A career does not make itself – it requires planning, political nous, ambition and perseverance. Ann Lau outlines the things graduates need to consider and the questions they should ask.

Photo Nick Bassett.

Over my time in architectural practice I have observed a paradigm shift in the way that architectural firms present themselves, particularly to clients from the realms of academia, institutional or government agencies. What has emerged is a concern to ensure and increase the inclusion of women during major presentations and negotiations. I believe that this signifies a desire on the part of architectural practices to appear more credible to clients and to demonstrate that the practices are in sync with societal norms where the presence of women is expected.

However, statistics gathered by studies in the UK and Australia (as referred to by Karen Burns, Justine Clark et al) indicate that this impression of equality is not backed up by the facts. The statistics describe a clear gender imbalance in the profession, which increases the higher up the ranks one goes.

These observations, coupled with pay disparity and low retention rates for women in the profession, indicate the need for women architects to approach their careers strategically. Women need to consider the gender history of a practice in order to understand what they might expect from their workplace, in much the same way that they might consider the type of projects a firm completes or its design aesthetic.

As Karen Burns identifies, “the office is one of most important sites of architectural production and representation”. So, how can young graduates – well-trained, talented, optimistic – select an office that will cultivate and train them in a gender balanced environment? How does one research any aspect of a practice – whether it is work culture, policies for parity and progression, attitudes to continuing education, flexible work hours, or diversity in general?

An obvious but neglected step is to address where one wants to be personally and professionally and to plan towards this. This first requires self-assessment of where one sees oneself now. What skills and experiences do you possess and what others would you like to acquire?

In other words, how can you obtain and accumulate well-rounded experience in the course of a long professional career that may span twenty or thirty years? What kind of work culture do you thrive in? What pay and conditions would you like to enjoy? It is important to establish what you are entitled to and to expect that to be recognised once you have described it to prospective employers. A career does not make itself, but necessitates planning, political nous, ambition and perseverance.

Key questions to ask about a practice would be:

  • Is there a balance of gender mix from the most junior through to the directors of the practice?
  • What are the roles filled by women in this practice? Are they typically in management, interiors or designing low profile or “soft” projects?
  • Are there women who have been promoted by the management?
  • Do women rate a public profile in the organisation? (Although, in light of my opening remark this may not be a reliable indicator!)
  • Are women designers being celebrated?
  • Is there a diversity of gender and ethnicity in senior roles and directors?
  • Do women actually run and/or own the business?
  • Is the culture of learning systematically promoted?
  • Is the practice profile uniform or does it embrace diverse viewpoints and approaches?

The first step would be to seek advice, information or tips from friends, colleagues, tutors, and employers, even via extended networks such as Linked In. Company websites often include a “people” section, which can be a useful starting point, not only for the revelation of whether there are women in senior roles, but also identifying who could be approached to ask about policies, environment and culture. Likewise journal articles about practices and projects often list project teams, which can give a quick heads up as to what the role of women in individual projects might be.

Job interviews offer significant opportunities to find out more about a firm. What projects will you work on? What will be your role in the project team, including your levels of responsibility? What role does the practice have for you in two, three, five years time? In other words, has the firm planned for development and progression or will you be filling the same gap indefinitely? Are flexible work hours available for study, teaching, travel, children et cetera? Are there mentor schemes? Is continuing education encouraged? How? What are the usual working hours? Is overtime normal? Ask if someone can show you around the office and ask them as many questions as you tactfully can. Does the culture and un/willingness to mentor responsibility match your ambitions and aspirations?

Professional organisations such as the Australian Institute of Architects offer advice and mentorship programs. Government agencies including the Office for the Status of Women and the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) provide frameworks for companies to develop equitable workplace programs, which can also be viewed by prospective employees as templates to interrogate whether a workplace would provide equal opportunities for women. Networks such as Women On Boards offer programs, training for women seeking leadership roles, while others such as the National Association for Women in Construction (NAWIC) are based on recognizing and promoting the advancement of women in the industry.

A ‘career’ is an accumulated and evolved way to practise; it implies the aspiration to participation in the highest rank of a profession. In the course of one’s career, one would anticipate working with a number of practices, in order to gain a breadth of experience, and importantly, as leverage to promotions and recognitions. This offers opportunities to experience and introduce diversity and advocate for equality in a variety of workplaces.

As architects we cannot avoid interacting with the dominant masculine culture of our society in our daily professional life. However, through the sites of our profession including our representational bodies, practices (from small to large commercial scale), academic institutions, and the architectural media, we can induce business cultural changes and behaviour shift to cultivate gender diversity and the promotion of women in all levels.


Ann Lau wishes to acknowledge the input that Jennie Hinwood and Anna Fairbank provided in writing this piece. “Both, in their own inimitable ways created different career paths in and around architecture; both typify ‘women in architecture’ in our society. I am grateful for their contributions in discussions, review and assessment of the piece over the past weeks.”