe I could do that. Maybe that could be interesting. Maybe I could bring a group together and it might function well as a team.” So, I’m still defining what my leadership style might end up being. There’s some suggestion that it might be an affiliative style. One of the good things about being in a leadership role at Monash is that you get an executive coach, which is really fantastic. I met with my executive coach yesterday and she asked me a question about my work practice and leadership: “What order do you put these objectives in? ‘Get it right’, ‘get it done’ and ‘get along’.” This is a really interesting question. Are you more interested in getting along in human relationships, are you more interested in getting it done, as in quick and dirty, or are you particularly interested in getting it right, which of course has to do with perfectionist tendencies, which many of us (including me) suffer with.

So, the idea of being something of an outsider – framed as a sometimes-positive thing – is important in my self-conception, both in terms of my place in architectural culture and practice, and also in the way I have come to leadership almost accidentally. In terms of the intersection of these two things, I realise now that it’s lonely at the top. I can see that already. I’ve never actually been particularly interested in controlling people. I’ve never really been interested in telling people what to do. I’m far more interested in creating an environment for my people to have their own agency and opportunities, to have the support and training they need, and then I see it’s my role to get out of the way. Right now I’m interested in bringing together a team of really quite brilliant people, as my colleagues at Monash are, so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and such that it can contribute to the common good of the built environment of the community, and contribute to the world in an interdisciplinary way, so we can face the massive challenges that the world presently faces.

Justine Clark

I’d like to start the conversation with a fairly big question. In your experiences, how have leadership and gender intersected? How have you worked with this?


Well, I think there are assumptions about what leaders are. One of my defining moments was when a colleague said to me, in a semi-public environment, that he thought I was over-promoted for someone who was at my family stage of life. I looked at him and said “What?” He was referring to the fact that I had young kids and I was very senior in the university. He might have meant it as a compliment, but I couldn’t take it in that way. I was in a situation where I couldn’t actually kick him in the shins. And I’m quite good friends with him, too. There’s an assumption that when you’re in a leadership position you will be beyond all of that – that somehow you’ll be able to devote your entire life to being a leader. Forgive me, but I don’t subscribe to that kind of leadership. I’m not interested in devoting my life to administration.

One of the things about leadership for me is that you have to walk the walk, to talk the talk. You have to know what it’s like to be on the ground. That’s a fundamentally different style of leadership to what we often assume is necessary. We assume leadership is something special, separate and therefore sacrosanct. There’s an assumption that there isn’t life around it.

For women in particular, and increasingly a generation of men who are far more involved in their families, this doesn’t work. As a result you get mismatches and assumptions about what will happen and when it will happen that can be really problematic. That’s where the rubber hits the road.


I’m thinking about Vivian’s citation for the RMIT Vice-Chancellor’s Excellence in Leadership Award. This specifically cited both her ‘authority’ and ‘humility’. That is a wonderful compliment, and a testament to her capacities, but (thinking more broadly, not in the specific case of Vivian) it’s fascinating that both adjectives also have somewhat gendered connotations. We expect women to be humble, just as we know there are also gendered connotations to various kinds of ‘authority’.

Right now, I’m interested in how much of a leader’s ‘authority’ comes from inside, from force of personality or personal strength or intellect or ‘vision’ or whatever, and how much comes from the role itself, and its power – from the status and position. When you step into a leadership role you realise that it’s both – quite a lot of it comes from the title, but you also have to live up to that role, to take it on and actually believe you’re capable and up to it. So, I think there’s an interesting question about how you come to believe you have authority, and how you can wear that, literally – to enact it (just as executive coaches tell you to stand in a ‘power pose’) – to literally embody the authority, which has to come from within. It’s a really fascinating thing, which I think also has very nuanced gendered implications.


That’s an interesting point. I think it’s a mistake to suggest that effective leadership requires a particular image or that the authority that comes with a position or a title can in itself lead to impact or outcomes. You can’t build thriving cultures just because you’re in a position of authority. To lead people, you need to bring people with you and convince them that it is worth their effort to engage.

It is also important to have multiple examples of what authority looks like and not to feel that you have to conform to fit an image. What is important is having a number of different models, not only for what effective leadership looks like physically, but also the behaviour of effective leadership. And I think that applies for both sexes.

de Jong

I worked part time for the first 18 years of my career, after having my three girls who are all professional young women now. I had a very different experience when I took up the role as Associate Head of Teaching and Learning. I didn’t have any coaching. There was no handover. I said to the Dean, “I don’t really want this job”. I wanted to go into research. I wasn’t interested in administration, but I was happy to work on policies and thinking and ideas. He said, “Well, there are many ways to skin a cat”. So, I agreed to do it. I think you earn authority. You earn the respect of your colleagues.

For me, leadership skills have come from experiences outside the university. I learned about leadership through the many different Commonwealth government trusts that I was on down in Point Nepean, through advisory committees to government, through the National Trust, and particularly through working with a local community. You learn a lot of skills that way.

Those groups of people are not trained in the academic mode, and they bring lots of different ideas, but it’s very hard to get people to work together. There are lots of ways of learning and bringing that leadership into the university in terms of teaching and working with students.

Now I have stepped down from my role there are only men in the executive in my school. To me that’s an enormous concern. The Head of School said, “We have lots of women in our school”. And I said, “Yes, but they’re all assistant lecturer, lecturer or, if they’re lucky, senior lecturer level.” There seems to be no acknowledgement or understanding of that disjunction. I think it’s a huge issue.


There is often an expectation that as a woman in a senior position you can fix all the equity problems. Of course, that’s impossible. Equity issues are structural and systemic. There’s no way that one person can fix everything. However, I’m interested in how an individual might chip away at systemic change. How do you work as an individual to change these structures? I know many of your institutions have formal equity procedures and policies – I imagine some of these might be effective and some might be under a shelf in the cupboard.

de Jong

You can’t do it by yourself, but you can certainly raise ideas, raise questions and find allies. It shocked me to find some of the thoughts, opinions and beliefs of my own colleagues. Someone said to me, “How dare you expect me and my colleagues to rethink how we teach, or rethink how we do things.” And I thought, “Hmmm, I could just shut up”. But I didn’t. So, on planning days, I would insert something to encourage staff to share ideas and raise issues. It has made a difference in the sense that the new GEDI – Gender Equity Diversity and Inclusion – portfolio has been created. Hopefully, there will be some major outcomes from that.


Constant active mentoring is one way you can chip away. Another is to make sure that, when advertising for positions, there is an active push to make sure that potential female applicants are identified, cajoled and persuaded to apply. Then the available pool is much bigger and there is the possibility for female appointments. When I first came to the role we hired four people. They were all male. The positions had already been advertised before I started. One of them was advertised as a technology position. There were 98 applications, and a shortlist of 12, with only one woman on that list. It was the way the advertisement was written.

In the second wave, we hired three women – because we actively got the word out to make sure that the pool was there. It’s too late when we’re around the selection or promotion table – we really need to start well before that stage to make sure that the pool is growing and available.

I’ve also been surprised about how much we can model behaviour and how much our voice as leaders can assist change. I’ve always thought that you just do it. You don’t talk about it. You just be effective, make change, walk the walk… But at certain times it is also important to make clear statements.  At one stage I started saying things like, “Anything under this number in any one commissioning cohort is not acceptable”. It’s amazing how much change that actually made. I also made it clear that, as a cohort around the architecture and urban design executive table, we’re all in it together. So, if one person is struggling with the commissioning process, we can work as a team to support them.

At a university level, our new VC and his executive are modelling some fantastic behaviour. There’s a huge push around diversity and it’s a very big conversation at the moment.


It’s important to make it very clear and, if you can, change the rules to make it work. I was very fortunate in my previous position. I was able to change the rules for the entire university on a number of things. But there’s a point when it can get really confronting. For example, Professor Doug Hilton, the director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, is really, really serious about gender equity – and he does some things that even make me blanch. He tells his heads of department that they must appoint equal numbers of men and women, and if they can’t find enough appointable women they can’t appoint any men. Now, that’s the way to do it! It’s amazing how they start to find good female candidates.

I’ve spent years and years and years hoping, seeing policies put in place, working very hard to get good shortlists, hoping like anything the women will get appointed, and it’s still not terrific. So, I’m at that threshold of wondering whether we have to take more action. In the faculty I’ve been to the various people who run the major studios and said, “You will have 50 percent women tutors. Full stop, I’m not going to accept anything else.” In some discipline areas it might be very challenging, which is why I blanch a bit, but it’s something we have to look at.


Someone once said to me, in relation to gender equity, “beware the politics of optimism”. That has stayed with me. For example, New Zealand has got this super groovy young pregnant Prime Minister, but that doesn’t mean there is no gender equity problem there. However, sometimes people jump to that conclusion because they are being optimistic and it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Likewise, there might be, at this coincidental extraordinary moment, five women in charge of architecture schools in Melbourne, but that doesn’t mean there’s no problem in those architecture schools or in the architecture profession. Not at all. It would be a real trap to think this is the case. One swallow does not a summer make.

Speaking more specifically, I’m really interested in mentoring the young women and the young men who work with me, and doing for them what others have done for me. It’s that thing where someone points and says, “You can be a leader”, and in my case, I said, “Surely you’re not talking to me”. It wasn’t until someone gave me that opportunity and believed in that possibility that it came true.

I feel a responsibility to pay it forward. I need to be that person for others, to listen to them and take them seriously, because people at all levels of seniority can be leaders. You can lead in the most junior roles. I really firmly believe that.

You don’t need to be a certain academic grade or title before you can start being a leader. Having someone who’s in a position of power believe in you can empower you to have agency and autonomy in whatever role you have. More specifically, I want to teach young women how to negotiate, and to teach them the parameters for negotiation. As we know, women negotiate very, very well if they know what their parameters are. But if they don’t know the parameters, they often don’t negotiate so well – they don’t want to over-reach, or go outside the bounds of possibility. So, these days I am quite frank in telling people the kinds of things that they can argue for – and in fact you can really argue for a lot. There’s a lot of discretion that leaders have to make deals for the right people.

Audience question 1

What advice you would give for junior women in architecture when their merit is being questioned because they’re seen as only being there to fill a quota?

de Jong

That’s a really interesting question. I’ve been the ‘token’ woman on a board many times. But you need to look at it from the other side. If you’re on that board or on that committee, you’ve got a voice at the table. It’s a really important, critical voice to have. Some amazing things have happened because I’ve been at the table.


I think there are two things that you should think about. You really need to own the position and you really need to not apologise for being there. So, even if you are there as a ‘token’ woman, just own the spot.


That’s an excellent question. And it’s just one example of negative things that people can say about you – if they want to. At the end of the day, Ursula’s right – you do have a seat at the table. I would just own it and get on with doing something that demonstrates your effectiveness.

Audience question 2

Hello, thank you for this interesting conversation. I’m just going to say in disclosure, I’m a female executive of an industry that’s 92 percent male dominated so what you said resonated with me. My question though is from a practical and practitioner perspective: what impact and what influence are you hoping that the expansion of females in architecture will have on design?


Obviously if there are more women in senior roles they are able to have more influence and be at the table in terms of major decisions about infrastructure, how cities are shaped, the really big decisions that require very senior positions to be at that table. If you have more diversity of voices, experiences and modes of empathy, then you have a more diverse and encompassing design world and urban realm and built environment. That is super important. Of course, both women and men have empathy, but women have had different experiences than men, very frequently, and we need those experiences to be reflected in design.

Audience question 3

You’ve all spoken about the efforts made to bring gender equity to the staff faculty. My question is about efforts that can be taken to change opinions within the student body. Is the role of the university to lead by example through the appointment of appropriate staff, or can a more direct interventional approach be taken?


Leading by example is important. I encourage a culture of openness, and students often write to me about their concerns. I routinely address issues directly when I see all-male panels, or other activities that are outside our policies. From a student point of view, that sometimes doesn’t come across. We also cover a lot of this ground in our professional practice courses and I’m told we’ve had some very good essays looking at diversity and the future of the profession recently. I also think it’s important to acknowledge that there are different ways to be an architect in practice and that is part of the discussion also that it is important for students to understand. There are many diverse modes of practice. Recently, I read a comment from a female student that really moved me. They had been to an event and they had thought about gender in the profession and commented, “I was distressed to see the fate that awaited me in the profession”. I thought it was absolutely heartbreaking. But it is very important for that student to understand the issues in the profession, so that when they’re at a point where they start to feel the challenges, it’s not a big surprise, and they have some idea of what support is available. It’s also really important to have a strong cohort, a peer group that that will support you so that you’re not on your own.


We talk to students at a number of universities, which is great, but it’s heartbreaking showing all the statistics. Yet we have to show them because we have to try and inform young women and young men – young men have a big role to play in changing things too. If people are forewarned, they can be forearmed. They can strategise. Strategising won’t fix everything, but it certainly helps.

Audience question 4

I’m an instructional designer and so I’m interested in how courses are designed. So how would you design a course differently to be more inclusive of women?

de Jong

That’s a really interesting question. It’s something I’m dealing with at the moment at Deakin. We’re trying to make sure that the courses we teach, the units we teach, are inclusive – not just of women but of all diversity. The first thing is really making sure people understand what that actually means and that they’re aware of that. But then how we actually deal with the materials, the examples we use, what we do with them and how we include our groups in seminars – they’re probably the best because they’re the smallest groups we can work with. That they actually respect each other, work with each other, bring their own knowledge and understanding into that. I think that’s a critical question in terms of educating our future architects, professionals, whatever field they’re in.


It’s a very good question because it opens the question of intersectionality. Of course, there are many modes of difference and gender is just one of them. You can’t just look at one series of needs to the exclusion of others. This is a real benefit of starting to think about gender equity more holistically. As Justine and I always say, the big elephant in the room in architecture is class, because it’s a fairly elite practice, and I think it’s a tough thing for a kid who’s not from a middle class, upper middle class, reasonably privileged background to study architecture and have the kind of cultural capital that is assumed.

Audience question 5

I’d like to ask a very specific question. A friend of mine has recently been told that she won’t be promoted because she’s a woman in her thirties with children, and there isn’t an HR system to support her in this situation. What would be your response?

de Jong

I know a young woman who has probably made a decision not to have children because she’s seen what’s happened to her colleagues. Once they have had a baby they have been told, “Yes, you can come back, but you have to come back full time”. There was no space for negotiation, and they’ve all left, one after the other. And though it is illegal to limit promotion, the firm or the company can make life so difficult that you’ve got nowhere to go. We do need to work to support each other, or go to the media, social media or wherever, and out those companies. Sorry, I just think that’s awful.


This is unlawful. It contravenes the employment and anti-discrimination laws. The Anti-Discrimination Commissioner would be the place to start seeking advice. I also understand that it is very difficult to be the person who calls out such behaviour, because architecture is a really small world. It’s incredibly difficult because not only is it entirely illegal, but many architects seem completely unaware of the obligations as employers. And they do have very clear obligations under employment law.

It’s quite astounding they actually said this. Many people still have similar attitudes, but very few employers actually articulate it.


There is the point. You shouldn’t take this. A man in his thirties is likely to be involved in the raising of his children, and yet no one suggests that they are somehow not competent or not promotable. That should be your first question – “Why is Fred, who’s in the same situation as I am, getting promoted when I am not?” You’ll soon see the reasons evaporate. Your boss needs to think, hang on, what assumptions and biases have I brought to this discussion? There might need to be a process of education. I said before, I had a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to the way I dealt with family. I basically brazened it out. I said, “This is the way it’s going to be” and stared at someone until they had to actively say no. And that’s actually quite hard for people to do. They can make it hard for you, but they almost invariably fold if they have to articulate the reasons why – when you’re standing there, tapping your foot on the ground saying, “yes, go on”. I just said, “this is the way it’s going to be” and sailed on through. It was actually quite empowering because the more I did it, the more success I had.

Audience question 6

I want to know what is your opinion in allocating awards or a scholarship only to women? I know it will help get more women into education and also helping them in the industry, but would it reduce the legitimacy of their achievements?


Absolutely not. You know, it’s 45 years since second wave feminism. We were all sold this idea if we just reached gender equity it would be all okay. We can all tell you the stats of how women leach out of professional systems – it’s called the leaking pipeline – and disappear. Or they find it too hard and they count themselves out before they even get started. And the more male-dominated the profession, the more likely this will happen. So, scholarships and appointments that are for women-only are important. You do need to encourage women into some areas, and the only way you can do that is to say, “This spot’s for you”. Though it’s a very fraught situation, this is the tactic to take after everything else has been tried. And the women are not there because they’re some kind of token or some kind of compensation. They are absolutely fabulous at what they do.


I’m asking it because I have heard specifically from men who were saying that this is not fair and they weren’t accepting the situation.

de Jong

That’s privilege being threatened.


It would be good to get to the point where we don’t need to have women-only scholarships or awards. I think we will get there eventually, but, in the meantime, these are necessary. They are an acknowledgement that something is wrong. The other thing you could ask is why are we not questioning the commissioning processes (based on particular biases) that lead to the situation where it is necessary to take drastic action and have women-only scholarships.


Karen Burns has written a very good piece about woman only prizes, which she describes as these important political acts, which make the bias very, very visible. A few years ago I won the Marion Mahoney Award in New South Wales, which is only for women. I was delighted. The people who had won that award before me were such a fantastic group of women. Why would you not want to be part of that group? Again, we need to own it and say these aren’t second rate prizes. They are really significant.


Your question also opens up the whole sphere of how ‘affirmative action’ is distinct from ‘equal opportunity’, which are two slightly different things. Affirmative action means actively working to redress under-representation using whatever means that takes. It’s a beautiful concept really. Some people are opposed to it, and it’s political for sure, but I believe it’s important. It acts in a positive way to make change. It’s an active redress, where ‘equal opportunity’ should of course be a given – a basic operating condition.

It seems to me that the difference between equity and equality is that sometimes when you treat people exactly equally, it can still lead to inequitable effects. Equal opportunity at any single point can still have inequitable outcomes over the longer term because of structural conditions and their everyday micro-scale effects. So, sometimes to achieve equity you have to treat people differently – this is a key point. So, this is what I would argue, that affirmative action is essential.


We’re out of time and I think that’s a good place to end. So please join me in thanking our wonderful panellists.