A strong independent streak, entrepreneurial flair and a diverse set of skills have helped Shaneen Fantin overcome life’s big challenges.
Before I begin, let me say that this has been a hard piece to write. Looking backwards is important and transformative, but I will confess I avoid it and prefer the world of new ideas and opportunities. To stay in the past for too long may consume you in a spiral of over-analysis and self-doubt, and that in my view is a waste of precious time. A long time ago, my mother taught me to look forward at the good things and keep going. As Jacinda Sadler wrote in her letter to her younger self, ‘persist’.
On sexuality and sexual harassment: you didn’t do anything wrong.
When you are young (under 25 years) you do not fully understand the effect that your physical presence and sexuality has on others. You will be dogged by sexual discrimination and harassment for most of your working life, even after you have children. When you are eighteen and labouring on a work site you are given your first vibrator by a guffawing concreter and his crew. You say nothing, accept the tool and insert it into the block wall and wet concrete and let the tool do its work removing the air from the cement. This is typical of your early working life in architecture. You should voice your protest then, if you can.
You will be one of two women in a graduating class of twenty-two men, and the other woman is married. This is not the norm for the time, but it is the environment in which you will complete your final years of architecture study, and a lot of it is dominated by masculine culture that objectifies women. Be careful with your actions because you will be judged by your peers (both men and women) on your choices – not as a person who is confident, comfortable in their skin, adventurous, with a big inclusive spirit. When people see you, they will first see your appearance, and later your intellect and work. Before you are in your thirties, you will be objectified often and unwittingly come to accept it as a norm.
This is not your fault. You have a right to be yourself. Try to ignore the superficial attention, because in the end it will prevent you from forming respectful and decent relationships in which you can really grow. You will be a victim of sexual harassment on a number of occasions. See it clearly for what it is and report it. Make formal complaints and seek professional support if you need it.
As a result of the early experiences in your working life, independence and autonomy are important to you. You are mistrustful of men in positions of authority and are quick to judge them. This is not very useful for long-term stable career growth, but not a terrible thing either, because it makes you acutely aware of discrimination and more determined, independent and entrepreneurial.
[Re]Making myself: Adventure, creative exploration and singularity
A sense of adventure and natural curiosity about the world, courage, direct communication style, and a stubborn argumentative quality will lead you to many interesting places and jobs. It will also annoy a lot of people (mainly men). Try to learn diplomacy and pick your fights. It helps to maintain your energy. These qualities will lead you to build a solid and diverse set of skills in architecture, project management, community engagement and teaching on which to make your own future, independent of large corporate structures or institutions. An architect is only one of the things you will be in life. Ahead of you is a great variety of work opportunities. Don’t be afraid of change as it will make you better at everything you do, including architecture.
You will complete your degree in architecture and travel to the Northern Territory because you are interested in Aboriginal culture and critical regionalism. You are drawn to Troppo Architects who are at the pinnacle of this movement in Australia in the 1990s. You also love the bush, the Australian landscape and being outside. You do a three-month stint at ANU testing out academia in sociology but decide you need some real-world experience. This choice for the ‘other’ path will decide your career in the long run.
As you are friendly, a farm girl and like to talk (a lot) you will be sent to Arnhem Land and there you will work with Yolngu people. The Yolngu will embrace you, teach you, and care for you. You will be greatly moved by their culture, fortitude, wit and strength. The electives you study at university will provide a strong foundation for your emerging design methods and inclusive approach. Please try your best to stop talking, to be quiet and listen, to observe, and respond thoughtfully and carefully. In meetings and processes where racism and discrimination seem rife, try to keep your cool – your passion is wonderful, but early in your career it crops your vision of the whole situation. When you return to Darwin you will be brimming with questions and ideas. Follow your energy and your gut, travel to Canada to work with the Dogrib people and understand global Indigenous issues, take Paul Memmott’s advice and start your postgraduate degree.
Undertaking your PhD is one of the greatest opportunities of your life. Do not take it for granted, get distracted or under-value it. At the time you will not see the extraordinary development of your skills, but at the end you will have taught yourself how to write, and developed problem-solving skills that you will apply over and over again in your career. You will also have time to read, research and ponder deeply in a way that will not be repeated. During the process you will struggle with self-discipline, have trouble completing a decent conclusion, and you will also understand clearly what makes you happy.
Heed this pattern: when you have trouble synthesising ideas into written or design outcomes, let them sit and leave them to ferment for a while. Don’t rush to finish it or send it for review just to get it done. It will be better for an additional revision. As an action-based person, you will struggle with this all your life – everything you do is a ‘work in progress’. This is why you need to listen to your sisters and life guides (Tracy Fantin, Kelly Greenop, Francoise Lane) and find your business partner, Belinda Allwood, because they are all craftswomen who will not let something be until it is exceptional.
You always knew that you would be self-employed, but you have never been certain you would find your team. As the youngest of four children you were never trained to be the leader, always the free spirit. Well, know this: you are a leader and a natural one. You constantly have visions and ideas, you are strategic and organised, you are energetic and bossy, and you are more productive when you have a team of people that you have to be responsible for. It brings out the best in you.
Perspective: how to fit birth and death into your life and keep going.
There will be great tragedy in your family at a number of times. You will come to know terminal illness, mental illness and death of family members on a regular and cyclic basis from your early twenties. You become highly equipped at managing health services, caring for others, and organising funerals and ceremonial processes for people sick and dying. And you realise that this is often the work of women and it is unrecognised and undervalued. You will deepen friendships through loss, and understand acutely the value of love and support at these times. You learn how to grieve and how to carry on, but the ghosts of your father, mother and brother are with you always.
This gives you a great sense of urgency and energy, which comes from a fundamental fear of death. Sometimes you will have bad days that are a fog of memories and sentimentality; a searching for meaning and identity. In these times your energy for work will slow. Embrace these times; wallow in them, because they provide you with perspective and can lead to important creative outputs. They are also a sentient reminder that you are alive, and that there is no time for pointless pursuits or bad relationships. This is brutal and sobering, but it is a truth that will drive you to be highly productive, the director of your own business, and an emerging advocate for women, Indigenous people, people with mental illness and disability.
Out of this fog emerges a kind, capable and stoic man who loves you wholly. With him you will have two amazing children, a great enduring love, and the space to develop POD. He will be an excellent father, a supportive partner and a capable carpenter, and your egos will not compete for leaderboard status. When the children are young you will be like any other working mother who is time-poor, exhausted, wracked with guilt and feelings of inadequacy. You will feel in stasis. Understand that you are not alone and that it will get easier with time. You will find that after you have children, you never have permanent employee status again. Work from this point onwards is part time, contract based and/or self-employed. It means that you will undertake a great diversity of work, but that you will never feel completely financially secure.
To maintain your intellectual and academic interests while you are working, you make a commitment to write at least one substantial piece about architecture every year. This will be hard and will feel selfish when you do it, but it will be essential for your career and personal growth. Every piece, every year, will remind you of what you are capable of beyond what day to day life requires of you. It will also enable you to meet and maintain relationships with a range of inspiring and interesting people.
In 2008, you will be self-employed, working part-time with two children under three, and in a period of three months you and your partner will both be out of work. It is your sense of adventure and diversity of experience that makes you sell the house and move to the Northern Territory for a new role in community engagement and project management. There will be no discussion about its merits or issues. It will be a necessity. During this time, you will work more than sixty hours per week and your partner will stay home to parent. The children are two and four, and every day when you leave the house you think they will never forgive you. Of course, when they are older they will barely remember Darwin except for learning to ride bikes and scooters on East Point, and the friends they made there. At the time, this work will be the hardest you have ever done. Every day you will be managing a project laced with racism, sexual discrimination, intolerance, and unreasonable program demands. This work fortifies your commitment to social justice and Indigenous rights. It teaches you how to manage large complex teams and sit at a senior management table where you are the only woman and the only person under forty. It transforms you from thoughtful architect to strategic director.
Your career will span an unusually diverse array of work experiences: academia, project management and stakeholder engagement, working for Government in policy and implementation, private architecture practice in small and large firms, private practice in your own firm, being chair of not for profit organisations, judging awards, and writing for journals and magazines. Foster your courage and natural interest in taking risks and continue to choose the unconventional paths for there lies opportunity and your future.
The sum of me is due to the experiences I have had, and fortunately or unfortunately, many of them are because I am a woman. If this is different for younger women in our profession now, then I am pleased and celebrate their opportunity to experience a profession free from discrimination and sexual harassment and based on ability and equity for all, regardless of gender, race or other attributes. My next challenge is to see the world anew through the experiences of others, to not burden others with my negative experiences, but to support them on their own path. I also have a few books to write.
Dr Shaneen Fantin is Director of POD (People Oriented Design), a multi-disciplinary practice of architecture, community engagement, project management and research based in Cairns (but with a national presence). She is Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Queensland and James Cook University, and Chair of the Australian Institute of Architects regional committee in far north Queensland. Shaneen is a mother of tweenies and lives on a farm where she enjoys growing her own food, propagating native plants and bushwalking.